Three weeks ago, I took my resits for 4th year. The results would tell me whether I'd get to carry on the degree, or have to repeat a year, or God forbid, change my profession to "social commentator and general dogsbody" (last week, I got news that I'd passed, but six others didn't).
There's something terrible about having to resit an exam, especially one which you spent a year preparing for. The stakes are higher, the potential impact of your actions or inaction more clear. And there's the doubt as you measure yourself against yourself, and the jealousy as you measure yourself against others. And of course, the uncertainty, as you scramble to find out what went wrong, and what to do, all in a limited space of time.
Suddenly, I'd turned back into the little kid who was crying at not getting a math question right. My memory is fuzzy, but I remember sitting at a little blue plastic table that my parents had gotten just for me, and Dad was looking over my shoulder. I had learned about carrying units at school, and I'd been hammering at my workbook for a million years (time passes differently when you're a kid). I was on one of the last questions, the ones that would tell me If I'd gotten the idea of the lesson that day: 11+9=?
I thought to myself: "I know this, I can carry that number forward", and carried forward a little too much, and got 110 instead of 20.
Dad said, "not quite" (or something similar), quite calmly, and I stared at the question again.
When I saw what I'd done, tears started flowing down my cheeks. Dad must've thought he'd pushed me a little too hard, because he went quiet for a while.
But I wasn't crying because I'd been pushed too hard, and it wasn't anything that Dad had done: I was angry at me, because I KNEW the answer - I'd gotten the idea of units, I'd gotten the idea of carrying forward. And I KNEW I could add - but I'd overestimated myself, and didn't think of making that little check of where to put that carried unit. Dad wasn't pushing me too hard: I was the one who was pushing myself, and I wasn't happy because I'd failed to live up to my own expectations, because I assumed I was ok, rather than checking my working.
Fast forward to the present day: I'm not doing basic math anymore, in fact I'm very rarely doing math at all. This is a whole different game, a game played by grown-ups, where the rewards are getting your sick man to tomorrow, and failure is simply not an option: we don't make mistakes, because the consequences are visited on people who put their trust in us. In that sense, I guess I'm still that little kid I was: there's no such thing as getting 9 out of 10 in an exam: it's got to be perfect.
Of course that's not the reality: doctors make mistakes all the time, and med students even more so, but we don't aim for that. No doctor worth their salt will ever stop and say "that's good enough". Our all-or-nothing mentality is probably what really separates us from most other professions. It's what makes doctors workaholics and bad parents, alcoholics and smokers, nitpickers and critics of other peoples' work. It's what makes us more likely to keel over from heart attacks and jump off bridges.
And that's the way it's going to be, for a long time to come.