The Physician Assistant Life

A Physician Assistant’s Guide to Becoming an Epic Failure

"Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm"  - Winston Churchill

Success is a Poor Teacher

We learn the most about ourselves when we fail… so don't be afraid of failing.

Failing is part of the process of success. You cannot have success without failure. Unsuccessful people are people who never fail. 

Obstacles to Successful Failing


We must fail when it counts

One of the hardest parts of PA school training is that we must fail when it counts and often we must fail on somebody else.

It's hard enough to fail on ourselves, the fear of failing our patients can cause one to lose sleep at night. I know because  I have had many sleepless nights.

In school, you're given the lessons first. Once you begin clinical rotations (or life in general) you're given the mistake first and then it's up to you to find the lesson.  

Since most people have not been taught how to make mistakes and learn from them, they either avoid mistakes altogether, which is a bigger mistake, or they make a mistake but fail to find the lesson from the mistake.

Whether it is passing an NG tube down the wrong hole, pulling out a Foley catheter without deflating the retention bulb (true story), missing the vein for the 3rd time while trying to start an IV, or unleashing a tape load of pubic hair onto your attending physician (I will have to tell you that one sometime)... I have failed more times than I can count.

I have failed to make the correct diagnosis, I have failed to write the correct name on my patients prescriptions and I failed on my first 3 application attempts to PA school.

I have failed on digital blocks, and pap smears (my claim to fame is the airborn speculum).  I even failed high school calculus.  I have crashed this website more times than I can count, I have crashed my bike, fractured my face and broken bones on many failed attempts at pushing physical limits.

Many would look at this list and feel... well, a sense of failure.

But not me, this list is what I am most proud of. I wish I could put my failure list on my resume (in fact this may be a very good idea).

Ever wonder why teaching institutions have some of the best success in patient outcome rates?

Is it because they have the lowest failure rate? Or is it because doctors can learn by admitting their mistakes?

We have been conditioned to believe that failing is bad for us

Sadly, those most prophetic teachers are often the most unsuccessful failures.  This could be our parents, teachers, friends and family.  We are conditioned to avoid failure by medical institution themselves.

My mom was an excellent student in school.  She rarely made mistakes, which is why she had such high grades. But, she is an unsuccessful failure and because of this she has missed out on countless experiences in life.  She is a kind, generous and wonderful person, who has had quite a bit of success in life, but she is very bad a failing beyond her comfort zone.

My dad, on the other hand, is one of the most successful failures I know.  He could have written a book on it, in fact he has written several... books that is.

Some people choose to see successful failing as a failure to succeed. I believe that once you have come to the boundaries of what you know its time to make some mistakes. 

My dad, has had a rich and meaningful life, one that has taken him places only true failures will ever get to go.  Is it impossible to live without failure Absolutely not, it's called the fate of the tireless masses.

Our ego is fragile from years of over reassurance

We all know the person on American Idol that was told by the judges that they sucked and they look shocked.

This is a perfect example of somebody who's never failed who has chosen to do so on national television.

This does not make them a failure. In fact, I admire anyone who is willing to put themselves out there like that.

It's what happens after they receive the critique that will determine their aptitude to grow and their potential success as a failure.

Ego "Dementors"


My supervising physician of six years used to refer to certain patients as "dementors".  This was not meant to be demeaning, it is a  Harry Potter reference, one talking about how certain people can literally suck the life out of you.

During my general surgery rotation as a PA student I had my first real exposure to a hard core "ego dementor".

Just looking at this man (appropriately named Dr. Dick) would demoralize even the most steel of heart.

Dr. Dick would create opportunities for students to fail and then skilfully rub salt into the wound.

It made students sweat buckets while frantically skimming pages of surgical recall prior to entering the surgical suite.

I used to hate scrubbing in with Dr. Dick, yet it seemed to be a recurring theme while on my surgical rotation. At the time I looked at him with contempt, as I write this 11 years later I realize the only thing that ever hurt in those 6 hour pimping sessions was my ego.

Dr. Dick was the king of pushing limits and causing one to make calculated "mistakes".  The first thing that happens after you make a mistake is that you become upset. Everyone I know gets upset. That is the first indication of a mistake.  At this point of upset, you find out who you really are.

I remember those sessions well, because they were full of epic failures and harmless yet demoralizing "mistakes". It will come as no surprise that I did very well on my surgical rotation exit exam.

Thank you Dr. Dick!

Why you should become good at failing

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that learning how to fail may be the single most important thing you do on your road to becoming a successful PA or PA student. Failing is the only true "guru", Some of the biggest failures I know are people who never failed.

How to become an epic failure

  1. Be on the lookout for new and interesting ways to fail: Always be looking for new ways to fail. If it is on your clinical rotations look for new procedures, you haven't done, find opportunities that others are too afraid to attempt, ask questions when the timing is not perfect and the attention will be on you, present for grand rounds, start a blog and talk about your failures.
  2. Stand up and volunteer to fail: One of the most successful PA students I have ever rotated with was always the first to volunteer to fail. He failed more than anyone I have ever known, he has gone on to be one of the most successful PAs I have also ever known. While he was volunteering to fail, I was usually relieved to have the attention directed firmly away from me. But, while he was learning something I was seeking confirmation that I was not a failure. And in turn I lost out. So volunteer to fail, be that girl or guy with their hand up always eager to jump in and try something new. You will never fail in this case, because you will be learning, growing and sharpening your skills at the right time.
  3. Keep a list of upcoming or desired failures: I like to call this my bucket list. Why is it the same as a failure list?  Because almost everything on my bucket list are things that will challenge me. Things that will make me a  better person, things that will help my children or others to be better people. And, as we have seen, to do this right I am going to have to subject myself to failure.
  4. Let go of your need not to fail: This may be one of the hardest parts. Learning not to fail has been so drummed into us that we are "failure averse". So we need to wake up each day and remind ourselves why we want to fail. We need to let our ego take a beating and realize that we are stronger because of it, that our ego will repair itself and just like scar tissue it will grow back even stronger. It may different, but it will be resilient and so you will be too.
  5. Be Glad to Fail: Too many people live in a diminishing world because they continue to say, ‘I'll never do that again’ instead of saying, ‘I’m glad that happened because I learned this or that from the experience.’

It is Okay Not to Know


In fact, it is much better to admit you don't know than to pretend you do.

Accept that you don't know what will happen. Then embrace all that does happen as it unfolds.

Ignorance is an opportunity to learn, to experience, to see what is truly there rather than what you merely think is there.

When you stop denying your ignorance you start allowing your enlightenment.

Authentic genius arises from sincere humility. Let go of the fantasy that you have all the answers and you'll begin to actually find some.

In knowledge and wisdom there are many possibilities. In mystery there are infinitely more.   Allow the mystery, with confidence. And discover a whole new beautiful world.  

Lets Fail Together

Today, in response to failure, instead of saying, “I'll never do that again,” say, “I’m glad I did fail and learn because I am grateful for the wisdom I gained.” And then say, “Let’s do it again".

Instead of fear and resentment, there is excitement and fun. Instead of being afraid of failing,  know that making mistakes is the way we were all designed to learn. If we fail to make mistakes, or make them and do not learn from them, the magic goes out of life.

Life goes backward and gets smaller, instead of expansive and filled with magic.

If you have had an epic failure tell us in the comment section below, the bigger on the fail scale the better! Be proud and own it.


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