Success Defined. Differently

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When I was in elementary school I loved classroom competitions. I looked forward to spelling bees, timed tests and word puzzles. One of my favorite educational games was “around the world.” The desks were arranged in a circle, with one student standing. The standing student would be paired with a sitting student and the teacher would hold up a flash card with a math calculation. The student who answered correctly first “won” and moved on to the next desk. The goal, for me, was to go “around the world”, to defeat every other student in the class. I loved the game, as I rarely lost.

Looking back now, I see the game was stupid. As fun and as challenging as it was to me, it had to have been demoralizing for those in the class for whom math was a struggle. I am sure many of them felt like not trying at all, seeing the “game” as just one more opportunity to be humiliated.

It had a negative impact on me as well. The game fed a warped sense of self, the idea that it was my academic performance that gave me value, that good grades made me special. Educational success, being smart, was a major component of my self-esteem. It left me with a precarious view of self that failure could easily destroy. 

It took me decades to realize that academic successes were nothing to brag about. My school acheivements were primarily due to genetics, not effort. I was the son of a brilliant man who passed his genes on to me. For me, being proud of my GPA would be like a 7 foot tall person being proud of their height. While intelligence and height can be advantageous and beneficial, they are not something anyone earns or works for.

I have finally reached the point in my life where I have learned to measure success differently. What is important to me are the things that I work for the things that do not come naturally, even in my medical practice. While making a correct diagnosis is important, even crucial, I am realizing this is not the best way for me to measure the success of a visit. I now measure success of a patient interaction on the things that take effort, the things that are challenging for me, such as the clarity of my communication and the patient’s comfort and understanding with what I say. If the patient is not satisfied with their care, I have not succeeded.

I need to do this in every area of my life. It is the successes I work for, the changes brought by diligent effort, of which I should be most proud.  When my worth comes from the things that I strive for and not just on the things I am born with, I know I am on the road to being a better person.

 - bart