This was an unexpectedly long post. I have included pictures of my cats being adorable as a reward for completing the whole thing…or for at least scrolling to the bottom. Achievement Unlocked I guess?
One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn…and re-learn…and then re-learn again, is that failure is okay. Failure is a part of learning. In today’s internet culture we rarely if ever hear about someone failing. Someone sets out on a quest, be it to seek the grail or get into medical school, and then all of a sudden they succeeded. We see that successful result and instantly assume that that success is inevitable and if we don’t get straight A’s, pass our boards with high marks, or have gorgeous Instagram photos, that we just are not good enough. What we don’t notice is that the person who instantly succeeded at getting their entry into medical school didn’t do so instantly. We see the perfect Instagram post, but don’t notice the corporate sponsorship behind it. But here’s the thing … This is not new or unique.
For all of the “Okay Boomer’s” out there there are an equal number of “Damned Millennial’s killing my (insert newest company unable to adapt to the changing economy).” I am one of those who has grown up and with the internet. Both living and learning when it didn’t exist, to now where it is pretty much essential to our lives. One of the many things that has not changed in that time is the treatment and perception of failure. So here you go, this Millennial-X’er-Boomer is going to do something people both on and off the internet rarely do….talk about failing.
Last July I left my “comfortable” public servant job in order to pursue a life-long dream of being a doctor. Specifically, I want to be a forensic pathologist who splits her time between a Medical Examiner’s office and with an international organization that works with the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute war crimes. I have a goal. It is a set goal. A solid goal. And one that, after only one semester often seems unattainable.
I went through a significant amount of self-reflection while I was at that last job. I had everything I should have wanted but I was absolutely miserable. By the standards of where I came from I was a success. Eventually, I realized that wasn’t my success, but theirs. I left that job, got rid of the vast majority of my possessions, loaded up the remainder in a van, cats in my car and moved to a new state to buckle down and become a doctor.
I figured I would probably stumble a bit, but I would eventually get things straightened out and finish up with straight A’s. Maybe some B’s, but that’s fine. I believed then, and to this day, that grades are not the most important thing. But, when you are in a program that bases your guaranteed admission on maintaining a certain GPA, then they do kind of matter. And here come the point where I admit that no, I did not meet the benchmark required for guaranteed admission. It’s a long shot that I will meet it next semester; mathematically speaking anyway. My first semester is complete, and I won’t be getting that guaranteed admission.
By unwritten internet protocol, I should gracefully fade away from the world. I failed! I wasn’t instantly perfect and now I should just go become a barista who sidelines as an Uber driver and cat sitter (all occupations that I, coffee addicted, paranoid driver in new cities, and avowed Crazy Cat Lady, value greatly). But remember what I said earlier? This is not a unique thing to today’s internet world. This idea that I didn’t do well right out the gate must be a sign of inadequacy or that I am ultimately not up to the task is one I was taught from an early age. Not so much from my family – though that was there – but definitely from my educational institutions and peers. It took me a while to move passed that, a very long while, but I did. And I will get passed it again.
When I began the semester I had sort-of planned a post-semester review of life lessons. However, I assumed it would be purely positive, uplifting and built around the premise of instant success. Instead, it is coming from a place of frustration, fear, struggle, and determination to stay the course.
Life Lessons According to Someone Who Isn’t Perfect:
1) You need to be willing to destroy the parts of you that are holding you back if you want to have any chance of success.
Something I have definitely found myself struggling with is holding onto ideas about studying and learning that “used to work just fine.” I reevaluated a lot of my study strategies and tossed most away before beginning this program. The few that remained were ones I realized were not working in this environment. Those have to go. My mindset has to go. It needs to be stripped away so I can build up something that works.
This isn’t reserved to study habits. If there is something that you do that is holding you back from achieving your goal, destroy it. Rip it away and build up something that will take you where you want to be. Humble yourself before those who are doing what you want to be doing. If you do not let go of what is holding you back then you will never truly go forward.
2) Demand of yourself and demand of others when you need to.
I made repeat visits and listened to all of the resources I could find in attempts to better my techniques and exam performance. I did everything that I was told, tried every Anki deck that was repeatedly referenced and I continued to have mediocre exam performance. Why? I couldn’t figure it out. I know one professor has essentially given up on me in this regard (based on conversations with him). This didn’t do me any favors for my mental health. But, in the last weeks of classes, when I had reached another breaking point and I found myself unable to rationalize why I couldn’t do any better, despite hours and hours of doing what I was “supposed” to do.
That’s when I took a detour to the main campus and walked into the office of the academic advisor who had been trying to help me all semester. In between tears I forced myself to essentially say something like this: “I don’t care if you have to go one by one through each slide and tell me what I am doing wrong. I don’t care if you have to treat me like a five year old. I have done everything, as I understand it, that you and other have said. Tell me what is wrong. Tell me how to stop doing it. This is unacceptable to me.“
I’m tearing up again as I type this. It was humbling, and terrifying, and exactly what I should have done months ago, but didn’t. In his language, and the language of others, they said everything they needed to make me succeed. That message wasn’t conveyed in mine. And I was too ashamed to ask for more. After that meeting in his office, I had an appointment a week later with his boss, who had had his position for nearly ten years prior to his tenure. She and I sat down and spent over an hour going through how I would review a presentation; what I would look for, write down, waste time on, etc. She saw what I was doing, and what I wasn’t. How I was reviewing presentations and what I was missing that I didn’t realize. It was exactly what I needed. And it never would have happened if I had let myself continue to fail to demand of myself. To quote Lisa Nichols, “I am my rescue.”
3) Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.
Okay, that one isn’t mine, it’s from Batman Begins but it holds true. Failure isn’t in itself a bad thing. It is when you allow yourself to stay down. That’s when you begin to lose hope. Never accept that in yourself (see other points for clarification). “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of the things. And no good thing ever dies.” Okay, that one is from The Shawshank Redemption.
4) You are not them. They are not you. Never compare yourself to others.
This is surprisingly hard to do. Maybe one of the hardest. Every time I start to feel better about things, I would overhear something a fellow student or professor said, and my brain would automatically take that in a negative path. It took me a long time to realize that a lot of the disparity in how I was performing compared to some of my peers wasn’t necessarily due to my own abilities, but rather to the lack of resources I had at my disposal. And yes, part of those resources include their lifetime of taking standardized tests. Which is something I never really had to do. On top of that, some of them have access to old exams, lecture notes and materials from previous students. Who knows what else. I don’t know, and I really shouldn’t care. I am responsible for me. You are responsible for you. One of the professors here likes to say, “Stay in your three foot box” meaning focus on yourself and what you can do. I can’t control them. I can only control myself.
5) Scream a little.
Don’t be afraid to talk to others about your stress. Don’t be afraid to just vent and cry and scream into your pillow. I’ve cried more in the last few months than I have in the previous thirty years of my life. And I am not a crier. I hate crying. I always feel a little shame in it. But I’m moving passed that. Because this shit is hard. It is intellectually and emotionally some of the most difficult things I have done in my life. Talk to someone, a professional if you need to. Your significant other is NOT a counselor. Go see a counselor. Those people get paid for you to yell at them, to get out your feelings. They may not like it, but it is part of the job description. But, if you do yell, maybe try to make it up with some cookies or something during the holidays. I’m not saying I am making cookies for a bunch of people next month….but I’m not-not saying that either.
6) Love the process and love yourself.
Yeah yeah, cheesy, I know. And I think I may have heard that somewhere else too. I don’t think it was from a movie because I seem to have all of that in my head without any problem…Fuck you Citric Acid Cycle! I can quote Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. That’s a valuable life skill! But I digress … Beginning a new process is hard. And when part of that involves stripping away parts of yourself then it is even harder. To again quote Lisa Nichols, “Some motivation will come wrapped in sandpaper.” True change and transformation means getting roughed up. Love who you are, love what you will become. Love every part of what you want to be and demand of yourself that you will always strive to reach that.
7) There is no Plan B
Simple, and to the point. Every time I started to falter was when I really let my head contemplate this. There is no Plan B.
It is far too easy to let ourselves get wrapped up in letting others have instant greatness, while we shy away from failure. I’ve done it. Many who I thought had my best interest at heart let me do it, or gave up themselves. But, as I have learned, that success, that “greatness”, is not instant. For some, it may have been easier, but there is nothing we can do about how well someone else did or did not do. That is not my life experience. I have had to fight for everything that I have. And I will continue to fight.
To yet again quote Lisa Nichols, “Being unapologetic means that I will be all of me. I will no longer shrink or compromise myself by playing small so others will not feel insecure in my presence.” Be who you want to be. Remove from yourself what is holding you back. Fight. And never settle into doubt that you can become what you are fighting for. Have your support at the ready for those moments. Have the person/thing/goal/etc. that has inspired you to make this change at the ready.
Towards the end of the semester I began to figure out the above little lessons. As I did, piece by piece I saw improvement. In some classes I finished with my highest exam scores of the semester. I will make it to the finish line. It may not be pretty; but I will do it. Do not be afraid of the pain. Do not fear failure. Grow from it. Be strong my fellow humans.
Promised Cat Pictures Below
“[Pain & guilt] are the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!” Captain James T. Kirk from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.