I have spent the greater portion, if not all, of my 20’s enduring a premature quarter life crisis. I was stuck in a vicious, self-deprecating cycle that started to feel like home. Patterns of self-doubt, immense, debilitating anxiety, and a steadfast dedication to celebrating others’ accomplishments, while downplaying my own, became my new normal.
I had been rejected from medical school. Again.
After taking several months to process the reality that I would have to wait another year to reapply, I fervently journeyed through a messy jungle of introspection that led me to these six lessons. Although I learned more than I could possibly fit into this article, my hope for you, the reader, is that you realize that you are not alone. As human beings, we have a natural propensity, this desire, to feel connected and understood. If this piece speaks to just one other person and makes them more conscious to the certainty that there is beauty in suffering, I will have accomplished this self-prescribed undertaking.
- You are not unique.
- For many of us, this is all we’ve ever wanted. We have pulled all-nighters trying to make sense of metabolic pathways, dreaming about the day when we’ll receive our white coat, while silently smiling to ourselves when a patient mistakes us for a medical student in a clinical setting. We have felt the unbearable weight of this illusion that it is possible to balance everything, battling with this self-imposed expectation to be everything to everyone. We have felt a substantial amount of guilt that is consequence to our limitations, both in our academic and personal lives. We have annotated every portion of our application, compared it to others, and questioned why we weren’t accepted. We have calculated the time it will take to complete medical school and the discernable training to follow. You are not unique in feeling as though the world will end if you don’t earn a 4.0 GPA or score within the 90th percentile on the MCAT. You are also not unique in wanting to have a fulfilling life, one that is filled with success (whatever definition you have assigned to that word), love, marriage, travel, and happiness. You are not alone. These waves of emotions are valid and confusing and frightening all at the same time. I spent far too long in a state of depression, where I actively chose to dismiss any emotion I felt towards the application cycle. I thought that I was protecting myself by being void of feeling, but what I discovered is that allowing yourself to feel anger, sadness, joy, allowing yourself to feel anything, is the only way that we will understand how to move forward and prepare ourselves for the next struggle that will inevitably cross our path. During these moments of anxiety-flooded self-doubt, it is imperative to remember that what we are willing to struggle for is typically the greatest determinant of how our lives will unfold.
- Wasted time is an illusion.
- Being rejected from medical school catalyzed a series of thoughts that were immersed in self-doubt and had me question whether or not I had used my time wisely. Why had I invested so much time into trying to make this dream of mine come true, when there was absolutely no guarantee that I would be accepted? I began to calculate how different my life would be had I wasted that time investing in something other than medicine, playing a game of Tetris to change my journey so that it matched others’ expectations. In retrospect, I am deliriously glad that I tried. Life is made out of a series of attempts, a series of tries, that not only lead us to the next stone in our path, but also teach us a valuable lesson (if we’re willing to listen, of course). The process of trying transforms you. I am not the same person that I was prior to applying to medical school, nor would I want to be. I stumbled through the application process and came out the other end as a resilient human being who has found strength in her struggles and is determined, more than ever, to try and then try again. That doesn’t sound like wasted time to me.
- Fear is something to be thankful for.
- Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire. We’ve all seen this quote on Instagram before, right? I struggle a lot with this phrase. “Be fearless? How am I supposed to be fearless?” We live in a society that has a lot of unrealistic expectations for who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to navigate through life, and being fearless is one of them. My own father often says to me, “One of the things that I admire most about you is that you are fearless.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. The only fearless individuals I have known and read about in clinical cases had severe damage to their amygdala, the posterior region of the brain thought to be responsible for fear, or were born with a genetic disorder known as Urbach-Wiethe. The absence of fear should be a terrifying thought. It’s an innate defense mechanism designed to protect us. Instead, I found the courage to be cognizant of the fear and allow myself to accept its presence rather than deplete my resources in an attempt to evade it. Fear has become my friend. I now embrace it and use it as a stimulus to take that first step, this stimulus to be disciplined and to show up, finding that the fear calms down with each step that I take. We are all equally terrified, whether everyone admits to it or not is not something that I can guarantee or predict, but there’s a shared humanity in that experience of recognizing that once again, you are not the only one.
- Suffering is an inescapable part of the human experience.
- In medicine, we have mastered the art of delayed gratification. Although I am hesitant to speak for everyone under this umbrella, I am confident in my assertion that, because of the extensive path to medicine, we more often than not delay enjoyment. On countless occasions, I have caught myself thinking, “I’ll be happy once I am accepted into medical school” or “I’ll be ready to settle down once I have started residency.” We tenaciously immerse ourselves in the suffering, a necessary ingredient that is not unique to those pursuing medicine, but we tend to forget that that is not the whole story. The suffering will not end once you have been accepted into medical school and it will not end once you have met the love of your life in residency (a girl can dream, right?). By making this suffering the focal point of our lives, we are doing a disservice to the human experience. An experience that is also filled with beauty that is demonstrated to us through resilience, love, family, friendship, a kind smile that is angled our way by a stranger. Suffering will be there. It’s not going anywhere. We don’t need to search for suffering, because it will inevitably find us. Our job is to search for the beauty that is confusedly woven into it.
- You are not too old.
- Last November, I had another episode in this series of episodes that I like to bundle together and classify as my ongoing premature quarter life crisis. I was about to complete another orbit around the sun and I was falling apart at the seams. I felt inadequate and was disappointed in myself for not being in medical school. I pulled out my cognitive calculator and, again, began to tell myself this story about how old I am and how I’m never going to get married or have time to create a family of my own. I reflected on how different my path to medicine has been in comparison to peers who had either started medical school or had already made their way into residency. I made an appointment to see my primary care physician because, although I didn’t recognize it at the time, I needed someone to tell me that I wasn’t too old. I needed someone to change the story for me. My doctor walked in and faintly bulged her eyes when she saw the state I was in. I could barely breathe. Tears were submissively streaming down my face. I somehow assembled a few words together and not so eloquently explained the impetus for my anxiety attack. I started to feel foolish and irrational as I expressed my concerns, but felt a blanket of serenity take over my body when my physician told me that these thoughts are completely normal. She helped me put everything into perspective and we worked our way through the benefits of starting medical school a few years after completing undergraduate studies. Of course, I am in no way discounting the tremendous feat and benefits that come with starting medical school straight out of undergraduate school, but it’s important to remember that there are benefits and silver linings in both journeys. You are never too old to pursue a career that you feel will be fulfilling and completely change the course of your life in a positive manner. Often, these feelings subconsciously flood in because we, as human beings, yearn to follow a specific algorithm that is pre-approved and supported by our close friends, family, and society as a whole. You are being unkind to yourself and downplaying your journey when you punish yourself for deviating from the norm. So repeat after me, “I am not too old.”
- Gratitude is the best medicine.
- What initially drew me to medicine, putting aside, just for a moment, a fascination with the human body and how it functions and this enthusiasm to help others, was the actuality that medicine is dynamic. It’s a career that is incessantly evolving, molding into a sculpture that attempts to serve the human race and advocate for intellectual curiosity. Along the way, countless scientists and clinical physicians have transformed the direction that medicine has taken. Some of these mutations have been beneficial, while others are perceived as setbacks or failures. When I think of this analogy and draw parallels to my own road trip, one that is overflowing with untold roadblocks and detours, it forces me to reflect on all of the victories and perceived defeats I have experienced. Although difficult to unearth at times, I am grateful. Each rejection slip that is handed to us, every effort that we make, leads us to a number of different interactions. We meet new people, engage in new experiences, and learn more about ourselves than we can imagine. These new people, experiences, and opportunities for introspection continue to mold an ever-evolving, imperfect masterpiece that is you. During the application process, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that you are a human being with perspective. It’s also easy to get caught up in numbers. Your GPA, your MCAT score, your volunteer hours. But, on this journey to exposing all that there is to be grateful for, it’s vital to remember that you are also a human being who may have experienced deep loss, felt an overwhelming amount of joy, battled personal health ailments, traveled the world. You have perspective, a beautiful thing to have, and that in itself is something to be grateful for.
I have combed through a myriad of articles, not dissimilar from the one you just read, searching for an answer. Trying to determine whether or not I should try one more time, juxtaposing my numbers to theirs, looking high and low for some sort of sign. My last piece of unsolicited advice for you is to stop combing. I have had the greatest privilege of working alongside some of the most brilliant, fascinating, innovative, empathic, and remarkable physicians. I have not once stopped to think about what their science GPA was, nor did I think twice about whether or not they scored in the 90th percentile on the MCAT. What I did think about, and what I continue to think about on a daily basis, is how resilient they are. How despite all of the odds and despite whatever speed bumps they have encountered and ungracefully rolled over in both their personal and professional lives, they continue to show up and courageously look forward to a new day. These physicians that I admire have failed. Chances are, they will continue to fail, and if you are a human being, you have also failed once or twice in your life. But, let this serve as a gentle reminder that you have also failed to give up and that is more powerful than any rejection letter ever will be. This I know for sure.
Spinning in Scrubs