I Needed to Fail to Learn

Failure is a Harsh Teacher, But One That I Needed

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Courtesy: Pang Yuhao
Courtesy: Pang Yuhao

It would have been easy to get caught up in the fervor over my medical school graduation last May. Family and friends stood by proudly as I received my degree. We took multi-generational photos with my inspirational grandmother, a retired nurse. Local news outlets paid attention: I was a neighborhood kid “making good,” who’d completed a pipeline program for high schoolers underrepresented in healthcare, about to embark on an OB-GYN residency at a hospital near her hometown.  

Not reported was that I had to repeat my first year of medical school. 

It was my first experience with failure. I’d had a long run of successes, considering that my family and community had been cheering me on as a top student since preschool, so this stung. I can’t recall hearing anyone say that failure has come to them at a good time, but this felt especially…not good, like I’d been fired from a job before applying for it.  

I didn’t know exactly how to restart, but I knew I didn’t want this to stall my dream of becoming a physician. It’s tempting to write that I didn’t want my failure to define me. The truth? I’d be fine with that now, because accepting my academic shortcomings opened my eyes to other failures—sometimes unacceptable failures. I realized I had the ability, and often an obligation, to repair them. 

As a medical school student, sometimes I saw patients whose first language wasn’t English waiting for appointments because it took time to access translation services. I saw patients sense providers’ impatience in those moments. I started grabbing the phone or my tablet to cue up translators before appointments to smooth the way, hopefully cutting short the unintentional marginalization that can result from a language barrier. 

I also paid close attention to large-scale failures, as our country grappled simultaneously with the COVID-19 pandemic and the death of George Floyd. As the pandemic ravaged areas that looked like my hometown, it exposed the long-time failures of a nation: racism, the inability hear each other, a lack of equity and opportunity, and gaping disparities. 

These facts compelled me to act because I didn’t want to fail myself, my family and my community. 

So I raised my voice and stood with my fellow medical students of color to discuss these ongoing failures, and how they manifest at the medical school and beyond. I learned that my heart is with those whose voices are ignored, heightening my responsibility to myself and my community to reach change-makers.

Ultimately, my medical school do-over has heightened my responsibility to be a change-maker in my own life, and in the lives of my patients. It’s not too soon for me to embrace the perspective it offers because it highlights what I need to do differently personally and professionally. And it will make me a better physician because I know how to face down, and manage, my weaknesses. 

Academic failure was tough, but it allowed me to rebuild in a way that I can hopefully share with others as we all, inevitably, face failure. Failure is a harsh teacher—but one that perhaps I needed—and one that I now, willingly and humbly, accept. 

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