In the United States, 16,783,000 viewers watched the 2022 World Cup final. That number doesn’t include me, who inconspicuously watched the match over the shoulder of a stranger sitting one row ahead of me on a flight — a traveler who had the means to purchase the plane’s Wi-Fi while I, a student surviving on loans, do not. So, let’s set the record straight and revise the number of viewers to 16,783,001.
In the post-World Cup period, I became interested in the dynamic between megastars Lionel Messi of Argentina and Kylian Mbappe of France. They had just faced off in a heated, emotionally exhausting match that could arguably be the best World Cup final ever played. Tensions were so high, I almost forgot that Messi and Mbappe play exponentially more games as teammates than opponents! For those who don’t know, Messi (perhaps the greatest of all time) and Mbappe (who has the potential to eventually eclipse Messi’s greatness) are teammates on the Paris Saint-Germain football club team.
This immediate switch from teammates to enemies had me thinking a lot about identity. Lionel Messi has worn a club team jersey for most of his professional life. He is a player for FC Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, or whatever future team he may join. For one month every four years, Messi dons an Argentinian jersey at the World Cup. And with that changing of the jerseys, Messi becomes a different player representing his country, Argentina. He must adjust to different teammates and opponents, a contrasting style of play, and a distinct and passionate fanbase. The stakes are significantly higher, his paycheck is smaller, and his motivations are stronger. How is Messi able to switch into a completely different player so effortlessly? And is this ability to metamorphose unique to him?
Early in the medical student curriculum, we discussed identity. Although I am far from a professional football player, I wear different “jerseys,” each with its own motivations and mannerisms. Most of the time, I am “the Medical Student,” studying intricate clinical disorders and physiologies. When I come home from school, I am “the Partner.” I don’t talk about biochemical pathways with my partner. We cook dinner, watch TV shows, and plan vacations. Less obvious are my other identities, for example:
- The Texan: I only acknowledge one type of brisket, and it better be fatty and cooked low and slow.
- The Longhorn: I have been not been truly happy since The University of Texas football team won at the Rose Bowl on January 4, 2006, to become National Champions.
- The Product Manager: I only respond to the name “LT” and use odd terms like “roadmap planning” with my old co-workers in health care technology.
- The Celebrity Gossip Enthusiast: My personal favorite.
When I assume a particular identity, the others become less prominent. Like Messi, my priorities and mannerisms change with my audience. An exception to this rule occurred during my first semester of medical school when I was simultaneously planning my wedding and adjusting to school, so I had to switch between “the Medical Student” and “the Bride.” Or, as I like to combine them: “The Stressed Bride Trying to Understand the Brachial Plexus While Ordering Bouquets.”
Often, it’s hard to realize that I am more than “the Medical Student.” I go to class, come home, and study more, which makes me feel like my whole life is medical school. This can be demoralizing, especially when “the Medical Student” is the most mentally and emotionally taxing of my identities. When I feel particularly discouraged, I reflect on what I have accomplished in my life and the people who love me with or without medical school. I had a successful career, a loving family, and incredible friends before medical school, and I will continue having new experiences and loved ones after I graduate. I am defined not by my exam scores but by all the other important things that cannot be graded. Don’t get me wrong, I love being “the Medical Student,” and I am extremely proud of where I am now. But look at all the other lives I have lived! That we have lived!
I would call on my colleagues (or readers) to evaluate who they are beyond what they perceive as their primary identity. How do your conversation topics change when you’re speaking to your parents compared to when you’re talking to other medical students? Do your friends call you a funny nickname that no one else in the world would recognize? It’s a beautiful privilege and skill to transition from one identity to another, to subtly modify your mannerisms and motivations to fit where you are needed at any given moment. One day, you will be able to switch languages to accommodate a non-native English speaker or create a bond with a patient over a shared love of guitar. The jerseys I wear are not the same as yours, which is exactly what the future of medicine needs. This diversity of identities makes us more interesting and unique as individuals and allows us to connect with those who don’t wear our jersey. This adaptability makes us malleable and resilient as future physicians.
As the post-World Cup glow faded, Messi suited up with Mbappe to represent Paris Saint-Germain in the club season. These two men are more than Argentinian or French and are even more than professional football players. We’re all incredibly complex individuals who are defined by more than one jersey. I am more than a medical student; I hope my medical school colleagues feel that same pride.
Lauren Tien is a medical student.