As I stared at the highest stack of textbooks I had ever seen in my entire academic career, I found myself asking the question that every medical student eventually asks: “Why am I doing this?” I sighed deeply, readied myself for my upcoming powerlifting training session, and cringed in anticipation of the pain that awaited me in the gym. This was going to be a tough day, both mentally and physically. But I was ready for it.
Growing up, my sister and I were inundated with images of “the warrior”, from legendary Biblical heroes like King David’s Mighty Men, to the indomitable Saiyan warriors of “Dragon Ball Z”. This was by no accident. My father, a world-class powerlifter, has always tried to cultivate the warrior mindset in me and my sister. When we eventually took up powerlifting with our father, we found that training in the gym was one of the best ways to develop mental and physical toughness. However, it wasn’t long before we discovered that there was a big difference between working out and training. Whereas “working out” implied enjoyment, scheduling flexibility, and immediate gratification, “training” demanded much, much more. To be true powerlifters, we had to develop the mindset of a soldier, and good soldiers do things that they don’t like in order to reap benefits that they won’t get right away. No warrior ever goes through an intense training session because it “feels good”; instead, he pushes through because he knows that it will make him a better fighter in the end. Powerlifting works the same way. An undisciplined lifter will hate the pain and the long training sessions. The average person will quit long before he becomes the next Arnold Schwarzenegger because he sees no immediate reward. But a true lifter, with character, will work for the unseen benefits. He will tolerate – even appreciate – the hardships, knowing that every repetition forges a stronger body, a tougher mindset, and a better human being overall. In the gym, I have personally seen my father rejoice in his struggles and thrive at a level of physical torture that most men could not even imagine. Thus, paradoxically, serious powerlifting can bring about joy and even passion in the face of suffering.
So, the next logical question is, “Shouldn’t these principles apply to medical school?”
In theory, it should. In contrast to powerlifting, however, which I have always found somewhat rewarding, I have never been passionate about medicine. It’s not the academics that make medical school so terrible (though it does make it challenging), it’s the complete lack of satisfaction and reward that makes it so much harder than powerlifting. I never had the obligatory “eureka” moment that seemed to shape every other medical student around me; a plastic scalpel was never my favorite childhood toy, I didn’t have a close friend with a heart-wrenching illness that motivated me to discover a cure, and I didn’t have any doctors that inspired me – besides my father, who had always been reluctant in encouraging me to follow in his footsteps. It is no exaggeration to say that medical school has never provided me with immediate gratification. Becoming a doctor is great for financial stability and fulfilling my role as a dutiful daughter; I will never regret that decision. But in terms of having my dreams fulfilled, I couldn’t care less if I became a doctor. (I know these thoughts may be offensive to some and I apologize for that; these are only my personal opinions about medicine.)
So, naturally, when it came time for my first year in medical school, I found myself lacking motivation. Like any normal human with a brain, I hated studying, and studying in medical school was a nightmare. Ask any medical student, and they will tell you that there is very little to gain from studying more than you have to, unless you want to get into an extremely competitive program, or if you’re one of those people that really, REALLY likes to show off about good grades.
So why am I still here working hard at something that I hate?
Because that’s what a warrior does.
It took me a while to realize it, but it turns out that the principles of “the warrior” also apply to medical school, it’s just harder to see. It’s a lot like powerlifting, and if powerlifting has taught me anything, it’s that there can be satisfaction in something that is inherently dissatisfying.
I’m here to offer a different perspective on medical school. This is not a sad ending, even though medicine still isn’t my passion and probably never will be. There can still be satisfaction. You can find joy in knowing that you have done your duty and built character. You can be proud of yourself for rising to the challenge and living up to your potential. And you can find comfort in the fact that you have faithfully fulfilled the expectations of your teachers, your family, and your God. I am thankful for the pain and the challenges of medical school, because they have made me tougher than I was a year ago. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, during his professional bodybuilding career won seven Mr. Olympias, once said, “The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens.” Physical strength doesn’t develop unless your body is pushed to the absolute limit, and in the same way, the rigorous testing of medical school and the long hours of studying have strengthened my mind. Every page, every quiz, every patient encounter has made me a wiser, more disciplined, and more well-rounded human being. I have discovered that I can do things that I previously thought impossible. Thus, I rejoice in the fact that I don’t enjoy medical school, and I’m glad that the exams are not easy. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to be here; I would have never developed this kind of mental strength if I had chosen to do something “easier” in life. I have learned from my father that the hardships of life are not something you simply endure or hide from. On the contrary, a true warrior will appreciate the struggles and even seek them out.
So, back to that ungodly stack of textbooks that I mentioned in the beginning. When I first saw it, I really really didn’t want to study. But I did it. And I did what countless medical school warriors have done before me. I buckled down, took a big gulp of coffee (and pre-workout), and started reading. And I found satisfaction in it.