It hit me like a sucker punch. The time ran out before I was done re-examining my flagged questions, and before I could protest, there was my bright red failing score broadcast across my computer screen.
What?! Wait! I wasn’t finished with that question! Too bad. Time ran out. One question short of a passing grade. Then the thoughts started racing through my head.
“But this can’t happen to me. I’m an A student.”
“I put way too much time and effort to do so poorly.”
“I know I’m old, but I’m not that old.”
“If this happens again I don’t get a Christmas break. I’ll have a mental breakdown if I don’t get Christmas break.”
“If it happens again, it will cost me like $35,000 and another year of my life. This just can’t happen.”
And then it got worse.
“You know you’re not smart enough to be here.”
“There’s a reason you aren’t already a doctor.”
“Medical school is for young people.”
“What are you even doing?”
These are some of the thoughts that were roaring through my head as I walked the ten long minutes to my car, realizing I had to tell my family and friends who were rooting me on that I actually did not pass the test.
Then I got home and the email from the advisor came in. Now that’s when it really sets in, when you’re asked to make an appointment with the advisor to discuss the exam results. There is no covering it up when a bad grade happens in medical school. They don’t just ignore it and hope you do better next time.
Failure is not an option.
I’ve been faced with failure plenty of times in the past. Just never with such high stakes. Though there will be higher stakes and worse failures to come, I have no doubt. I’ve learned how to deal with failure to get to this point in my life. But that doesn’t mean I WANT to deal with it.
Rather, at this point, I did have to fight back thoughts of throwing in the towel. Going back to being a normal 40-something. Picking one of my many careers and just sucking it up earning a living the usual way. Who in their right mind starts climbing the mountain toward medicine at my age anyway?
But there was no time for these thoughts. Time is at a premium in med school, and to lose even an hour of my precious study time dealing with thoughts of failure is enough to cause another one. Before I even got to the weekend, I had to reckon with the reality of what this grade meant for my efforts toward the next test and start making a plan for climbing an even higher mountain.
As I did this, I forged a crucial path through failure in a more focused way than before. I knew there was no time for self-doubt. This was but a small failure in the great scheme of things, but it was an important one. I had to recognize what it would take to keep moving forward, in order to not let one failure become my demise.
I made a list of the precise things I did in order to overcome this failure so I could ensure my future success when facing the next one. And I’m sharing them with you too, because failure is inevitable for each of us. You will eventually fall short. And hopefully these things will give you some actionable steps you can take to overcome your own failures.
So, when failure happens, what do you do? Well here’s what I did.
1. Stop the noise
The inner voice berating me with all those phrases of failure and insufficiency were doing NOTHING to get me in the frame of mind where I was poised for success moving forward. Negative self-talk is truly detrimental to overcoming failure. I talk about this all the time when I’m encouraging people. You have to speak truth. Speak life. Speak what you want to happen into existence.
Now I’m not one to be all mystical and say that if you say it then it will happen. But the things you say to yourself or say out loud impact the way you think, and the way you think impacts the way you act. And in an indirect way, you bring to pass the things you say whether you mean to or not.
2. Remind yourself of truth
I have a quote by Henry Ford I wrote on a card that I started keeping on my desk somewhere amidst this experience. It says, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t—you’re right.” It’s my reminder that mindset is vital to remaining in a place where I am fighting to win at every moment. I simply can’t give in, and the battle is truly won or lost in the mind.
There are many other truths that are written on my heart, and if I could find time to get my pen out, they would be written in calligraphy. These are truths from the Bible, the living, active word of God. One of these things is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Speaking this scripture out loud gives me strength every single time I’m faced with the impossible. I truly believe the Lord inhabits those words and uses them to infuse me with life-giving power.
3. Analyze what led to failure
Once I got myself into a better headspace, I could then begin to take a critical look at what exactly it was that got me into a situation where I did not succeed. I had to break it all down, piece by piece, and examine what I was doing and how it either helped or hurt.
In the case of med school, this analysis included things like looking at how I watched the lectures. Did I preview the slides first? Did I spend too much effort writing notes? Could that effort have been better spent on a different study method? But not only that, it also included asking myself harder questions: did I spend too much leisure time? (No.) Did I post on Instagram too often? (Yes.) Did I check my email too frequently? (Probably.)
Analyzing a failure will look differently for every person and every situation. The bottom line is, you have to do it. How does that adage go? If you fail to plan, you’ll plan to fail. And planning, in this sense, is analyzing your failure and making a plan to overcome it.
4. Acknowledge limitations
In your analysis, you may come across an unfortunate truth and discover that you have limitations. You must acknowledge those limitations. This is really a fancy way of learning how to say no. Every person has limits to what they can accomplish in a given amount of time. Through this experience, I found mine. Even though the whole of medical school feels like an impossible task, it is not. It can be done. My limitations aren’t in whether or not I can do it. Rather, the limitations involve what else I can do at the same time. Which is pretty much nothing. So, weekends? See you in my 50’s.
If you are facing something you don’t feel like you are capable of overcoming, you may have to acknowledge that you can’t do it all either. I was raised to believe that I can do absolutely anything I put my mind to. And for the most part, I still believe that. But I’m not superhuman. And neither are you. I had to choose what is going to stay on my to do list and what can no longer be on it.
5. Ask for help
When you face your limitations, this necessarily means you are going to have to ask for help. Asking for help will look differently depending on your situation. It may be a hands-on task that you can delegate to someone else, but it might instead be realizing you need to reach out to a mental health counselor or close confidant. Whatever the case is, waiting until you are at the breaking point to ask for help can meet with detrimental results.
I reached out to my advisor after my second near-disaster, and he helped me think through my strategy and come up with a better plan for navigating the material. None of it was earth-shattering, but knowing I have someone on my side was a huge help. And having a voice of reason to look in from the outside to see what might be going on was definitely a wise choice.
Looking back on my failed test, I knew in the midst of that week that I was overwhelmed and couldn’t possibly score well. Perhaps I should have reached out to my advisor before the test rather than after it. Sometimes hoping for, working toward, and claiming success simply aren’t enough. You have to ask for help.
My strategy clearly wasn’t working. It might have worked for some of the tests, but it didn’t work for that one. As an accomplished studier, I was a little bit stubborn, not wanting to admit that my study methods might not be working.
But med school is a different animal. And study methods that work for one block won’t always work for another. All of life is like this. You can’t always rely on what worked in the past or what works in another scenario.
If what you’re doing led to failure, something has to change. Otherwise, you’ll fail again the same way. It’s important to analyze that failure, but then take what you learned from that analysis and use it to craft a better strategy. Remember, if plan A didn’t work, there are 25 more letters in the alphabet. I’m pretty sure I’m going to use them all by the time I get that MD.
7. Move Forward
Perhaps the hardest thing about failure is picking yourself back up and choosing to move forward. If I allowed myself to grovel in the misery, I would have lost valuable time. I knew from the moment it happened I couldn’t dwell on it. I certainly couldn’t ignore the problem, but I couldn’t let it dominate my thoughts.
Thomas Edison once said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Every time you turn on a light bulb, you can thank Edison for the discovery, and remember that when you keep moving forward after failure, you will eventually get to the light.
I know I am supposed to be on this journey. It is my life’s calling and one I have spent a heck of a lot of time, money, and effort pursuing. There will be times that it will be tough, and there will be more failures still. But I’m going to brace myself for the bumpy ride, hold on to the One who brought me here, and trust Him to take me through it. I leave with you a verse shared to me today by a confidant and mentor in the medical field, one whom I met because of this journey of Kallialitheia…”I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.” Psalm 16:8 (ESV)
I’d love to know what you do when things don’t go as you planned. I’d like to invite you over to my post on Instagram to share your advice on this topic. How do you overcome failure?