Adopting a growth mindset during residency

By Kristen Fuller, MD
Published April 13, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Many residency training programs have adopted a growth-mindset practice, which reframes failures and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow.

  • The breadth of knowledge required to practice medicine can feel overwhelming, but committing yourself to finding joy in the continuous learning process can refocus your mindset and improve your time in residency.

  • As you progress throughout residency and begin to instruct medical students and interns, incorporating a growth mindset can foster a healthy, resilient and sustainable training environment.

Residency is a time for learning, growth, and humility. Unfortunately, many residency programs have adopted the archaic practice of a fixed mindset, which inhibits room for growth and maturity.

The fixed mindset encompasses the belief that mistakes are bad, having the correct answer is always a priority, and being the best at everything is key. This is self-limiting and can create a hostile and competitive environment.[]

Growth-mindset practice

Fortunately, many residency training programs have adopted a growth-mindset practice, which reframes failures and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow.

The growth mindset looks at the glass as half full and attempts to find a silver lining in everything.

As a resident, it is crucial to adopt and to adapt to a growth mindset on your first day of internship. But how do you do this?[]

Intentional effort, hard work, learning from mistakes, asking questions, being honest about what you do not know, and becoming the best version of yourself are all critical steps to adopting a growth mindset during your residency training and beyond. 

Related: What to do when you feel like giving up residency

Medicine is a journey

Matching into a coveted residency is just the beginning of your long journey in medicine. One of the beautiful aspects of medicine is that you will never know everything. We should strive to become lifelong learners to continuously improve care for our patients.

As we pursue excellence in our chosen specialties, there will always be more to learn. This unabridged knowledge can feel overwhelming, but instead of feeling stressed and defeated about the continuous learning process, we should instead commit ourselves to finding joy in the pursuit of knowledge.

None of us are finished products, as we are all learning at different stages. This perspective helped me look forward to each day of training during my residency, knowing that I had the opportunity to know a little bit more than I did the previous day. Finding joy in learning something new every day can help refocus your mindset and make the long days of residency a bit brighter.[][]

Be humble

As a resident—and throughout the rest of your career in medicine—you will be wrong, you will make mistakes, and you may even compare yourself to your colleagues. 

When receiving feedback, it is easy to focus on how your performance compares to your peers instead of focusing on key teaching points. Seek feedback, and accept it as a constructive learning opportunity. These setbacks and mistakes can then be seen as stepping stones rather than roadblocks. 

For example, avoid the temptation of taking offense if a senior resident or attending physician asks you a basic question or gives feedback that you may perceive as criticism. 

More often than not, these are areas in which you need growth, and these teachers are trying to help. Express gratitude as they aid in your training. It is not ideal if your teachers and mentors determine that you are “unteachable” and stop offering advice.

"Avoid the temptation of taking offense if a senior resident or attending physician asks you a basic question or gives feedback that you may perceive as criticism."

Kristen Fuller, MD

The growth mindset recognizes that mistakes are a natural part of growth, which helps limit the shame or sense of failure that may cloud your ability to learn. As a resident, you will learn the practice of clinical medicine, but the measure of your success will be determined by how emotionally intelligent and humble you are.

Related: Residency basics: Serving patients from different cultures

Another pillar of your success during residency is gaining the hospital support staff's trust, respect, and goodwill. Learn the names of nurses, technicians, and clerks, and use them often. Take time to acknowledge and collaborate with other healthcare professionals who provide care to your patient.

As a resident, it is easy to get into a fixed mindset that you know more than the nurses or the technicians because you are a doctor. This is self-sabotage, and it will limit your learning process. 

You will be surprised by how much you can learn from other healthcare professionals, especially the seasoned nurses who have been in medicine much longer than you have. 

Foster self-care

A growth mindset recognizes the importance of fostering self-care, or holistic wellness, to fuel your endurance during the challenging journey of residency training. We tend to neglect the important parts of ourselves while working 80 hours per week, which can take a toll on our mental and physical health. This can lead to burnout, resulting in poor performance and poor patient care.

It is essential to realize that professional and personal growth components are complementary—not adversarial.

For example, prioritizing sleep allows you to be more efficient and productive while awake, despite how tempting it may be to squeeze in an extra hour of studying. Setting aside time for exercise, even a quick 30-minute run, pays dividends in alleviating tension that can curb focus during rounds.

Furthermore, maintaining quality time with a social support network creates a steady source of encouragement and motivation. In these ways, holistic growth sustains academic growth. 

Focus on yourself

Residency is a highly competitive environment where many brilliant people strive to be the best at what they do. As a result, you may encounter other residents who will talk down to you, or you may find yourself constantly worrying about what other residents are saying about you.

For starters, there is not enough time in the day to worry about those things. As long as you are doing your best, keeping a good attitude, and cultivating your individuality, then you will shine. 

Don’t be afraid to let your true self come out—when appropriate. As soon as you allow the burden of others’ opinions to roll off your shoulders, the sooner you will have more time for positive experiences. 

Teaching others

As you progress throughout your residency, you will be in charge of teaching medical students and interns. It is important to teach a growth mindset to others to foster a healthy, resilient and sustainable training environment.

For example, if a medical student’s response is incorrect but well-reasoned, it is important to reinforce and encourage their critical thinking rather than focus on the incorrect answer. In doing this, we can hopefully motivate the student to continue to develop their skills, knowledge, and confidence instead of inhibiting their learning process.

What this means for you

It is impossible to learn every aspect of medicine. Instead of treating this fact as a barrier, we can strive to become lifelong learners to continuously improve care for our patients by adopting a growth-mindset practice.

By remaining humble, accepting constructive criticism with grace, and building and maintaining relationships with support staff, the long days of residency can be a time of immense personal, professional, and intellectual growth.

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