Have you ever screwed up? And I mean, really screwed up. Not just a little spilled coffee, or a forgotten meeting. When we work in the ED, there are times where tiny errors can lead to life or death consequences. Perhaps you have a case that haunts you. I think most of us do. I know that I have several of those myself.
I always wanted to be perfect. And for some time, I thought that if I studied and trained hard enough, perhaps I could achieve that shiny goal. Except, I’m human. And this, by definition, means I will make mistakes now and then, however inadvertent. Our common humanity rests on our imperfections.
But when we make a mistake in medicine, we rarely talk about it. We sweep our failures under the rug and hope that no one notices. The problem is that this approach is strikingly unhealthy for us. When we don’t talk about our failures, we start to feel isolated and ashamed. This leads us down the path towards burnout, depression and quitting.
Alternatively, if we could talk about failure, and share this humanity with people close to us, we could start to feel less isolated, and less alone. Talking about our failures is the first step towards learning how to fail better.
So how to open up? Because it feels terrifying, and it’s not easy to break through medicine’s culture of silence. My best advice is to find yourself a failure friend. This is your go-to person to talk to when you’ve screwed up. Choose someone kind. Someone capable of empathy. And ideally someone who understands your context.
Sit down somewhere quiet and tell them what happened. Don’t worry about telling them all the medical details; that’s not the crux of the issue, and you want to be mindful of your privacy laws. The key is to tell your failure friend how you feel. You tell them when you dread heading in to work. You tell them when you feel like quitting. You tell them when you feel like drinking.
If you’ve chosen wisely, your friend will listen. And then they will lean back in and take your hand and tell you that they’ve been there too. Because if we’re really honest with each other, we’ve all been there. None of us are perfect. We may all be marvelous smart caring hardworking people, but we are not perfect.
If you are able to muster the courage to bare your soul to your failure friend, all of a sudden, you start to feel better. Less alone. Less afraid. And more connected. This small act of sharing can lead to remarkable changes in outlook. It builds a platform to grow from, where failure can lead to thriving and healing, rather than shame and despair.
Maybe you’ve been on a roll lately, and you don’t need a failure friend right now. No problem. Perhaps you can be a failure friend to someone else. And just listen with compassion. You don’t need to solve their problems, and probably you shouldn’t try. You can just tell them they’re not alone. You can just pay attention. You can just validate the importance of their struggle.
Maybe you have a colleague who needs a hand. Maybe it’s a friend who needs help. Or maybe the bravest possible choice is to role model failing better for our children and our students. Teach them to talk about their failures by talking about yours. Show them how to heal. Demonstrate how to support each other through life’s inevitable challenges. Because we are all working through the same struggles. And we are always stronger together.
Watch the full FIX17 talk below!