Failure as a Student (& What to Do Next)

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In your path to becoming a future doctor, one thing is for certain: you will face the disappointment of failure on more than one occasion. Whether that’s performing poorly in a class, bombing your MCAT, or not getting accepted to medical school the first time, you’re not alone.

I’ve faced failure. You’ve faced failure. Our parents, friends, and even role models and celebrities have also faced failure. If you’re confronting failure right now, know that there is hope, and it does get better, I promise. And if you aren’t in the middle of a failure right now, keep these 7 steps in mind the next time you or someone you care about is faced with failure.

 

Step 1 | Acceptance

The first step is acceptance — and no, we’re not about to dive into the Kubler Ross 5 stages of grief. Without first accepting the facts, you’re in no position to begin building yourself back up and in a new direction. Think of acceptance as the foundation upon which everything builds from.

What does acceptance look like? Sometimes it means allowing your emotions to run their course. I’m not saying take 6 months to be upset about getting rejected from medical school, but I am saying that taking a few days, or even a few weeks, to sit with the facts and allow your emotions to cool off is not a bad idea.

While you’re ruminating on what happened, it’s important to follow step number two.

 

Step 2 | Separate Identity from Event

Step two requires you to practice nuance in your self talk, and the story you tell yourself, about what just happened. To be successful in rebounding from failure, it’s imperative that you do not confuse identity with occurrence, meaning you do not confuse failing with being a failure. Failing is something that happened, being a failure is taking on an identity. And identities are incredibly powerful, so pick them wisely.

As Mark Manson writes in his recent book,

 

“Your identity will stay your identity until a new experience acts against it … When you adopt these little narratives as your identity, you protect them and react emotionally to them as though they were an inherent part of you.”

 

Just because you got a D in organic chemistry does’t mean you’re stupid and not good enough to be a doctor. It just means your performance in a challenging science class was subpar, and that you likely weren’t utilizing the proper study or test taking strategies. And just because someone else got an A in the same class doesn’t make them better than you. We all simply have different strengths and weaknesses, and what they find easy, you may find difficult, and what you find easy, they may find difficult.

Failure should never be a part of your identity, but rather should be viewed as a necessary part of the path to success. Michael Jordan said it best:

 

“I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

 

Step 3 | Reach Out for Support

Third, during your period of reflection and acceptance, it’s important to reach out to key people for support. This can be friends, family, and mentors. This step is often overlooked by macho men wanting to tell themselves that they don’t need help — but isolation during a time of need can drastically worsen the outcome.

Talk things through, but on the other hand, don’t use other people as a crutch to avoid having to deal with your own emotions and the realities of what happened. When reaching out for support, the aim is to help you accept the circumstances, understand failing doesn’t make you a failure, and get you in the proper mindset to take the next steps.

 

Step 4 | Revisit Your WHY

After completing the first three steps, we’ve laid a foundation upon which we can build something to guide us forward. Step four is to get back in touch with your why, the greater purpose and larger vision to your day to day tasks and projects.

Why are you going to college, why are you studying this particular degree? Why do you want to go to medical school and become a doctor? If your “why” isn’t bigger than yourself, it’s less likely to endure the inevitable obstacles in your path.

My “why” was twofold: first, after experiencing the challenges of battling Crohn’s colitis, I was inspired to help children and adolescents with digestive issues. Second, I chose to believe that getting ill at the pivotal time when I was deciding on computer science versus medicine was part of a greater story to inspire me to pursue becoming a doctor. I am not religious and don’t believe in the supernatural — I simply chose to believe a story that would benefit me. The alternative would be to tell myself that I was super unlucky, life isn’t fair, and I’m doomed to always be at a disadvantage compared to my healthy peers. You could argue the validity of either narrative, but you, and you alone, are completely in control of deciding which one to believe.

Any time I was faced with something particularly challenging, I revisited my “why”. Any time doubt entered my head, either through me second guessing myself or someone else being doubtful of me, my inner dialogue was always “watch me.” Driven by my why, I was empowered to take on an identity of being able to do things not in spite of, but because of my illness. My weakness was turned into strength, and I became far more effective rather than less.

Many students, in particular due to their young age, are impressionable and exhibit a high need for approval from others. Our fear of failure is often times rooted in a fear of being judged, ostracized, or being an outsider to your peers or friend groups. Once you find your “why”, you’ll be able to break free from this limiting mindset. You don’t need approval from others — you only need approval from yourself with the belief that you are doing the right thing.

 

Step 5 | Assess, Adapt, Implement

Step five, it’s time to revisit our systems and improve them to avoid repeating the same mistakes that led to failure. Remember, how we frame our perspectives and stories is critical. Starting off with calling your systems doomed or a lost causes isn’t going to bring you any closer to success.

The beautiful things about failures is that this is a prime opportunity to reflect and improve. When things are smooth sailing, there’s little incentive pushing you to make drastic change and improvements — it simply requires too much effort. But when fecal matter hits the fan, you’re in a position to make significant improvements. Use this opportunity to your advantage. When you’re backed into a corner, or when you’ve hit rock bottom, you’ll be surprised with what you can accomplish, but only if you allow yourself to.

First you’ll assess your current systems for what works and what doesn’t, then adapt them to maximize the upside and minimize the downside, and then implement these changes in a structured system that will facilitate the outcomes you desire.

 

When assessing your systems, ask yourself:

“What can I learn from this recent failure?”

“What assumptions do I believe that may not be true?”

“What have I been unwilling to do that, if done, would prevent repeating the same mistakes?”

 

When adapting your systems, focus on how you can create the incentives and structures that bring about the changes you desire.

When implementing your changes, don’t rely on your brain to remember to do something. Use tools like your calendar, todo list, or set up methods of accountability to keep you on track.

 

Step 6 | Prioritize Action

Now you’re feeling motivated, but more importantly you have a plan. Do not fail to take action on your newfound plan. Starting is the hardest part, and inaction can lead to a deadly downward spiral.

Whether or not the failure at hand is your fault is not important. What is important is that you take responsibility for the situation. Taking responsibility empowers you to do something about it, rather than being a victim to the circumstances, and that requires taking action.

If you don’t feel like getting started, start anyway. Motivation doesn’t always have to precede action. Forcing yourself to take action can actually foster motivation, which results in further action. If you’re still struggling, read my blog post on how to cure procrastination in 7 steps.

 

Step 7 | Build Momentum, Day by Day

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the last step. It’s not abnormal for you to feel down from time to time, even after completing steps one through six.

Despite emotional fluctuations or other bumps in the road, consistently executing on your plan will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. While your confidence may be shaken by the recent failure, you can build it back up by building positive momentum, one day at a time. Each small win boosts your confidence further, allowing you to take on increasingly challenging endeavors.

Failure is inevitable, but you don’t have to get back up on your own. Maybe you aren’t getting the scores you want in class or on the MCAT, or perhaps you failed to get accepted to medical school. Our team at Med School Insiders has helped countless students drastically improve their MCAT and Step 1 scores, and even helped students with 3 years of rejection get accepted.

If you’re in the midst of failure right now, I wish you the best of luck. Let me know what specific questions or future blog topics you’d like me to cover in the comments down below.

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