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Dear Medical Students, You are Not Stupid.

Updated: Dec 9, 2018

Hi, welcome to medical school!

Within a few months, you will forget how it feels like to feel smart. How can I be studying so much but still know so little? Why does it feel like knowledge goes into my head but then disappears into oblivion? I’m good at studying, that’s why I applied to medical school, does this mean I don’t belong?

This is normal, and this will be your normal for the rest of your life.

I might have exaggerated a little. But what you need to know is: Everyone feels this way. You are not alone. It does not mean you don't deserve to be here.

For many of us, we’ve been called – and felt – clever our entire lives, and then you go to medical school, and suddenly you feel stupid.

But think about it. How do you know you are smart?

Grades? Praise from people? How you contribute in class?

The problem is, all of these involve comparison. You feel smart because your grades are higher than 80% of your friends. You feel smart because you won a competition. You feel smart because you seem to know more or think faster than other people, supposedly because of your superior brainpower.

But that is not completely how it works. Why? Here are two reasons:

1. Someone with an intelligence of 10 is equally smart in a group of 5s or a group of 15s, even if they feel really stupid in the second. Comparison should not be the way to define intelligence. It is the easiest and most instinctive way, but it is wrong.

You are still the same person – just because you are surrounded by some of the most hardworking, intelligent, determined people in the world, it does not mean your hard work, intelligence, and determination is any less real or valuable.

An illustration of the medical school library.

2. Intelligence isn’t a number, rating or ranking. It’s a quality, like red, soft or cold.*

Now, what on earth do I mean?

Let’s think about colours. If you’re painting the sky, you need a lot of blue. So you look for paints, and you value blue more than other colours.

But that doesn’t mean blue is a better colour than green, or blue is the ideal, or all colours should be compared on a scale from no blue to bluest blue - it’s just that blue fits the best at this time, for this purpose.

Painting the sky is just one use out of many, and it does not mean you are are useless at other things. Medical school – and being a doctor – is complex, and people are good at different things. I may be good at statistics, but I take longer than others to understand anatomy. And that's okay. It’s not about who's smarter than who, or even 'am I smart?' It’s about learning from each other: ‘I’m good at Anatomy, but she’s good at Pharmacology – maybe I can ask her for tips?’ or ‘He’s so good at making people feel at ease, I wonder what I can learn from watching?’ If you know your strengths and weaknesses, you know what to work on and how to work on them.

What if I’m not good at anything? It's completely understandable to feel this way - but 1) see #1 above, you are probably good at something even if you don't feel like you are, and 2) you don’t need to be good, you just need to be enough, because in pre-clinical years, loads of things you learn aren’t even useful… and keeping your mental health intact is far, far more helpful than memorising the names of every single molecule used in digestion.

Also, a lot of things that people don’t consider conventional ‘intelligence’ require a lot of brainpower, and they matter – a lot. Figuring out how to talk to a patient about their weight? Social intelligence. Keeping calm when faced with an unexpected interview question? Emotional intelligence. Knowing which lectures are not worth attending? Street-smartness, prioritisation, and a willingness to ask your seniors. If you can do anything like this, you're smart. And if you got here, you’ve got more than enough brains, sensibility, and determination to make it.

And remember: because intelligence is not a ranking, despite how your grades are presented, someone being smart does not mean you’re stupid. It probably means you’re both smart.

What do you call the person that graduates last in their medical school class? A doctor

*In this sense my example in #1 using numbers is wrong, apologies, but I wanted to illustrate my point.

I know this is getting long, so there’s one last thing I want to say:

To survive medical school, you need to have a life beyond medical school.

To be blunt, feeling stupid feels less like a blow if your entire personality isn’t just based on being smart. If you are also a sportsperson, a musician, a friend, or a person who loves ice cream so much you think about it at night before you sleep.

(Okay, that’s me.)

It doesn’t mean you give any less to your work – but it does mean that you are still a person without your work. You are not a superhuman. It is okay to be human. You can be a human and still do great things – sacrifice may be necessary in the medical profession, but why make sacrifices when you can don't make sacrifices?

Now let me end with two great comics:

You may feel like an imposter….

But feeling out of place is exactly how you grow, and go places, and become a better version of yourself.

Stay tuned for the next article: practical tips on how to study! Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments – there’s a lot I wanted to include but couldn’t, because this is long enough already.

All the best with life!

By Alexis Low An Yee


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