The quality of your experience matters more than the years.

This post has nothing to do with being a doctor specifically. Everybody can benefit from some introspection regarding what they do every day to make themselves better at…well, whatever it is they do! At the risk of sounding like a self-help post, here it goes:

Are you constantly trying to refine yourself into a better version of you, or are you simply getting up and doing the same thing every day, hoping for different results from the day prior? When a situation turns our poorly, do you think about why it happened, or do you chalk it up to bad luck and/or blame it on other people? When you don’t know why something happened, do you go searching for the answers? Chances are other people have had the same issues…do you try to see if others have already solved your problem before reinventing the wheel?

Do you ever step back and look at yourself?

Do you ever step back and look at yourself?

Experience is an invaluable teacher, and often those with more experience are just better at doing whatever it is they do. However, we must be careful to make sure our experience is mindful and not just based on the amount of time we do something: High-quality experience necessitates both time and constant correction in process.

This whole tangent of a post comes from a story from my fellowship. To get right to the point, there were certain supervising attendings that were great role models–they were comfortable teaching and communicated clearly, they were confident in what they knew, and more importantly they knew when it was time to look something up. Then there were some attending that were the complete opposite: Uncomfortable in a teaching position (probably due to a lack of confidence and knowledge), they would try to mask their flaws by citing their authority granted by “many years of experience” in the field. These were the attendings that would seem really smart when you first started fellowship, but that would soon be eclipsed in knowledge by some of the better fellows only a few years later.

I once asked a teaching attending why they do a certain thing a certain way (since it was different from the way we were taught by everyone else) and was told “because in my twenty years of experience, that’s the way I’ve always done it!” It just so happens that this interaction occurred during a particularly low point of my fellowship, and I blurted out “Do you have twenty years of experience, or one year of experience repeated twenty times?”

Needless to say, after a brief meeting with the program director where fancy words like “insubordination” were thrown around, I made a brief (and required) apology to the attending doctor. I did learn a valuable lesson that day, but it had nothing to do with my reprimanding: When someone cites their “years of experience” as equivalent to actual data derived from high-quality studies, they have just lost the argument and have nothing more to say. It’s like a parent saying “because I said so!” as an explanation for something to their grown child that has already gotten married and moved out of the house.

Don’t let your ego get in the way of learning from your mistakes. Mindful experience means that you’re constantly looking for ways to do things better. I’d rather be under the care of the doctor with five years of experience who is continuously honing his thought process and is growing better every day, then the doctor with twenty years of “experience” who is just robotically putting in the time until the day is over. Of course it would then stand to reason that the doctor with twenty years of high-quality mindful experience is probably the best of them all…would you agree?

Image via Herbut