The 'f' word we really need to talk about.
On the 9th August 2012 at 12.14pm I received the news that my fledgling medical career was over. If you know me well, you will have heard this story before, but I had failed a re-sit examination in Neurology by two marks, which meant I was no longer permitted to continue on the degree. My ‘exit interview’ (as it was so politely put), was with a very serious, bespectacled, old gentleman and a young lady there to record everything said. They were sitting opposite me at a small round wooden table and there was a short pause. He looked over his glasses and said very evenly; “You probably won’t ever become a doctor. Your only route now would be to start again on another degree, something physiology related, and only at a Russell group university. Then, you would have to get a first class and if you’re very lucky, there would perhaps then be a small chance of you being accepted somewhere for postgraduate medicine.” There was another pause and my turn to speak. “Could I transfer to another degree within the university?” “No.” “Can I take any credits from the exams I did pass in this degree – do they count for anything elsewhere?” “No.” “So what does the past 3 years count for?” Another pause – and now a slight atmosphere had entered the room. “You can put it on your C.V.”
After 3 years, at 23 years old, I had very effectively failed my way out of medical school. It was pure failure – I had fallen on my backside, messed up, screwed up, fucked up, not made the grade- call it whatever you want but the long and short if it was – I had failed. The Oxford dictionary definition of failure is; ‘a lack of success’. This was definitely true. I had not successfully jumped the hurdle required for me to continue on my medical degree and there were no second (or third) chances. Whatever hopes I had for the future regarding this area of my life - were now over.
Fast forward a few years and what I really want to talk about here is the discomfort I have come to observe in people when I say ‘I failed out of medical school’. In the past 6 years I have met hundreds of people and when you meet someone for the first time and you’re talking about your lives and what you’ve done etc, this is how the conversation has often gone; “So did you go to Uni then?” Oh yeh, I went to Salford for 3 years – it was great!” “oh cool so what did you do before that?” “Oh erm yeh I lived in Manchester for 3 years” “oh wow what studying or working?” “oh erm yeh I was at Manchester Uni” “oh wow!! So you have like 2 degrees? Wow you must be so clever!” (This is usually the part where I’m like oh god no! shit why did I not just lie and say I worked in a Bank or something...) “oh I didn’t become a doctor though” “oh cool did you just get the Bsc and decide it wasn’t for you?” “Oh no, I failed off the course actually.” Awkward pause. “oh….”
Openly using the phrase ‘I failed’ has plunged more conversations into an awkward silence in the past 6 years of my life than any talk of race, politics, Donald Trump, terrorism, therapy, depression, The Real Housewives – or any other usual conversation destroying topics. Granted, I could have lied and not mentioned it but I made a promise to myself that I would always be honest about who I am– and if you know me well – you’ll know I’m a truly terrible liar. Before I go on, I must clarify this isn’t the only reaction, just the one I want to talk about. Some people don’t react at all and then there are also those (you lovely bunch!) who do this really nice thing where they go “Oh no! you didn’t fail – you just, you know found a way of doing it differently!’ or “It wasn’t for you – they had a silly exam and you know what it’s like – they were a rubbish system! etc. etc.” This is all very sweet and I have fully appreciated the kindness and empathy that people are showing when they do this – but I FAILED - lets call it what it is. This is now part of my life history so why be uncomfortable with that? Sometimes it’s better to let someone use their own words. What I hadn't understood until now was this; When you are taking away the truth about someone’s struggle by trying to soften the reality, be careful you are also not taking away their ability to acknowledge the strength they gained from it too. Something to remember.
Anyway, at the beginning, I could understand the awkwardness – I wasn’t overly comfortable with it all myself and in the few years that followed, I had to battle through a lot of feelings of shame, humiliation and inadequacy which made socializing very difficult and I had to keep my world small. With what I know now - I realise I never needed to feel that way. I had been no wall flower at medical school and my personality seemed to disappear overnight. However, as time has gone by, it’s cheesy as hell, but so much good came out of this failure that I don’t even know where to start to tell you about it. I’m not an exclusive case in this experience either. Having read a lot of autobiographies of successful people; people I admire and people who've made me laugh – not a single one of those books has not contained a wild failure of some sort. Yet in immediate life, what I was seeing, was how silent we are about the things we mess up. The awkwardness I was experiencing in other people was really just a reflection of their own fears; 'if that happened to me...' .
Now, i'm incredibly comfortable with it all – maybe a little too comfortable; ‘Hi yes, I’m Sophie and I failed out of medical school once – nice to meet you!’ – No I’m joking I don’t actually do that but I wouldn’t put it past myself these days just to see the reactions. My open and blasé use of the ‘f’ word is sometimes a surprise - and I don’t think it should be. One of the greatest things that has come from my honesty is that people have felt they can open up about their own failures too. This has given me an insight into the sheer capacity of shame we’re all carrying around - which by the way, is so huge, it could sink the Titanic 3 times over!! Not to mention the anxiety, sleeplessness and constant fear young people are living in about their exams and their futures. The root of a lot of this; ‘what if I fail?’ My grandmother always says to me that ‘mistakes are how you grow’ – and they are. They are nothing to be ashamed of at all, yet there is whole generation of young people growing up with a crippling fear of failure.
I am not a failure – but I did fail - and disastrously so! The trick is to not let it be cumulative; it’s not a life sentence. One failure doesn’t mean everything will go that way neither does two or three – or even ten! I lost myself because I believed that it was a reflection of who I was - and the way I put myself back together was be recognizing my worth and capability on this planet are not defined by ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ – in anything. Not school, not university, not relationships... not my driving test (!). I was not meant to go to medical school to be a doctor, I was meant to go there to learn how to fail.
'Failure', 'failing', 'to fail' 'failed'; they need to become phrases that are part of our everyday vocabulary so that we become less afraid and ashamed and learn how to stop attaching ourselves as an entirety to them. You're not a failure as a human being if you fail at something - it sucks and its awful but it does not define your potential for future success. Our growing world of perfectionism (oh and we will get onto that! ha!) is leading a lot of us to believe that if its not happening smoothly, then it never will. I was one of those people and I suffered unnecessarily because of it - don't be me. I could have saved myself so much pain if I had known this back then.
If you have screwed up and you're sitting there thinking 'what an idiot' (this went through my head A LOT) then please remember this: The only thing failure really means is that you just take a minute, re-evaluate - and if its still feels right - try again. If not, then you will learn something important that I can guarantee will lead you to a better life. If any employer ever sees it on my C.V. and asks what happened - I'll always tell the truth. I failed. Screwed up. Had too much fun and took my eye off the ball - and it was one of the most important experiences of my life.