“Every single thing you do in your life, somebody else is doing a better version of it.” -The Oatmeal, The terrible and wonderful reasons I run long distances part 6, the Void.I have never been the best at anything. As a child, I always expected to be… I thought that was how growing up worked, you try a bunch of different things until you find your niche and then you excel, simple as that. I grew frustrated as I got older and continued to realize my lack of talent in a variety of fields. Everyone else seemed to be the best at something and here I was just crossing options off of an ever-lengthening list. To me, “Jack of all trades, master of none” always seemed a horribly depressing title.
At lot of children start their ventures of practice and developing skill in the soccer or T-ball arenas. I preferred to pick flowers on the sidelines of my brother’s games or play in the woods when I had free time. Next up, Ballet. I’m still not convinced why a small child who hated to have people look at her thought that ballet was going to be her life’s great calling. Perhaps I was just too oblivious to my own lack of talent. Unfortunately, my parents loved me enough to commit a couple of my performances to video evidence which I now occasionally watch through my fingers while making mental notes of topics to share with my therapist. Then I tried basketball. Since I didn’t enjoy being the center of attention, I didn’t really like to catch the ball or have it thrown to me at all… Not an ideal quality for a member of a basketball team. I also lacked hand-eye coordination, team spirit and a general understanding of the rules of basketball. Another item crossed off. I took to acting in church plays, and I was about as skilled as the average 7 year old actress in a low-budget reproduction of the story of the birth of Christ. What I lacked in volume and expression I made up for in my ability to memorize lines. I became a regular appearance in the plays – often landing leading roles simply because they could count on me to learn lines. This was not the Oscar I had anticipated. I asked for a skateboard one year, determined to become the next Tony Hawk… several skinned knees later, I had mastered riding the board in a straight line for a short distance on a smooth surface only at slow speeds. It would not appear that Tony Hawk had much to be nervous about.
My failed endeavors of later childhood were not quite as pathetic as my attempts at ballet and skateboarding. I actually found moderate success in a variety of activities by the time I got to high school, I ran varsity cross country (never the team’s front runner, but far enough up to count in the scoring), I played trumpet with some small amount of skill (if I spent a long time practicing the songs given to me). I began to grasp the concept that every skill was earned… at least, by me. Talent was a misnomer and true success comes from repeated attempts to get better.
I was never valedictorian in my high school class. I got the occasional B for work turned in late. Once I got an D because I had not bothered to turn in 2/3’s of the work for the semester. The next assignment of the semester was to bring back the signed progress report with our grade. My parents didn’t sign the progress report – I was afraid to show it to them, so I procrastinated, so by the day it was due, I had already arrived at school, progress report unsigned. It seemed like a stupid reason to loose even more grade points so I signed it myself. Turns out that high school teachers are smart enough to figure out that when a largely straight-A student brings home a D grade, her parents generally don’t sign the form without some sort of discussion with the teacher. I got a little grounded for my practicality. … The point is, I generally did well in high school with minimal effort when I remembered to do it. Most of my sub-par grades were from either procrastination or inadequate effort in the few and far between moments where the material did challenge me.
This should have been a set-up for failure when I attended college, but it wasn’t. I did not excel at time management, but was generally able to cram enough for each test that I would get the grades I wanted. I always used to wonder what my grades could be like if I actually had the discipline to focus. At the beginning of each semester I would construct intricate study schedules, goals, outlines and plans for the weeks ahead – this time, I would not fall behind and cram! Of course, those generally lasted a month at best and there I was, two days before the test wondering why I thought Ecology was important in the long run anyways.
The trend continued in medical school, but with far more devastating results. Cramming is not an option in med school. At the time of my first exam, I had been a student there for approximately 3 weeks. We had covered over 400 pages of material – more than an entire semester of undergraduate learning. If I studied 2 hours per day on weekdays and 5 per day on weekends (which may be an underestimate) that is a solid 50 hours of studying on top of the hours already involved in the classroom learning. That is the most I had ever studied for any test up to that point in my life. It wasn’t assigned homework or busywork or problems – just me and my notes, face to face.
My exam score was acceptable but certainly not perfect. At that time, I made my peace with it. There is a phrase well known in the medical community, “P equals MD”. If you earn a passing grade in all of your course work, you will become an MD. You do not have to be number one. The person who ranks 99th in the graduating class is just as much a doctor as the person who ranks 1st. My sanity would not allow for the level of focus it would require for me to excel in all of my classes. I resigned myself to passing my courses with the goal of also finding some manner of enjoyable life.
Without striving to be number one, medical school was palatable. Goals and structure were still indicated. I knew the direction I needed to head and all I needed to do was determine the hours I would put in getting there. I chose my sanity over my grades and again was reminded that the only path to skill is unending hard work.
I’m not sure where I was going with this.
I’ve recently begun a boxing instructional course. In it, my coach broke down all of my previously learned boxing training so that he could build on them. While I was pretty good at throwing punches, footwork and evasive maneuvering are not my strong suits. When we were first starting to slip punches, I would quickly become frustrated and angry. He had to remind me on several occasions that it is okay that I am bad at this, I’m a beginner. I may not have the raw talent to be a prize fighter tomorrow, but I could become one if I decided I truly wanted to commit to it.
One of the highlights of my nervous breakdown that led to my life-altering decision is that it has led to some strongly recommended (required) therapy. Therapy has been surprisingly good for me. I don’t know why it is surprising, actually. We could all benefit from it certainly – I just never saw my life panning out in such a way that therapy would be a thing I would need to benefit from. My therapist has been supportive and non-judgmental from the start – just as most people in my life have been. Initially, I did not anticipate that response. I thought she was accepting because she had to be and other people in my life… I would be letting them down. They had vested interest. Reason to be disappointed. When I told her I was growing frustrated with blogging, she helped me realize that we often hold ourselves to higher standards than others do. After a 2 month trial, I felt that I had written all I had to say. There are millions of writers out there - bookstores are full of names I’ve never heard. Nonetheless, they are names with enough success to publish a book and wind up in a bookstore. It seems like everyone has a blog these days and even those who don’t occasionally post eloquent facebook statuses or heartfelt instagram captions. Everyone has talent and a voice – why would anyone want to hear mine? It felt as though everyone who’s writing I got to read was infinitely better than mine – they were better than me. She reminded me that of course they are… Some of the people I am comparing myself to have gone to school for this, been trained in this and been perfecting their craft their entire life. I’ve recently returned to it as to an old hobby, so in a way… I’m a beginner, it’s okay that I’m bad at this.
I think I want to be a writer. I’m not sure why – it seems to be the happy middle ground of something I enjoy and something I’ve been told I am good at. (We can disregard that I was told I was good at it in eigth grade… that translates, right?)
Maybe I have wanted to for a long time… as a dream or a hobby, something too magical to actually pursue. I planned on throwing it in there, penning a novel in my free time between seeing patients and saving the world, as if it were something easy to do. Now that it is looking as though I have more free time to play with, I have come to realize that I want to fill that chasm with writing. I have also come to find that this intimidates me. This goal seems far more unattainable than becoming a doctor. In becoming a doctor, there is a checklist – the tasks involved are certainly not simple but they are well delineated: graduate college, volunteer, shadow, interview, go to medical school, pass your boards. It has always seemed to me that there is one specific path to follow if that is your end goal. There are dozens of check points along the way: college advisors, requirements, mentors, interviews, essays and qualifying exams.
Being a writer seems more nebulous. I don’t know where to start or who to talk to. I don’t know how to figure out if I “have what it takes” or if I’ll make the cut. Who knows if my book will ever make it big time or if I’ll even have a regular following to my blog? ...Maybe I’m dreaming too big. Millions of writers make an impact without becoming a household name or a staple on a college reading list. Why do I measure success as some level of recognition?
Taking a step even further back, why do I need to be successful? I didn’t start writing because I thought it would help me pay the bills, I did it because it is something I enjoy doing. It helps me organize my madness and find calm in my inner storm. It makes me feel productive even when I’ve accomplished nothing but putting words on paper. Clearly I’ve spent a lot of time being trained to think like a student. In medical school and residency, with such extreme demands on your time, it is important to make even your free time productive. We become masters at time management, excising anything that may take up more than it is worth. (Even studying if the 99% on paper is worth less than the memories you make with the people around you)
It is taking a surprising amount of effort on my part to restructure my thinking: not everything that is worthwhile becomes a line on a CV. It is okay to have a hobby and be unsuccessful or quietly successful. It is okay that after opting out of medicine that I don’t have an immediate plan to be the best at something.
When I told my mom I wasn’t going to be a doctor, she told me she was not disappointed in me. She said I had already accomplished far more than she had imagined for me. It’s not that she doubted me (although she did drop me on my head as a child, so I anticipate her aspirations for me are at least slightly lower than they were initially), but simply that I had already graduated medical school… in her eyes, I had succeeded. Walking away wasn’t going to make me a failure. Actually, most people I told were supportive. No one said aloud what I was telling myself: that I wasn’t good enough, that I had strived to be one of the elite and ultimately failed, that this was obviously going to happen from the start.
One of my good friends in high school knew from that early age exactly what she wanted to do with her life. She interned at a local paper, writing small pieces and learning the trade while I wasted time bussing tables and doing whatever jobs were available. I may have been paid more, but she gained far more. She used to refer to me affectionately as smart ass… which is probably the most accurate nickname I’ve ever been given. She went to college for journalism and has now written for a lot of widely read publications. Me on the other hand, I feel like I’m 18 again… my whole life in front of me, some lofty goal but no experience, no concept of what it will take to get to where I want to go or even how to begin.
Maybe I will have nothing to write about for forever… perhaps the rest of my life will be this endless narcissistic drone about how I wanted to be a doctor and then I didn’t and how that changed me. The problem with a blog is that I’m constrained to writing my own opinions and stories, things I know to be true. Am I doomed to this venue and all of its limitations? Is this the best I will ever be?
I’ve been working my whole life towards one goal and I now have nothing to show for it.
I suppose that isn’t true. I’ve gained some things in getting here… I’ve almost drowned in the Nile, met the Taliban, ridden on a caribou, bathed in a hot spring, climbed down the “wall of death”. I’ve acquired some stories worth telling. I’ve often thought that what I lack in talent I make up for in something else… hopefully one of these days, I’ll figure out in what.