‘If you fail you don’t get what you want’
This concept is drilled into every student, for every exam, forever. It makes sense that if you don’t pass the exam or test, or project, 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.
So it came as a bit of a surprise 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, and there is nothing that can replace good old fashioned repetition when it comes to encoding that muscle memory that makes the consultant look so good.
Along the way, you’re not expected to get it right every time, clearly. As a beginner you are expected to make mistakes, and I knew this as much as the next person, however I was still overwhelmed with anger and frustration every time I didn’t succeed.
I began to dread performing these procedures as each occasion was another opportunity to fail, and fall back into that well of pathetic despair – it was so much easier to let someone else do it…
Then, one day, having summoned the courage to attempt siting a cannula, I failed again. That familiar thick cloud of self-loathing and anger began to crawl up my spine as I begrudgingly asked my senior to take over. He smiled, “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.
I was amazed. There wasn’t a shred of disappointment or frustration as he wandered away, the fact that he hadn’t succeeded clearly wasn’t a problem. The 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 I had failed and simultaneously realised it’s totally okay. That’s the whole point of having a team, so that one person can help another out when they’re having trouble. 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.