5 steps to learning from a medical career setback

By Physician Sense
Published March 9, 2020

Key Takeaways

It takes a great deal of intelligence and determination to become a physician. We’re painting in broad strokes here, but many doctors can look back on successful lives and careers, filled with good grades, extracurricular achievements, and financial rewards. While success is wonderful, the extremely successful aren’t always the best at handling setbacks. 

Depending on how you frame it, a career setback can either be a hindrance or an opportunity. It all depends on your mindset. The psychologist Carol Dweck created a useful framework for understanding this. Through extensive research, Dweck determined that people tend to fall into two mindset categories: growth and fixed

Ever use any of these phrases, or think these thoughts?: I’m good at math. I’m bad at writing. I’ll never be artistic. Dweck would argue that these are evident of a fixed mindset -- one that frames abilities as talent-based. 

Inversely, someone with a growth mindset might think or say to themselves: I worked hard at math. I didn't devote enough attention to writing. My art would be better if I painted more often. Those with growth mindsets tend to be more process-oriented and less outcome-oriented. They also see abilities as things that can be cultivated over time, rather than being innate. Growth-minded people, Dweck says, tend to be more resilient for this reason. When they encounter a setback or obstacle, they see it as a natural part of the process and an opportunity to learn. 

Here’s how you can begin to cultivate a growth mindset in medicine today.


So, something didn’t go your way at work. Maybe you had a bad outcome, your boss gave you a hard time, or you had a difficult patient. You can brood, or you can adopt a growth mindset and use the event as a catalyst for change. If you choose the latter, the first step is to reflect.

Formally gather your thoughts on what happened. Doing this in writing builds in an extra layer of detachment from the thoughts and feelings. Unload your head. Get all of the swirling ideas and feelings onto paper or pixels. After the mental dust has settled, what will be left is a feeling of clarity. You’ll see the crux of the problem and the beginnings of the solution: a growth mindset.


Think back to your first day of medical school. You knew you wouldn’t be earning your M.D. or D.O. the next day, right? There was an underlying assumption that you were beginning a long process -- one that was rewarding and intrinsically motivating. The process of shifting into a growth mindset is similar.

The major difference is that there is no white coat or certificate of achievement at the end of the journey. In fact, there is no end to the journey at all. Taking on a growth mindset is something that’s ongoing. It might seem like a lot to take on, but if you think about it, you probably learn something every day as a doctor. You’re already doing it.

To recommit to this learning journey, use the habit of journaling daily. You can do this in five minutes or fewer. Take a few moments at the beginning or the end of each day to write down any new observations about medicine or yourself. Use these observations to help you navigate the days ahead.

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