Monday, August 30, 2010

The Backdoor to Medical School -- or Anywhere Else Worth Being

One of the most frequently read essays in this blog is Medical School Through the Back Door. Based on a year as a psychotherapy intern and working as a member of a team composed chiefly of psychiatric residents, it relates how they, most of all, changed my life. I often wonder, though, what readers are looking for when they click the link for this story. The title is suggestive of an alternate route into medical school but the essay itself doesn't come with a map.

Reading back over it myself, what stands out is the way my resident and nursing friends adeptly reworded what I considered to be sound objections to attending medical school. I thought they were just being generous in an effort to make me feel better, and then I realized they were teaching me a vital skill. You see, we're generally accustomed to enumerating our personal liabilities and explaining why they prevent us from doing or being what we'd like. My friends showed me that liabilities can become assets if I'd open myself up to possibility.

For instance, the words "too old" were the first out of my mouth back then, followed quickly by the phrases, "I don't have a science background" and "I'm lousy at math." I wish I could create a picture for you of heads shaking in disbelief and verbal responses tinged with impatience and bordering on irritation. "You're older because you've got experience, you can take the science courses you need, and on top of that, all of us are lousy at math -- why do you think we're doctors (rather than engineers, one quickly added)?!"

In the 2003 film, Open Range, Annette Bening's character has a line that gets to the heart of the issue: I know that people get confused in this life about what they want and what they've done, and what they think they should have because of it. Everything they think they are or did takes hold so hard that it won't let them see what they can be. I wasn't trying to be obstinate -- truly, I wasn't. I'd just dressed up my background in clothes resembling limitations so frequently, it took some time to realize how wrong I'd been.

That's the task we all face, by the way, figuring out how to dress up our liabilities so they take on the characteristics of assets. And dressing them up is the thing; some we can eliminate, some we can't. I got the basic science education, passed the math courses, but there wasn't much I could do about the age card. I couldn't afford plastic surgery -- oops, there went a face-lift -- and besides, women like a man's face to have character. So, that left two choices: believe my own bad press or get busy maximizing the advantages of experience.

Reflecting on the kick in the pants given me by my friends, I think their advice boils down to this: take an inventory of all the reasons you think you can't do something and ask what you'd do if none of them existed. Once you've got the answer, then ask how those so-called reasons might actually help get you where you want to go, especially if you can't delete them at the press of a key. Be original. We want to get past the notion that we're too old, too unattractive, too fat, too skinny, too-God-knows-what, to start living. If there is a backdoor to medical school or anywhere else we truly wish to go, this is the place to begin looking.

(Screenplay by Craig Storper, copyright 2003. Creative Commons image by Scott Ingram via Flickr)

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