3 Life Lessons from the Biggest Mistake of My Career

3rd January, 2021

As a doctor, the need to work at breakneck speeds in chaotic environments could feel overwhelming. And as an introvert who isn’t a gifted multitasker, this meant plenty of internal struggle.

Often, just a single chink in the chain would drastically alter my day, bringing my inner calm crashing down:

  • The lab loses a crucial blood sample, so I have to double-back during ward round and somehow convince the delirious patient to provide another one
  • A colleague falls sick, doubling my workload
  • While on-call, I get three calls simultaneously. Each posing a new demand which seems to be as urgent as the next…

Over time I developed a coping mechanism which I now recognise to be maladaptive: believing that more speed was the solution. That to slow down was to play with fire. But the reality was just the opposite.

I wanted to share exactly how I came to appreciate this truth through the lens of a mistake.

The Mistake

I’m rushed off my feet in the Emergency Department of the busy London hospital where I trained as a junior doctor.

Now over halfway into a 12-hour shift, I haven’t yet stopped for anything to eat.

The usual afternoon influx of cases leaves the department heaving at the seams, with patients spilling out into the corridor. Murmurs of discontent spread through the waiting room. Staff are visibly flustered and over-stretched. Morale is low.

I decide to see one more patient before stopping for a much-needed break.

Picking up a new patient is always a wild card, with some taking disproportionate time and others being perhaps a quick physical and blood test away from discharge back home.

It turns out to be the latter – a relatively fit older man with an easily resolvable issue. He’s friendly, talkative and basically seems well after my assessment. I check his bloods, book follow-up and head for lunch, glad to have organised such a speedy discharge.

While eating, I get a call from the Consultant.

Oliver, you need to come back from lunch please.

My heart sinks. Not only did he full-name me, but to be summoned back from a break can’t possibly be a good thing – everyone at work implicitly understands this to be a last resort.

I had missed something critical.

I had sent this man home with a sodium of 113. To put that into context, sodium levels should sit between 135 and 145. But 113 was startlingly low – and in fact the lowest I had ever seen. I felt nauseous.

I return back to the department in a hurry, my worry reaching feverish heights as I mull over the image of this pleasant man arriving at home and simply collapsing.

What makes the next few hours so much more painful is that no one can get through to his mobile. I try to call him again and again and again, only to be met by a soul-crushing busy tone each time.

How could I have missed something so incredibly basic?

My head swims with self-directed accusations.

Well, I had a good run. Guess that’s the end of my career now. Always knew I would turn out to be a failure.

Ironically, this intense negative self-talk runs through my head while I’m seeing more patients. This takes me even further out of the present moment, risking another mistake. It takes every ounce of self-control I have to maintain composure and focus on the pressing tasks at hand.

Eventually, we got an ambulance to bring the gentleman back. And after profuse apologising, thankfully no unnecessary harm came to him during his stay.

The 3 Lessons

When I learned of my mistake, I wanted to press pause on life, switching off the turmoil around me. I wanted to hide, but the chaos kept raging on.

It’s tempting to apportion some blame to extraneous factors, to cite this excuse and that one. But I think that misses the point. In life, there will always be extraneous factors. There will always be noisy disorder clamouring for our attention, trying to chip away at our presence.

The question is, what am I going to do about it?

It’s a well-known fact that human error is a very real danger in high-stakes jobs like medicine and aviation, with even small lapses of attention having the ability to wreak havoc.

But beyond reinforcing this point, I also learned three vital life lessons from my mistake.

Lesson One: Think for Yourself

What I didn’t mention was that a senior doctor had scanned the paper printout of the patient’s blood results before me, signing them off as ‘normal’.

This filtered into my mind before even laying eyes on the man. I had unconsciously decided he was well before seeing him – a dangerous assumption to make.

The lesson here? Stay curious. Don’t outsource critical decisions for which I’m ultimately responsible to another person.

And more broadly, never let another person’s thinking substitute as my own. Always go to the source and triple-check the facts myself (as well as the ideas and opinions for that matter).

Fallout from not following this lesson plays out in my life often enough, if I let it. Especially when perceived authority figures are involved.

  • I hear a statistic and believe it, because it aligns with my beliefs (confirmation bias)
  • I learn of a fancy new productivity system and assume it’s better than my own (before testing it out)
  • I’m told I should be ‘getting on the housing ladder’, so I cling to that reality.

Questioning everything is no easy task, but it can pay off both in the short and long-term.

Lesson Two: Give up on People-Pleasing

When it came down to it, the error I made emerged from a need for approval. It was born out of my compulsion to put other people ahead of myself and the person I was supposed to be serving.

On one hand, I could have been kind to myself and taken a break earlier, preserving my limited mental resources. I was afraid to do this for being seen as slacking or uncommitted.
On the other hand, I wanted to please my bosses, who I knew were themselves facing great pressure from above to keep precious hospital beds free. I also wanted to alleviate frustration in the waiting room.

Can you spot a pattern here?

By letting far too many peripheral wants and needs trickle into my behaviour, I forgot about the ones that actually mattered.

The lesson? To give up my addiction to people-pleasing and only serve who I’m capable of serving – often, the person right in front of me.

Lesson Three: Busyness is a Vice, Not a Virtue

The biggest learning point is that I can only do one thing at a time – so I might as well do it properly. I’m still striving to instil this one into my life.

Whether working as a doctor, pilot, athlete or deliveryman, every task deserves as much high-quality attention and presence as the next. Undue speed can deteriorate the quality of our focus.

Here’s a commonly held societal fallacy:

Busyness = Productivity

Busyness is not productive. Busyness is not even a virtue. Busyness is a vice.

As humans we have this inherent bias causing us to favour activity. Activity which is hurried, frantic and ceaseless. We’re taught to marvel at it. We’re impressed by it. We laud it.

A slow and deliberate approach is equated with sluggish progress, perhaps even with being ‘out of touch’.

But when it came to my mistake, slowing down would’ve saved not only time down the line, but a great deal of emotional energy for myself and everyone involved.

The thing is, during stressful times or when we’re in uncharted waters, it can feel useless to stop and slow down. But it isn’t.

Granted, medicine isn’t the best application of this philosophy. At times, working rapidly is helpful, but it’s surprising how often we can slow down and let ourselves think, absorb and reflect rather than dive head-first.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be starting to understand that your most sophisticated thinking and highest-quality attention comes from a place of stillness rather than frenzy – a valuable lesson to learn.

Bonus Lesson

After a while, another lesson emerged.

After dealing with much fear, guilt and shame from making this mistake, I learned to accept that I am not my failures. And as a perfectionist by nature, that continues to be a hard lesson to swallow.

Final Words

We live in a society ruled by timetables and frenetic activity. Unsurprisingly, people feel as though the busier they are, the more they must be getting done. That if they just pump in enough work hours, success will follow and they’ll fix everything around them.

But in order to avoid long-term calamity, we might make a habit of slowing down and paying attention to our moment-to-moment experiences. We might listen to the voice inside and pay others all the respectful attention we can muster.

If we don’t slow down and unshackle ourselves from to-do lists and busyness, we risk small mistakes accumulating, and life passing by without ever really being there.

  • Where could you be thinking for yourself more?
  • Where would your life benefit from less people-pleasing?
  • Where could you slow down to improve the product of your efforts?
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Hey, I'm Oliver 👋

I write about personal growth, and the art of living with purpose. By sharing my insights, I aim to support you in cultivating (and unleashing) your purpose. Learn more.

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