Brilliant Cowards

Medical students are cowards. The process of getting into medical school, not to mention the years of training that follow, practically ensures that student doctors will conform to an incredibly myopic view of intelligence, achievement, and risk. Stated another way: medical education is the Olympic games of the fixed mindset.

Author and University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth, PhD, put the word “grit” to the forefront of the world’s consciousness with her 2016 book Grit: The Power and Passion of Perseverance. If you somehow missed her book, two terms are worth learning: “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset”. A fixed mindset suggests that intelligence is static. This unchanging quality leads smart people to be threatened by other smart people. The “growth mindset”, in contrast, suggests that our abilities, intelligence included, are ever-changing. A growth mindset, therefore, allows smart people to be inspired by other smart people; difficult situations can be viewed as opportunities.

Another way to juxtapose growth versus fixed mindsets would be through the lens of medical students and business students. Medical students are the Lifetime Achievement Award winners for a fixed mindset. Business students, in contrast, are the embodiment of the growth mindset.  Successful medical students learn to be professionally fearful; successful business students learn to be professionally fearless.

Although universally smart and driven, medical students are taught early in their careers the cardinal sin of uttering the words, “I don’t know”. Years of training only reinforce this concept. Know the answer. Defer to the expert. Become the expert. For doctors in general, and surgeons in particular, a fixed mindset feels like the only logical explanation for their success.

Business students, in contrast, are essentially “failure groupies”. Fail fast, fail often is a mantra for entrepreneurs, not heart surgeons. Embracing a challenge, even if failing spectacularly, is taught as simply a learning experience. Elon Musk can blow up rockets not only because he is wealthy but also because it adds to his mystique. You will never meet a neurosurgeon who brags about their academic SpaceX explosions. Never.

For many physicians, the white coat increasingly becomes a straitjacket. The early thrill of being a respected expert is soon overtaken by a need to avoid appearing ill-informed. Doctors learn to not only avoid risks but to fear them. The answer? Try something new. Get out of your comfort zone. Take an accounting class…with finance majors. Fail at something spectacularly. Embrace a growth mindset even if your entire existence feels fixed. Fail fast. Fail often. I bet you will be glad you did.