In medical school, not all gunners are created equal

I’m three weeks into my second year of medical school, and my classmates and I are sharing feelings of being “old” compared to the first years on campus, who are “bright-eyed eyed and bushy-tailed” — not yet jaded by med school bureaucracy, and (rightfully) excited by all the opportunities that lie ahead of them. I’ve also heard a few of them use an often-judgmental term that has always confused me: “gunner.”

Some examples of conversation snippets: “Only crazy gunners go into neurosurgery,” and “I can’t believe she’s already studying for next month’s exam. What a gunner.”

The negative use of the word always perplexed me because I thought that “gunner” meant “high-achiever.” If we’re all at med school in one of the top institutions in the nation, weren’t we all high-achievers at some point in our lives? How else would we have gotten here?

Why is being a “gunner” or a “high-achiever” something that puts a bad taste in med students’ mouths? To explain this, I’ll paint exaggerated pictures of two types of students on opposite ends of the high-achieving spectrum. While I’ve worked with people who do embody these types, I’ve observed that most “gunners” fall somewhere in-between:

Gunner type 1. The student who feels the need to be best at everything. He or she works like a machine to crank out study guides, run through flashcard decks, and join (and try to lead) multiple clubs and interest groups because his or her satisfaction is based mainly on achievement and recognition. This student ends up knowing a little — sometimes even a little extra — about a lot and enjoys publicly broadcasting his or her knowledge.

Gunner type 2. The student who is interested and curious about a topic, a field of medicine, or research project and dedicates his or her time and energy to becoming an expert. In contrast to the type of gunner above, this student knows a lot about a little because he or she is sincerely energized by learning and wants to make significant contributions to whatever field of study or specialty he or she pursues. He or she knows what makes him or her feel rewarded and goes after it. This student is passionate and hard-working.

These extreme examples make it evident that not all high-achievers are the same. Needless to say, there’s absolutely nothing wrong if you’re a student wanting to achieve your goals and work toward a higher purpose. It’s important, though, to repeatedly ask yourself: Why do I want to be great at this one thing? Why am I working so hard toward this goal? The answer should always be centered on internal reasons instead of external ones. You should want to do work that genuinely fulfills you, work that you’re passionate about. You should take pride in your achievements, but exercise humility as well.

Though I’m barely qualified to bestow any bits of wisdom on anyone, I can only imagine that turning medical school — or life, for that matter — into one big competition just for the sake of coming out on top would leave a person feeling burnt out and isolated. If you feel as if you’re doing this — wanting to be better than others or involved in more things than your peers just to boast about it — as the caricature version of gunner type 1 does, you may want to search for reasons why.

The word “gunner” is often used pejoratively in medical school, but I don’t think it should always be. I admire type 2 gunners, who often go unnoticed and unappreciated. If you’re that kind of person — someone who works toward excellence and may even be a perfectionist because you want to be your best instead of the best — just know that you should never feel guilty for that. And as far as I’m concerned, the term “gunner” is a compliment for you.

Natasha Abadilla is a medical student who blogs at Scope, where this article originally appeared.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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