5 Steps to learning from a medical career setback

By Jonathan Ford Hughes | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published September 14, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • A growth mindset is critical to overcoming setbacks in your medical career.

  • It's crucial to reflect on your experience and to learn from it.

  • Sometimes, engaging in activities outside your career can help foster growth.

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 thoughts 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.


Habit guru James Clear says it takes about 60 days to cultivate a new habit. Let’s say you’ve been doing your 5 minutes of journaling steadily for about two months. Now it’s time to add in a new habit to facilitate your transition into a growth mindset.

Unfortunately, medicine is not very error-tolerant (for good reason). That means it’s hard to work on building your growth mindset using medicine itself. It helps to train at something else. Ideally, this should be something you’re interested in. It could even be a martial art. If you’re not interested in something physical, perhaps something more intellectual is your speed. You could take up painting or a musical instrument, for example.

The point here is to learn something new and to invest yourself in the process.

You might be thinking, I don’t have time for that. Maybe. But have you considered the possibility that you need to make time? Your new practice will also serve as a much-needed break from medicine, which will ultimately make you a sharper, more focused physician.


Over time (likely again after that magic 60-day period), you’ll begin to see that there’s more to your new practice than simply taking a break from medicine. Your new practice will actually help you reframe your career, in addition to any setbacks you encounter.

You might remember Josh Waitzkin, the chess phenom from Searching for Bobby Fischer. These days, he’s a peak performance consultant working with top-tier business people and athletes. One of Waitzkin’s principles in his book, The Art of Learning, is non-local learning, which you can think of as using this to learn that. You see, you can learn to be more in the moment by practicing a martial art, learn to better harness your creativity by painting, or learn to be more resilient by taking cold showers.

By embracing non-local learning, you’re essentially reframing any setbacks you might encounter as learning opportunities.


This step is where the rubber meets the road, as it pertains to your transition to a growth mindset. You’ve done the work of cultivating resilience by reflecting on your setback, recommitted to learning, regrouped by creating a deliberate practice, and reframed by seeing the deliberate practice as an opportunity to learn more about medicine and being a physician. Now it’s time to re-engage.

What this means for you

This is the actual performance piece of high-performance. It’s about channeling all of that personal-development work into doing what you do. But that’s only half of it. The other half is taking it to heart that this process doesn’t stop. There will be more setbacks. Now you’re better equipped to transform them into opportunities.

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