Fear of failure

Fear of failure is something that I’ve been fascinated by for years now. The reason being it’s one of the fears I grapple with the most.

We all have our inner critic/inner saboteur/judge or whatever you prefer to call it. We all have our own unique fears that pop up in our life, and that become especially loud when we face new opportunities or want to make change.

For me, fear of failure has been one of the hardest fears to manage. I’ve also noticed it’s a common fear amongst us medics.

What is it & why is it so hard to shake?

To become a doctor we’ve had to win. We’re used to doing well according to the external standards set for us. Most of us were top of our class in high school, champions in sports, in the debate team or other extra-curricular activities. We achieved in school, and the positive reinforcement for achieving felt great.

The reinforcement can range from awards, to more opportunities, to recognition, to the showering of love from a parent. It felt good to win.

Losing, mistakes or failing did not feel so good. For some of us, it may have even been punished. In stark contrast to the feeling of winning and external validation, failing meant all of that was stripped away from us.

Getting into medical school is another example of ‘winning’. It’s competitive, you have to complete exams and interviews to get into the exclusive school of medicine.

Being a doctor or medical student means we succeeded in that too.

We’re so used to succeeding, that failing becomes the boogeyman and a thing we are not well practiced in.

Celebrating mistakes is foreign, as mistakes are not tolerated to begin with.

Failing in medicine

Once we start working as a doctor, many of us confront our first big mistake. Our first experience of actually failing.

As adults, in a high-stakes environment, with little practice at failing, we face it.

The dirty secret of medicine is that every single doctor has made a mistake or failed in some way. Every single one, even the most brilliant.

I say dirty secret because it’s not spoken about. It’s taboo. Many of us guard our mistakes in the shadows of our heart and imagine that no other doctor has made an error. That it is just us, and then in this darkness of the heart, our shame, guilt and judgement grows.

Judgement against ourselves and the perception that we are being judged by those around us.

Another secret of medicine is that failing is inevitable. Mistakes happen. Why? Because we are human beings working with human beings in a health system that is currently running extremely lean. Because many of us sit extremely competitive exams and interviews that only let a select few in per year, whilst juggling being overworked and life as an adult.

There is no cushioning in the system at present, and when all of these high-powered individuals who are great at achieving experience a mistake (often a mistake that is costly, as this is the nature of medicine), what do we do?

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Dealing with our failures

What do we do when confronted with the first failure of our life?

How do we cope? How do we manage and continue on with our day and lives?

From personal experience, my first failure was as a doctor. It shook me to my core and led to me questioning my very worth as a human being or doctor.

In my perspective, at the time, I thought that I was the only one who made mistakes like that. Comparing myself to others around me made me think they were coping so much better.

I relived the mistake over and over again and mentally beat myself up for it. I judged myself, I felt I was being judged and a great shame grew. At work, I felt everyone knew I was ‘bad’ at what I did. I felt scared to admit how I felt or the mistake that I made. When I eventually shared my experience, it was met with uncomfortable silence by many. There were no sharing of mistakes from other doctors. This led to a deepening of my judgement and for me, a confirmation that I wasn’t cut out to be a doctor.


Can you relate to any of these words?

The culture of medicine

Though individually, many of us in medicine tend to be conditioned to succeed and achieve, it goes beyond the individual. Yes, we are probably not well practiced at failing, but the culture of medicine is perpetuating this unhealthy relationship between ourselves and failure.

The process of selection for medical school commonly leads to over-achievers entering. When we get asked about ourselves in interviews it’s rarely about moments of mistakes, even though medicine is often based on bouncing back from errors.

After entering medical school, we find ourselves in an even more competitive pool. The top of each school around the country in one auditorium.

On my first day, the welcome speech was, “look around you. You may be used to being the best, but now everyone here is the best of where they come from, get used to not being number one.”

During medical school, wrong answers often led to ridicule or public humiliation. Working as a doctor, the lack of transparency from seniors about their own mistakes and how they learnt from them is clear. After medical errors, the meeting afterwards from the Director of Medical Services is more about how what happened was a “f*@#k up”.

Those that fail clinical exams, aren’t accepted into programs or miss out on jobs are often othered. There is usually little feedback on where people went wrong, or on how they could improve. A surgeon told us of how they get told they’re finally accepted as a fellow. They’re led to a room where the other fellows are, and are accepted into the group. Those that failed are led by the room, with the door slightly open, to show them what they missed out on.

This hidden curriculum of perceived perfection perpetuates this no tolerance stance on mistakes.

Photo by Khadeeja Yasser on Unsplash

What do we do with all of this?

Personally, my fear of failing led to many decisions based on fear. Which never turned out well for me. Realising that the fear of failure exists, why it exists, and how my life is different when I make decisions based on empowered choice has been my turning point.

I’m not saying I’ve conquered my fear. Because fear is not something to be conquered. It’s something we all have, that we all live with and that we can learn to identify.

For me, the first step is this awareness. The knowledge that we sometimes feel the way we feel or do what we do based on this inner fear that has been cultivated since our childhood.

Of course it’s hard to shake, it’s habit.

But once we become aware of what is our habit, we can begin to make changes to truly transform our lives.

I believe talking about it will increase the normalcy. In doing so, we can begin to create a culture change in medicine that doesn’t hide our mistakes or shame those that fail.

What’s available to us when we celebrate failure?

Celebrating failure is a novel concept for me. Maybe it is for you too.

Celebrate? Why would I want to do that for something that is a failure. Isn’t that a waste of my time, money, and resources?

How could I possibly celebrate a mistake in medicine. Failing an exam. Missing out on an interview.

At first, the natural response isn’t one of elation. That’s normal. I’m not saying we need to be toxic in our positivity, all emotions are valid and deserve to be felt.

What I mean is, once the sting of the failure passes, we can look on the error and share it. Hey, this didn’t work, but what do I now know about myself? What is the learning here? Where do I go next?

If you look back on your life, I’m sure some of your greatest lessons were birthed from failure, not from when everything went perfectly.

Sometimes, failure can also help us to re-evaluate where we are and what path we want to take next.

Ok, maybe that didn’t work, but what could work for me now and into the future?

The idea of celebrating failure gives us permission to experiment and try new things.

My permission for myself to experience failure helped me make choices in my career that I’m grateful for. It felt risky at the time, but what I did know was continuing in the choices dictated by fear of failure was even riskier. Why? Because I knew that outcome. I had been living it for years, it was the same. It restricted me, while giving room for myself to fail has helped open up the possibilities.

Maybe I will fail…but maybe I won’t. What I truly value from it all is that I’m living life with integrity. So whatever the outcome, I can always look back on my choices and celebrate the fact that I courageously followed my values.

What do you think?

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