It’s okay to fail

‘If you fail you don’t get what you want’ 

This simple concept is drilled into every student, for every exam, forever. On the surface it makes sense – if you don’t pass the test, then you don’t get to enjoy the reward of the prize it so ominously guards; that admission to the medical school of your dreams, progression to the next academic year, driving a car, and so on.

So it came as a bit of a surprise during my fourth year at medical school when I realised that just occasionally, failure will get you exactly what you’re looking for… 

I’ll elaborate.

Medicine being the beautiful all-encompassing lifestyle that it is, requires not only a certain knowledge base, but also demands proficiency in a variety of practical tasks. Taking blood, suturing wounds and siting cannulas,  to name just three, all require practice practice practice, and there is simply nothing that can replace good old fashioned repetition when it comes to encoding that muscle memory that allows the seasoned consultant to make it appear so effortless in front of a crowd of envious onlookers.

Along the way, as you learn and develop your skill set, of course you’re not expected to get it right every time, clearly. As a beginner, it is expected that you will get it wrong and make mistakes, and I knew this as much as the next guy, however I would still be completely overwhelmed with anger and frustration at my own incompetence every time I didn’t managed to get blood or insert a catheter. As a result, I began to dread event attempting to perform these procedures as each occasion was simply another opportunity to fail, and fall back into that well of pathetic despair – it was just easier to let someone else do it… 

Then, one day, having summoned up the courage to attempt yet another cannula, I failed once more. That familiar thick cloud of self-loathing and anger began to crawl up my tingling spine as I begrudgingly asked my senior colleague to take over. He smiled gently,  “Sure.” 

He promptly then took three attempts himself before calling the anaesthetist to come and help.

“Shit veins”, he chirped, before heading off to do something else with his time. 

I was amazed. There wasn’t a shred of disappointment or frustration as he happily wandered away, the fact that he hadn’t succeeded clearly wasn’t a problem for him. Even the legendary anaesthetist took three attempts herself before that tiny plastic tube yielded any blood, and she explained to me how best to hold down the skin so as to keep the vein from wriggling away as you dive for it. She then smiled and said “well done for having a go!” and disappeared. 

For the first time in my medical school career, I had failed and simultaneously realised it’s totally okay to do so. That’s the whole point of having a team, so that one person can help another out when they’re having trouble, and realising this felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders. Since then, I’ve never been scared to have a go, knowing that there’s a troop of like-minded, supportive team members behind me. 

So what did I gain? I now know the best way to hold the skin to stop the vein wriggling away. I was only shown once, but I can picture exactly in my head how the consultant did it – why? Because I was so frustrated, so emotionally invested in the situation that it was burned into my memory forever. It’s the same every time I get something wrong – I always remember perfectly what the doctor correcting me says, because of that pure emotional attention that you only pay when you’re upset. 

So from now on, I relish the opportunity to have a go, and to fail, because I know I’m going to learn something, and remember it forever. 

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