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 role models have 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 seven steps in mind the next time you or someone you care about is faced with it.
Step 1 | Acceptance
The first step is acceptance—and no, we’re not about to dive into the Kubler Ross five 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 six 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 a healthy way to approach failure.
While you’re ruminating on what happened, it’s important to follow step two.
Step 2 | Separate Identity from Event
The second step requires you to practice nuance in the story you tell yourself about what just happened. To successfully rebound from failure, it’s imperative not to 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.
“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 doesn’t mean you’re stupid and not good enough to be a doctor. It simply means your performance in a challenging science class was subpar, and 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 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; it 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 or perfectionists wanting to tell themselves 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 that 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 of 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 I don’t believe in the supernatural—I simply chose to believe a story that would benefit me. The alternative would be to tell myself 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.
Due to their young age, many students are impressionable and exhibit a high need for approval from others. Our fear of failure is oftentimes 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, coupled with the belief you are doing the right thing.
Step 5 | Assess, Adapt, Implement
The fifth step is to revisit our systems and improve them to avoid repeating the same mistakes that led to failure. Remember, how we frame our perspective is critical. Starting off by calling your systems doomed or a lost cause isn’t going to bring you any closer to success.
The beautiful thing about failure is it’s a prime opportunity to reflect and improve. When things are smooth sailing, there’s little incentive pushing you to make drastic changes—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 have hit rock bottom, you’ll be surprised by what you can accomplish—but only if you allow yourself to.
First, you’ll assess your current systems to determine what works and what doesn’t. You will then adapt them to maximize the upside and minimize the downside. Next, 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 or to-do list, or set up methods of accountability to keep you on track.
Step 6 | Prioritize Action
Now you’re hopefully 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 as opposed to being a victim to the circumstances, and this 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 guide: how to beat 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.
If you’re in the midst of failure right now, I wish you the best of luck, and I hope you will implement these steps. I know just how hard it can be to get back up again when you’re faced with a setback, especially as a premed.
Acknowledging When You Need Help
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 scores, and we’ve even helped students with years of rejection get accepted.
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