In this day and age, we’re often seeking the quick fix. The silver bullet, the magic pill. How to instantly improve your grades, how to get a 6 pack in 6 weeks, or how to never feel tired again. The specific tactics are important – what techniques do you use to study, how do you optimize for restful sleep, how can you increase efficiency to make time for other areas outside your professional life. These are all topics I’ve covered in the past. But in order to get the most out of any technique, the proper mindset and foundational principles must come first.
In recent years, the philosophy of Stoicism has experienced a resurgence in popularity, furthered by Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferriss, amongst others. When I first came across Stoicism a few years ago, it really resonated, as the principles were similar to the ones I used to overcome some of my own challenging obstacles. And I fully believe that embracing some Stoic fundamentals would radically benefit just about every student – whether premed, med student, or something else entirely.
What is Stoicism?
Stoicism was started in the third century B.C. in Athens. Although it’s over 2,000 years old, it’s remarkably applicable to our modern lives. According to its teachings, we should accept the moment as it presents itself, and act and think in a way that does not allow oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain.
Let’s visit an ancient Chinese proverb to illustrate one of these foundational principles.
Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. The neighbors came and said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer replied, “Who knows what is good or bad?” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it. Everyone now said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Who knows what is good or bad?”
The following day his son was taming one of the horses. While riding it, he was thrown off and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “What terrible luck,” and again the farmer responded, “Who knows what is good or bad?”
The next day the army comes through their village and is conscripting able-bodied young men to go and fight in war, but the son is spared because of his broken leg.
Is it good? Or is it bad? The happenings in life are deeply interconnected with immense complexity, and it’s impossible to know whether anything that happens is good or bad, because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.
Now think to yourself, how many times have you cast judgement on an event or person in your life as being good or bad? Don’t worry, we all have, it’s human nature. But as Shakespeare said, “Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Stoicism Foundations for Students
We will all face obstacles and struggles in our life, regardless of whether we’re rich or poor, black or white. No one gets through life without experiencing suffering. But that isn’t necessarily because of the events that happen within your life, but rather your perception, understanding, and beliefs around those events.
In his widely acclaimed book, /The Obstacle is the Way/, author Ryan Holiday lays out the foundational principles with bountiful examples of Stoic philosophy in practice. I highly recommend reading the entire book. Here’s how you can apply stoic philosophy to your own life as a student.
1) Recalibrate Your Perception
It’s far too easy and far too common for us to blame others for our problems. I didn’t get an A because the teacher is unfair. I’m out of shape because I have bad genetics. I’m poor because Trump is President.
The problem is two-fold:
1) First, we fail to take responsibility for the happenings in our lives. Fault isn’t the same as responsibility, but one leaves you as a victim to life, and the other empowers you to do something about it. It’s not your fault someone ran a red light and t-boned you, but it’s your responsibility to deal with the aftermath.
2) Second, we assign judgement on the events in our life as good or bad, as if we had a crystal ball and knew that the outcome is going to be worse. In reality, we have no idea what the long term implications are.
As some of you know, I have Crohn’s disease, which is a form of inflammatory bowel disease. Up until I was 18 years old, I was perfectly healthy. And then, s*** hit the fan, no pun intended. I had a terrible flare, lost 30 pounds in a week, was hospitalized, and diagnosed with a life changing autoimmune disease a few months into my college career. Was it fair? Hell no. Was I happy about it? Are you nuts? And just as I was beginning to get on my feet and gain some of that weight back, two months later my family life imploded, parents divorced, and I moved into a one bedroom apartment with my mom and brother. This was, to this day, by far the most challenging time of my life. The lowest of lows.
Now I’m not perfect, and I had my moments of anger and doubt. In fact, I went through all 5 Kübler Ross stages of grief. But what I realized is that I had the power to control my perception of events. I could focus on the negative side effects of all the medications I was on, or how it was totally unfair for my family to implode at the same time I was getting a grip on my health. But where would that get me? Who would win?
Instead, I focused on the positive:
- The struggles opened up vulnerabilities and I grew closer to my mom and brother.
- Handling the disease, including multiple trips to the hospital on a regular basis, helped me become the most efficient person I know
- The timing of this event reinvigorated my passion to pursue medicine, and I had a drive that would stop at nothing
Who know what is good or bad? If I didn’t get Crohn’s, maybe I wouldn’t have been so successful when applying to medical school, or honed my study and efficiency strategies. Maybe I wouldn’t have started Med School Insiders.
Here’s the lesson I learned the hard way. Great times are great softeners. But obstacles can be used to one’s advantage.
As Andy Grove said, “Bad companies are destroyed by crisis. Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them.” Great individuals, like great companies, find a way to transform weakness into strength. We decide what we make of each and every situation. One thing that you will always, no matter what, without exception, always be in control of, is your perception.
But we’re human, and the negative self-victimizing thoughts are prone to come up. When they do, simply say “No, thank you. I can’t afford to think like that right now. I’ve got a situation to handle.”
An interesting phenomenon occurs when we give others advice. Their problems are clear as day, and the solutions obvious. However, when we deal with our own problems, our perception is clouded by our baggage.
Here’s another way to think about it: does getting upset provide you with more options? More often than not, the answer is no. If an emotion can’t change the situation you’re dealing with, it’s likely unhelpful or even destructive. If you’re upset and need a moment, by all means, that’s completely fine. Real strength isn’t denying one’s emotions – it lies in controlling them rather than letting them control you.
Our perceptions determine, to an incredibly large degree, what we are and are not capable of. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
2) The Actions to Tackle Your Obstacles
I often hear students complain that they can’t overcome their procrastination. Or they aren’t disciplined enough. They don’t like A, B, and C about themselves. As Viktor Frankl said, “Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.”
Being a pre-med or medical student isn’t supposed to be easy. Yet when a student fails to achieve their goals or perform in the way they want, they’re quick to complain that they don’t have what it takes or that their grades won’t budge no matter what they do. But every time, they haven’t given it their all. If you haven’t given it a proper effort, which includes intelligent experimentation with different study strategies and testing techniques, then how can you expect your results to be any different?
When you’re about to face something incredibly difficult, don’t focus on the lofty goal. Instead, break it down into pieces. What do you need to do right now, in this instance? Do that, and do it well. The top students don’t simply aim at getting into a great medical school and attack that goal relentlessly. That’s a sure fire way to burn out and end up miserable. Instead, they think about what they can do today, one task at a time.
When students perform suboptimally in a class or on the MCAT, it’s more common to see them wallow in their misery. The one guaranteed way to lose is to not learn from your failures. People take failure the wrong way. It’s an opportunity for growth. This is why stories of great success are often preceded by epic failure–because those people weren’t ashamed to fail, but driven and spurred on by it.
So you graduated with a low GPA and an MCAT that wasn’t much better. Or you’re an older non-traditional applicant with a different set of issues. Or perhaps you’re in an international applicant. Regardless of the obstacle you face, it’s in your hands to use it to your strength. What additional opportunities are offered to you compared to others? How can you craft a narrative that spins the negative into something positive? How can you come out ahead in the process, even when everyone else expects you to fail?
It’s in your hands to choose how you perceive any situation. But without the proper action, you won’t change your position. A perception grounded in strength and rationality opens up the possibility to act with targeted effectiveness. If you’re not feeling motivated, go ahead and get started anyway. Action isn’t just the effective of motivation, but also the cause of it.
3) The Inner Will to Sustain You
As Ryan Holiday writes, “If persistence is attempting to solve some difficult problem with dogged determination and hammering until the break occurs, then plenty of people can be said to be persistent. But perseverance is something larger. It’s the long game. It’s about what happens not just in round one but in round two and every round after—and then the fight after that and the fight after that, until the end.”
When you’re feeling lost, remember to keep your frame big – bigger than yourself. By constantly focusing on yourself, you simply make things more difficult. I did this. I tried so hard. I deserve better. It’s only natural to then take losses personally. There’s no use in pretending that what you’re experiencing is something special or unfair. It simply is what it is.
After reading this, you may feel motivated to do things differently. But here’s the sad reality: motivation doesn’t last. It’s the systems that count, and the most fundamental system is your own philosophy and mindset – your personal operating system. One of my favorite reminders is memento mori, meaning reflecting on my own mortality. The point isn’t to be pessimistic, but rather the opposite. Death doesn’t make life pointless, but rather purposeful. How can I use my time in the best way possible? How can I be intentional with my work, impact the world positively to the greatest degree? How can I strengthen relationships that matter to me and create lasting memories?
We know we’re not immortal, and yet we spend our time as if we’ll live forever. Instead of denying or fearing our own mortality, we can embrace it.
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