As we sat at home watching our physician colleagues on the news draped with masks and PPE calmly explaining their dire situations last year, one cannot help but wonder what kind of environment and community cultivated these heroes. Were their commonalities in how we physicians were all raised that led us on the same path? During medical school, I was intrigued by how such a diverse group of people could come together on one mission. Therefore, I polled a handful of my fellow medical student classmates in the mid-2000s to answer these questions. I inquired about their family philosophies and rules, and I found seven key principles.
1. Consuming optimal nutrition. One of the commonalities I learned from my classmates who responded to the poll was that diet restrictions were important in their households. Almost all of the students were required to eat vegetables and drink milk. Only a few could eat candy, but only in moderation. Those that did not have diet restrictions did eventually improve their diet in high school.
2. Bonding over a meal. Eating together encourages stimulating conversations and can act as a model for healthy habits. A significant portion of the students polled who responded ate with their families. Their parents mostly cooked these dinners. Those that responded emphasized the importance of this activity. Surprisingly, however, most students who responded to the poll did not eat with their families. These students were busy with extracurricular activities, as one wrote: “I actually think eating together made a big contribution to how close my family is today.”
3. Participating in extracurricular activities. Almost all of the students I polled were involved in many different kinds of activities while growing up. Many students played at least one instrument, and most students played the piano. We participated in other artsy-related extracurricular activities such as theater, ballroom dancing, and ballet. We also appeased our intellectual passions. We were active in student government, writing for the newspaper, debate team, and math team.
4. Finishing what you start. Giving up was not an option for us. It was very important to stay committed to any activity that we chose to participate in. One student wrote: “We weren’t forced to stick with something we hated, though we had to finish the session or season we signed up for.”
Another student wrote: “My parents let us choose our own hobbies, and they asked us to commit our activities so that we didn’t start and stop clubs, sports, and games whenever we wanted to. I tried ballet (8 years), viola (14 and counting), cross country (2 years), and lacrosse (2 years).”
Although quite a few students participated in many activities, the emphasis was not on the quantity of these activities: “My parents emphasized not the number of activities, but the quality and depth of my involvement in them.”
The lesson here is that participating in sports and after-school activities was very stimulating to us. It taught discipline, teamwork, and making tough decisions that affected our peers. This was vital to our success in navigating through college, medical school, and participating in medicine. One will not always like being in medical school; it is very grueling. However, having past experience with completing what you start can help push you through.
5. Handling failure. Failure is a tough and degrading word. Changing how one thinks about the concept can aid in making it through medical school.
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
– Thomas Edison
Our enlightened parents did not ridicule us for not always succeeding. Although Tiger moms may disagree, our parents felt it was important to support us through failure. One student’s parents’ emphasized: “As long as you tried your best, we’re happy.”
In medical school, what you think you know, you don’t. As the great philosopher Socrates once said: “I know that I know nothing.”
We were all used to doing very well. Some people were accustomed to succeeding without much effort. Medical school is a rude awakening to us all. Being able to handle this, fall, and pick yourself back up is imperative.
6. Maintaining a positive attitude. No whining. This was the message of a sign that hung on one of my mentor physician’s door. Whining was not allowed for any of us. My mother reminded me that she integrated her southern high school in the ’60s, was pregnant as a resident in the 70s, practiced medicine while raising us in the ’80s and ’90s before the hour restrictions and concept of “lifestyle” in the ’00s. My classmates had a similar message: “Anytime I complained or griped about anything, he (her father) would remind me that my attitude plays the biggest role in how things go.”
A positive attitude was not just preached, it was practiced as well. Many of our parents worked hard; yet enjoyed what they did.
7. The Force? Although we were raised in the same house as our siblings, we went to medical school, and many of them did not. Why is this? Did we have an innate force? It seems like since birth, we have had a passion for science, reading, and school. Was our drive toward medicine partially intrinsic? (Of course, privilege plays a role as well, but there is more to it.)
One student wrote about her philosophy: “The difference [between her and her siblings] is having just enough drive to keep dreaming big dreams, and having enough perseverance to make enough of your dreams come true so that you remain optimistic about your own future.”
Mary Branch is a cardiology fellow.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com