On being a zebra, not a cheetah (or failing most of medical school)

I am a zebra; chunky, awkwardly proportioned, and highly visible. I am not a cheetah.

Within medical school, there is an incredible amount of knowledge and information thrown at a newly minted MS1. Beyond the major course blocks (1 – cancer biology, 2 – neurology, 3 – cardiopulmonary, and 4 – GI/renal/endocrine/everything else), there are a number of other required classes. EBCR, or evidence-based clinical reasoning, ensures that we have a solid understanding of statistics, can analyze the merits of a study, and are able to determine the validity of a study’s conclusions. Doctoring is an afternoon every week, where medical students learn the basics of the patient interview and physical examination.

So far, we’ve had nine exams based on the three course blocks (three exams per block), and I’ve failed five of them. The only times I’ve ever performed above the class average (~85-87%)? EBCR exams and lab practicals. Most of MS1 is now behind me, and boy is it a bit unsettling to know that I’ve been good at the ‘supplementary’ aspects of the medical school curriculum, but can barely pass the overall Course blocks without a little bit of panic and ‘oh my god I’m going to fail out of med school’.

Put another way: I’m batting a 0.444 and still here  thank you group presentations! Each course block, I’ve managed to stay just above the pass/fail mark (>73%) by a slim two to four points.

My USF medical school class (2019) has the highest average MCAT score in the state of Florida. There are many future dermatologists, anesthesiologists, and surgeons in our lecture hall this, I have no doubt. These gunners are the cheetahs. They are fast, nimble, and incredibly good at what they do. As a non-cheetah, I could attempt to beat them at their own game through sheer effort and force of will and grit, but I will likely fail. No matter how many hours I pour into training, I will likely never beat Tiger Woods in a game of putt-putt golf, and I will likely never beat the gunners at the game of multiple-choice examinations.

There is great value in the struggle. Through effort and determination, one can develop grit and this is associated with long-term success in life, more than aptitude tests or socioeconomic status. In order to earn a spot in a medical school class, one has to develop grit  this is non-negotiable. The undergraduate courseload, combined with the implied extracurricular requirements, and high MCAT scores require a long-term view of obstacles and goals.

But, there is limited value in maintaining the struggle. It is incredibly easy to run the same race that everyone else is running you follow the pack and try to keep up. Herd mentality is a powerful group hypnosis. Staying in the race works well enough for a time, but there will almost always be someone faster than you. Maybe not in your pack, maybe not even on your continent, but there will inevitably be someone faster than you. And if you aren’t that fast to begin with? Einstein famously didn’t say, “Everyone is a genius. But if you measure a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

So what’s a non-cheetah to do? Don’t run their race. I could expend 100% of my grit and effort to hit 85% speed of the cheetah. Or, I could invest that 100% energy to be the most unique and specific Eugene possible a zebra.

I mean, look at them. Look how weirdly proportioned that thing is, and my goodness, those stripes? A zebra does not succeed by running faster than a cheetah it succeeds by being the most zebra possible.

In the same way, I am developing into a physician that no one else could replicate. My experiences have shaped me into a person that has never existed before: I could leverage that to my advantage by becoming a zebra, or I could leave that on the table by trying to beat the cheetahs.

That does not imply it is easy to be a zebra you must do something new, something novel, and usually accept defeat in races you aren’t meant to win. For me, it means failing the majority of medical school. It means taking on leadership roles that will challenge and tax my time management skills (aka walking the pass/fail line while juggling flaming pinatas).

Could I earn honors in medical school? Probably. Would it come at a cost? Absolutely. I’m not sure where I will end up in a decade; heck, I’m not even sure where I’ll be in three years. But I know that sacrificing a few of my stripes for a few extra points would be selling a long-term investment for short-term gain.

Cheetahs gonna cheetah. Zebras gonna zebra.



9 thoughts on “On being a zebra, not a cheetah (or failing most of medical school)

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