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The Progressing Path

A man runs

As I enter my fourth year of medical school and make plans for residency and beyond, I realize that I have spent much of the past few years checking off boxes and anticipating the next steps in my career. I have often viewed medical school as a source of delayed gratification, part of a process that must be endured to reach some goal that will be worth it in the end. Experiencing this mindset at various stages, I often lost appreciation for the path I was taking and the immense amount of growth experienced along the way.

During college, I competed as a track athlete and thrived in being able to readily follow my progress as a runner. Progress was tangible in the form of new personal records and conference accolades. Having these concrete results provided motivation that each workout and race prepared me to reach my goals. Though I often struggled with inconsistencies, exceeding expectations one day and struggling to keep pace the next, I always believed that each completed race and workout contributed to my development as a runner. Using setbacks as learning opportunities to strengthen my racing toolkit, I could produce real results over time.

In medical school, our growth is not always as concrete as running a new personal best on the track. Beyond test scores, we rely on subjective evaluation from attendings and others to validate our competency. While the formal feedback we receive identifies both critical deficiencies and areas of strength, we as medical students often use it inappropriately to make judgements against ourselves. When we focus on these evaluations, we lose sight of the defining moments in our development. The evaluation report doesn’t remind us of the first time we independently counseled a patient on a new diagnosis or reassured a patient’s worried family member over the phone. It doesn’t highlight the patient interactions that changed our thinking about a disease or forever impacted the way we relate to the suffering of others. As a result, when we rely solely on this feedback to track our progress, we overlook what may be the most influential moments in our personal growth as physicians.

Evaluation remains an important part of medical school, allowing programs to compare students and re-directing us when we have weaknesses to address. However, it can also cause students to set aside personal reflection when we attempt to pursue what we see as tangible results necessary for achieving our future goals. This thinking contrasts to the ideal of the physician as a lifelong learner--one who uses inward reflection to continually seek improvement. As medical students, aiming to develop reflective practices from the beginning not only prepares us to become better physicians, but it also helps us to realize joy in a field known for burnout. If we pause in those beautiful moments when all our preparation comes together to connect with patients and impact care, we can recognize the importance of our journeys and enjoy the path that we have taken.

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