Fruits of failure

how failing medical school 30 years ago made me into the medical educator I am today


by Dr Tim Young


Dr Tim Young is a consultant neurologist who knows what it is like to come last and fail in medicine at one institution, and then finish top in medicine at another. Having graduated as a doctor with triple distinctions in 1997, he Is now an associate Professor for teaching at the Queen Square Institute of Neurology, UCL. His unique experience has driven his passion for medical education, and he teaches doctors around the world about neurology as a co-director for the Clinical Neurology MSc/Diploma at UCL.


This is his story.

 


We all carry a ‘shadow CV’ listing our failures that we usually would not want to make public. However, I realise now that it is often through these tougher times that we may develop the most. This was definitely true in my case.


In the mid-1980s, I went direct from school to Bristol University to study medicine. I found medical school difficult from the start. I struggled and became increasingly withdrawn but did not ask for help. I came last in medicine and failed my second year.


Despite this, I still felt in my heart a desire to do medicine. So, I completed a Biomedical Science degree at King’s College London (KCL), hoping that this could launch me back into medical school. As I did not want to achieve my dream by taking a place that could have gone to a school leaver, I asked medical schools to only consider me for a place if an existing medical student had dropped out. Doing this cost me at least one offer. I wrote by hand to every medical school in the UK, and even some in the Caribbean and Europe. I knew I had no right to expect a chance to return. But still I hoped.

I knew I had no right to expect a chance to return. But still I hoped.

At last, whilst doing one of my many manual labour jobs I was employed in at that time, I got an urgent message from KCL. Unexpectedly, a student had dropped out as they wished to switch to a different subject. The medical school felt that it would be too late in the course for a school leaver to take the place. The miracle I had prayed for had come true. I rushed up for a hastily arranged interview with the Dean, was offered the place on the spot, and walked on air all the way back home. With my prior years as an undergraduate, and almost fanatical dedication, it is probably not surprising that I ended up achieving many prizes, and ultimately, triple distinctions in my final MBBS exams, finishing top in medicine.


I hope that I can use my experience to encourage anyone who has ever failed or is in fear of failure. Most medical students are already high achievers, but this can have significant downsides. The fear of failure is most marked when we are expected to succeed. Possibly you have been, or are, scared of failing exams, a whole year of medical school, or just possibly, failing your medical degree itself. I failed all of these, but I know now that there may be a positive way forward after failure. More than this, I have learnt tremendously from the experience of failing itself. I believe that this has been a strong driver to my career ever since then. I have become less judgmental of others and more encouraging to those who are struggling.


I have a passion that still burns in my heart for teaching medical students and doctors, in the UK and around the world. Although I love seeing students achieve top awards, my greatest incentive is different. The real focus for my passion is for the students who are struggling. Maybe they will never achieve distinctions or prizes. But they could still make excellent doctors, possibly the stronger for having not been the top performer in a room.

... passion is for the students who are struggling. Maybe they will never achieve distinctions or prizes. But they could still make excellent doctors, possibly the stronger for having not been the top performer in a room.

I have spent some 25 years as a doctor, nearly half of this at consultant level in neurology. I will always be thankful for the second chance that was offered to me.


These are the specific points that I have learnt through my experience of failing:


1. Failure and its implications on self-worth

Don't be ashamed of failure. Everyone has, or will, experience failure – it’s just that most of us don’t like to advertise this. Failure does not define us. It’s all too easy to say, “I am a failure” instead of saying, “I have failed X”. These two statements may sound very similar, but they're worlds apart. It is helpful for us not to view ourselves as failures if we fail at something.


2. Opportunities seen the second time around

Medical student prizes are widely available. Many job applications, even years after you qualify, will have a box asking you to mention any prizes you won. From my experience, many students do not apply for these prizes. The odds against winning are not as astronomical as many people might think and you may still use the learning material in your medical school exams.


3. Nothing is wasted

In my final two years as a medical student, I would find that I could use lessons learnt from every clinical case, and every journal article I’d read, in the following few weeks. I should add that, having a little bit of the ‘stardust’ that can come from having read a few recent important journal articles can come in very handy as a medical student.


4. Failure and asking for help

Finally, ask for help if you need it. People do care about us, and most people will try to help if they can. There are people all around us we are often not aware of, like our classmates, teachers, and those who have made a vocation out of trying to help others. If you're in trouble or feel as if you're failing, please ask for help.


I do hope this has been of some interest to you. I'm always happy to be emailed if that is of any help.


Best wishes,

Tim

t.young@ucl.ac.uk