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Let’s Stop Glamorizing Success Stories

About the authors: Anoop Thakore is excited to graduate with a Masters in Medical Sciences from Loyola University Chicago in May 2021. Michael Nguyen is a PhD candidate at Colorado State University.

Success stories are written to inspire us to believe in the potential of our own future success. Many of them follow the same format: a struggle leading to tribulations to be overcome, culminating in inevitable success. Most of these are cherry-picked for the end result, and while they serve as inspiration for some, they often distance the writer from the reader.

What happens to those of us still far from our goals? If these stories are supposedly the path to success, and we have not reached the goal yet, are we doing something wrong? There is no guarantee that we will each have a “success story,” but the journey will result in self-growth regardless, as long as we are willing to persevere. Of course one should not give up on their dreams, but personal or environmental constraints often demand redefinition. We each have experienced failures firsthand, and would like to share how we’ve gone about confronting them.

For Michael, he has struggled with getting one of his papers published, and after three different journals, still hasn’t been able to publish that paper. Would he call that a failure? He used to as it meant he could not have his work validated and promoted in a peer-reviewed journal. Despite the rejections, he is still working on that paper, and has learned a lot along the way. He has been able to refine and improve his experimental protocol to obtain data that is more comprehensive as a result. The new experimental protocols have revealed the faults plaguing the previous ones. All of these, while incremental and unable to be “published” or inserted into a resume/CV, are unique learning experiences. As he strives to be a lifelong learner, he considers the failures as lessons from which he has become more knowledgeable and improved his critical thinking skills. Nowadays, these smaller achievements are unquestionably successes in his book. 

In his case, it required redefining what we call success. Perhaps the initial goal wasn’t achieved, but many invaluable experiences were gained along the way.

On the other hand, take Anoop. For most of his life he held aspirations of being accepted into a medical school. While working on his applications, each essay felt like putting his entire being into words, and hoping one of these grand institutions would judge his life favorably. In the end, he was not accepted to a single one. Would he call that a “failure?” In fact, that is exactly what he called it. It was demoralizing, and hearing the countless success stories of future doctors talking about their admissions left a bitter taste in his mouth. However, he eventually decided to view this as a bump in the road, rather than a complete car crash. Anoop was accepted to a Master’s program, an unexpected victory. This program has given him a chance to grow as both a student and a person before trying once again to matriculate to a medical school. He now feels more confident in his ability to apply, as well as his ability to accept the inevitable future “failures.”

Anoop’s case was less about putting a new perspective on what is considered a success, and more about gaining the mettle to keep trying. Sometimes the smaller successes we tend to overlook can keep us plodding down our own paths.

Curiosity and difficulties prevent us from falling victim to resignation and complacency. Becoming a lifelong learner that embraces failure increases our capabilities as individuals. Of course, this is made easier by the support and the resources to do so. Out of respect for such privilege, we realized that the idea that we are still learning is a success in and of itself.

Is Michael’s paper being read by scientists around the world? Is Anoop attending the medical school of his dreams? No. Neither has happened, and nothing on the horizon signals that a picturesque success is around the corner. However, both of them are continuing to shine despite their failures, by framing them as successes and using them as motivation to keep going.

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