Failure in Medicine: The Greatest Teacher

Those that know me know I absolutely love Star Wars. From fantastic action scenes to the overall story of good versus evil, I think it represents one of the best film sagas of all time. One aspect of the series that I think is most underrated is the life lessons that the films impart. People like to focus on memorable quotes from the original films like Yoda’s famous “Do or do not. There is no try” or Darth Vader’s infamous revelation “I am your father.” While I love these moments, one of the more recent movies, The Last Jedi, contained a quote that perfectly connects my love of medicine with that of Star Wars. Appearing to an older, dejected Luke Skywalker who has abandoned the galaxy after inadvertently creating the villain Kylo Ren, Yoda imparts these words of wisdom, “The Greatest Teacher, Failure is.” These words teach Luke not to forget his failures to train Ben Solo or to prevent the rise of the First Order, but to use those failures to learn and adapt, reclaiming the role of the hero that we as the audience have loved for decades. This moment with his old master completely shifts Luke’s worldview and, by the end of the movie, we see him confront evil once more as the powerful Jedi from all those years ago. Whenever I hear Yoda’s quote from the film, I can’t help but think of my own experiences over these past three years and how failure has guided my own learning and perception of medicine as a whole.

Medicine is an interesting field as, in the end, death ultimately occurs. Yet, despite its inevitability, doctors continue to work day and night to heal their patients, learning from their own mistakes to find better ways to help the next person who walks through the door. Like all of the students at USCSOMG, I enjoyed success in college that allowed me to pursue a career in medicine. I naively thought that uninterrupted success would continue to follow me through medical school. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Failure has definitely appeared throughout medical school, from failing an anatomy practical to disappointment with Step 1 to being “fired” by a patient or botching a presentation to an attending on rounds. Looking back on those events, I can’t help but notice how each specific failure has taught me very important lessons. In M1 year, failing my anatomy practical taught me that I didn’t have to solely rely on myself to learn the necessary material. It forced me to reach out to my professors and fellow students to work together as a team to master the material. It taught me that asking for help was not a sign of weakness. M2 year found me scoring much lower on Step 1 than I would have wanted. I felt crushed as the countless hours of studying and preparing felt like they had gone to waste. However, it proved invaluable as it taught me the benefit of moving on and not allowing one tiny moment of my medical career to define me. Only 1.5 rotations into M3, I have experienced the most failures yet. I’ve botched patient presentations to my attending and have slowed rounds down by at least 30 minutes on occasion. I have attempted important conversations with patients that ended with them screaming at me. As much as I hate to fail, all of these events have provided me with the opportunity to learn the necessary tools to become the physician that I am meant to and determined to be.  Already, I have found myself improving in these scenarios. I have learned to streamline presentations and tailor them to my attending’s preferences. In my patient encounters, particularly the difficult ones, I have found that taking my time and paying attention to things like phrasing and body language can help a patient feel more comfortable at discussing sensitive issues. I can look back to where I started, where our current M1s are now, and see how much I’ve grown and developed as a future physician. Failure may have impacted countless moments of medical school, but it has made me into the individual who I am today, something I would not trade for the world.

My experiences have taught me that medicine represents the art of failure. A good physician does not succeed in the hospital due to a fear of failure. Instead of working hard for the sole purpose of avoiding future mistakes, they will embrace their shortcomings in order to learn how to better treat future patients. A missed diagnosis, for example, allows a physician to rethink their strategy for assessing signs and symptoms as much as a discussion with a patient that goes poorly can shine insight into potential phrasing and body language, improving physician-patient interactions in the future. Failure in medicine is something that, in the right environment, should be celebrated as a physician’s greatest teacher, continuously honing their skills to better serve their community and patients in the future. With that in mind, it is important to remember that life lessons are all around us in the medical field, even some coming from a galaxy far, far away.


Josh Schammel

Originally born in Albuquerque and having spent time in Minneapolis and Washington D.C., I have lived the most recent 18 years of my life in Greenville. I swam at Davidson College and graduated in 2016 with a degree in Public Health. I am forever grateful that I was able to return to my hometown to be a member of the USCSOMG Class of 2020. I like to spend my time traveling, enjoying movies and board games, hiking, getting constantly sunburned playing disc golf or soccer, or enjoying whatever new weird foods and craft beers I can find in the area. I am honored to be training with every one of my fellow students and can’t wait to see what the future holds!

Join the conversation

  • Jennifer Trilk - 7 months ago

    Loved this, Josh!