Many years ago, when I was a trainee physician, a formal feedback to track my progress never materialised. Instead, late one evening, with no prior notice, I was marched into a room and told by a clearly enraged consultant that he wished I had never been selected into the training program. I was stunned when the monologue ended in this dire pronouncement, “Actually, I’d say you are a disappointment to medicine.”
Looking back, this ambit claim should have alerted me to muster my internal defences right there. It was only the beginning of my training; in the handful of years I had been a doctor, I had not presided over a string of unaccountable deaths nor had I bullied interns or abused patients. I was like every other trainee – unexceptional but committed, aware of the difficult trek ahead but grateful for the opportunity. And while it may have been apparent to an experienced eye that I wasn’t destined for high glory, it seemed a bit rich to foretell a doctor’s lifelong contribution to medicine by the first few unremarkable years.
But of course, none of this occurred to me at the time other than the sinking realisation that I wasn’t just a disappointment to medicine but a certified failure. It didn’t matter that the consultant had not got to know me; it didn’t matter that his intemperance was common knowledge; all that mattered was that he had seen further into me than anyone else and proclaimed me an early failure. I wish I could say that the claim was so entirely unfounded and so wildly exaggerated that I banished it from my head but in fact, his words sank into my marrow and stayed there for years and years to come.
The ensuing years turned out to be far more interesting than I could have imagined. I became an oncologist and won a Fulbright award that transformed my life from a physician to a physician-writer and public speaker. Patients and colleagues complimented me but to me, those other skills felt like a feeble corrective to the…