It’s OK for medical students to make mistakes. Here’s why.


Aristotle said, “To avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing and be nothing.”

Sometimes I wish I was nothing; surely that would just be so much easier. I screw up all of the time. And I hate it. My latest gaffe was killing our simulated patient by causing him to aspirate. I’m sure no one else in my group is still perseverating on the events that unfolded during the sim. I also really hope that the attending doesn’t remember my mistake or me for that matter.

But what really keeps me awake at night and on the edge of panic, is that I can’t let it go. I berate myself about everything that went wrong, every detail, every person who might now have figured out that I don’t belong among the ranks of my bright and talented peers. My inability to forgive myself for my mistakes and learn from them is starting to annoy me and everyone around me. And you know it’s bad when even you think you’re annoying.

Ever yell out the wrong answer in class? I know, I do it too. I remember every time. So what you say? So what you were wrong: We’re supposed to be wrong. But the thing is, now I don’t want to answer any questions. I don’t want to participate in any simulations. I don’t want to ask any questions because it reveals how very little I know.

I am painting myself into a smaller and smaller corner. In danger of standing stock still my whole life, lest I embarrass myself in front of you: my dear family.

It goes without saying that living your life in such fear of making a mistake is no way to live, let alone get through medical school. You have to let your guard down and trust that the people around you are kind, and will still like you even if you have no idea what dose of Solu-Medrol to give.

Personally, I really can’t remember any of the mistakes anyone else has made. Who gave a wrong answer or didn’t know something just aren’t things I care about and are not the things that determine whether we’re friends. Your Step 1 score will not be etched on your grave. No one will remember or care if you honored your internal medicine rotation.

So let yourself off the hook dear friend. Make it a point not only to tolerate the mistakes of others but to encourage them so you and everyone else can learn how to be a better doctor. Let yourself be vulnerable enough and courageous enough to reveal your weaknesses and gaps in knowledge to yourself and to others, so they may be patched and strengthened.

Anxiety and worry and fear and wanting to do well all of the time; they are the things that got us into medical school. And frankly are qualities that help make a good doctor. Just don’t let them get in the way of learning and living your life.

I promise to love you no matter how many questions you get wrong or how many mistakes you make. We’ll see this year through together and come out the other side a little tired, but a little tougher too.

So go ahead. Kill that simulation mannequin. Yell out the wrong answer with gusto. It means you’re trying, and it means you’re learning. And that’s exactly what we’re supposed to be doing.

Fiona Scott is a medical student who blogs at Nerd’s Eye View.

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