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Two weeks ago, at around 6 pm, I awoke from a nap just before starting a week of night shifts. I checked my phone to find the usual onslaught of WhatsApp messages on the work chat about the extensive list of jobs awaiting me on the ward—lucky me, I thought. I quickly browsed my email inbox for anything of note and was greeted by an email from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh entitled “Results Letter”. The results for my recent Membership of Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) exams had arrived. Excitedly I opened up the letter: 73%—not bad, I thought. As I continued to read the rest of the letter my excitement turned to despair.

Eight months of revision, over £800 in exam fees, books, and online revision materials, weeks of annual leave taken to revise, and despite this, I was a failure. My first thought was to try to find something, or someone, to blame. But what or who could be the catalyst for my failure? Over the next hour, I blamed COVID-19, research distractions, and the Royal College of Surgeons. Eventually settling on myself as the prime culprit for the failure, I dropped into a well of shame and fear. How could I possibly go to work and face my surgical colleagues? I didn’t belong with them. I wasn’t any closer to my goal of becoming a surgeon, far from it; I had never felt so far away from this objective. Yet I was resigned to my fate. I cycled to work and timidly entered the handover room. My surgical colleagues, including the consultant surgeon on-call, were sat chatting merrily, awaiting the start of handover. I sat down wishing to fade into the background, wishing I was invisible.

After handover I caught up with the night registrar and consultant. We joked about the lack of sleep we had acquired before the shift before the registrar asked me how I was. I couldn’t hold it in any longer; I had to own up to being an imposter. “I’m not great really… I just found out that I failed my MRCS exams”. I waited for the wave of judgement and pity from my seniors. Yet instead, they told me not to worry and that most of the surgeons in the department had failed some surgical exam at one point or another. I spent the next ten minutes listening to my seniors outlining their previous failures. Their ownership over their failed attempts astounded me as they all seemed so at ease with it.

Our natural inclination is to hide our defeats, to run away from them out of fear and shame. The experience of sharing my failure, talking openly and frankly, removed much of the self-imposed stigma around this failed exam attempt. At that moment, I laid open my fears and defeat, leaving myself vulnerable to individuals who I respect highly. Vulnerability is driven by shame and fear, the very emotions that I felt submerged by in this moment. Whilst I feared judgement from my colleagues, what I experienced was catharsis and relief. Shame is derived from the fear of being rejected by the group. In admitting our defeats we fear being seen as weak, unaccomplished, and unnecessary for the group, thus creating a fear of rejection and a deep sense of shame. Shame takes a drop of self-doubt, spurred on by a setback, and feeds this over time until it grows into a pond, lake, and eventually a great ocean. However, opening up about our failures to kind and nurturing individuals, to whom we can relate and aspire, leaves us vulnerable but will be the means to reconcile our defeats in a healthy manner. Additionally, whilst vulnerability is uncomfortable it lends authenticity to an individual and can create meaningful and genuine connections with others. If I did not open up about my exam attempt, I would never have heard the personal stories from my much more experienced colleagues and bonded with them over this common experience.

I have taken the last two weeks to reflect on the failure and I have used it as a moment for personal growth. After learning of my failed exam attempt I questioned how I could work any harder for the exam, whether I even wanted to take the exam again and whether pursuing a career in surgery was worth the personal and financial cost. I quickly came to realise that yes, I wanted to be a surgeon and yes, I was willing and able to take the exam until I passed. So whilst this failure demonstrated the struggle and dedication required within this career pathway, it also reaffirmed my desire to train in surgery with renewed passion and energy.

Failure comes in many forms—personal failures, professional failures, and relationship failures. Regardless of the cause, all failures hurt, some more than others.

Failure, unfortunately, is a part of life. Whilst the short-term, painful heartbreak can result in a sense of defeat and shame, by looking towards our failures rather than turning away from them we can grow both personally and professionally. We can use our failures as opportunities to grow our relationships, connect with others, start a dialogue about the topic, and to reaffirm our goals and motivations. I have realised that the road to success is paved with failures and only from failure can we grow.

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