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Failure to Success

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By: Steven H. Dayan, MD, FACS
Posted: June 23, 2010, from the July 2010 issue of

Abstract: Though involved in a profession that often demands no less than perfection, it is important for cosmetic surgeons to realize failure is a vital, inexorable part of the learning process.

Through failure, success is realized. Embracing and not fearing failure leads to growth. Many American icons are quite forthcoming with their failures, like a necessary stop on the success express. But being educated in a profession where failure is not allowed—and rather shamed—cosmetic surgeons and medical aesthetic professionals are often resistant to recognizing failure as a necessary component of progress.

Failure for a physician means liability or, worse yet, an unfavorable patient outcome. We are not allowed to fail, nor are we permitted to acknowledge a mistake, and this imprinting starts early. For those whose subconsciouses are still branded by 5 AM general surgery “M and M” conferences, you may remember having to stand in front of some of the most respected attending physicians and be flogged with persecuting questions from a band of senior judges. The court of peers in attendance sympathized, of course, but our answers to the pejorative questions still resonated with the terror and shame internally felt. While the method was successful, as it drove many of us toward becoming risk-averse and detailed-oriented physicians ready to accept the highest fiduciary privilege, it also may have fostered and reinforced a culture of suppression, robust egos and an aversion to creativity.

These sturdy walls built a fortress in which medical knowledge and skills could best be understood, germinate, and flourish, but such rigid boundaries may be contradictory to cultivating a successful practice management program. Just like the kid who learns to hide his mistakes from a tough parent, failures swept under the rug tend to ferment, worsen and manifest.

Measured failure, when expected, comes as no surprise and leads to advancement. In baseball, Hall of Famers are celebrated for hitting above .300, which, by definition, is failing 70% of the time. Walt Disney’s failed first attempt with Oswald the Rabbit didn’t hinder him from creating Mickey the Mouse, and Abraham Lincoln lost elections and failed in business before becoming one of the most revered U.S. Presidents ever.