Progression, not perfection.

As a medical student, there isn’t time to be perfect.

As I’ve written about before ( I spent the early months of medical school making perfect notes. Hours and hours of work to get the finished product. I watched some of my classmates do the same thing. They went for the details, chasing the perfect summary, the perfect diagram, they constructed beautiful notes with all the colours of the rainbow.

“But the world doesn’t reward perfection….”

In the end, we ran out of time. The first six months of school had accumulated somewhere upwards of 150 lectures. When exam time rolled around, the breadth of material we had to cover was quite staggering. Our rainbow notes and perfect summaries of the first few weeks were pushed aside as exams crept steadily closer. We needed to plough through content, those of us realising this changed our focus. Progression, not perfection, was the name of the game.

“… It rewards productivity.”

Peter Bregman, quoted above, could easily have been writing about medical school. “How to Escape Perfectionism”* was published through the Harvard Business Review** last year. I read the article long after the experiences of first year exams but the sentiment captures the situation perfectly. Passing our exams was about progression, not perfect notes and pretty pictures.

Bregman describes the trap of perfectionism. One where projects are slow to start, take few steps forward and rarely finish. He points to a focus on getting every detail perfect as the cause for this. Again, he could have easily been writing about medical school. The perfectionism trap is rampant in this sphere. Example; you’re crawling through a metabolic biochemistry lecture, the krebs cycle is taunting you, it hides it’s details in dusty textbooks and a maze of wikipedia pages. The perfectionist in us tells us to grab the highlighters and a fresh sheet of paper. We draw picture after picture trying to get it right, to ingrain each step, to memorise every active enzyme. If we can just get the colours to match, the picture will be perfect and surely we’ll remember…. STOP!!

Learning the krebs cycle should be about broad brushstrokes, a few keys steps and the rate-limiting enzyme. Get those things in your head and move on. You don’t have time to get that picture perfect. The next 149 lectures are pleading for you to move on.

“… productivity can only be achieved through imperfection. Make a decision. Follow through. Learn from the outcome. Repeat over and over and over again.”

Bregman discusses this change in perspective on a much larger scale. He applies it to life, to happiness. He points to the people of Iceland as an example. They are the “happiest people on earth” due to their ability to be imperfect. They forgive themselves for imperfection, and the associated progression, and can therefore forgive others. Failure is not stigmatised so they are more likely to try new things. Being good at something is not perceived as important. Instead, they get an idea and go for it because failure does not matter, because they are happy to not get it right the first time. This ability to seek progression rather than perfection grants them unrivalled productivity. As medical students I think we need to channel this.

When studying we need to make progress, not to be perfect.

* Peter Bregman, How to Escape Perfectionism –

** Anyone with an interest in these types of articles, or anything business and leadership related, should sign up to the free version of the Harvard Business Review website. You can set your preferences for the types of things you want to read and the site will make suggestions for you. Signing up to the free version grants you access to 15 articles a month. Go here – – and click on the register bit down the bottom.


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