Searching for calm ambition

I completed my first career medical school exam this past Monday afternoon. When I returned home that evening, I had yet to recover from the adrenaline, and the rest of my life had collapsed into shambles. I had only small parcels of food in the refrigerator and a few clean clothes in my closet; I hadn’t spoken to either of my parents in over a week, and I felt mentally and physically exhausted. The following day, which was intended as a full, productive school day, I felt literally sick. I could barely process the information in my anatomy dissector, and when I scanned my course website after class, I couldn’t retain a thing.

I generally consider myself a fairly balanced person. While I certainly worked hard in school to get here, it was always a priority for me to counter academics with athletic, recreational, and self-health pursuits. Despite warnings from nearly everyone about the intense workload of medical school, I arrived here with confidence that I could maintain a sense of balance and still be successful. As it turns out, there is a learning curve to perfecting the balance with which I intend to live.

Each person in my class and in all medical schools made the firm decision at some point that they wanted to become a physician. We each wrote that goal down one day, some of us when we were five years old, others when we were twenty-five. Since then, we have taken countless steps toward achieving our dream, and most of those steps have relied on our ambition. Most people (even pre-med students) don’t love organic chemistry, but we had to master it. Completing applications to as many as 20 to 25 medical schools seems ludicrous, but a lot of us did just that. We jumped through proverbial hoops, made personal sacrifices, and volunteered a lot of our time in order to end up here. Thus, it makes sense that we maintain that same ambition now that we’re in school, and so naturally, we dedicate everything we have to our studies.

While it is an absolute privilege to be here OHSU, working tangibly toward that original goal of becoming a doctor, I think that ignoring other aspects of life each time an exam comes around is shortsighted and unsustainable.  Instead, starting now, my goal is to maintain the ambition that got me here, but to acquire an inner calmness alongside it, a steady reminder to myself that I am capable and willing to do what I need to, but can still continue to live the rest of my life at the same time.

This past Thursday, I took an afternoon for myself. I put sweatpants on, did laundry, hung a picture up on my wall. I didn’t study. I made myself a stir-fry, and made sure there’d be plenty of leftovers for subsequent meals. I watched a sports documentary (my favorite genre of movie) and went to bed early. When I woke up on Friday, I felt alive. I felt excited to go to class. I felt rejuvenated. I realized then that I can’t fight through every wall. I can’t study every chance I get. This is what I’ve picked up in my first month of medical school. Sometimes I just need to stop.

A friend described it this way: it’s as if we have a plate of things to do.  There are constantly new things being put on that plate: naming the branches and pathways of the coronary arteries, learning the lung exam, understanding the visceral nervous system. When we master a topic, we are removing something from the plate. It feels good when we do, and each time, we are closer to our goal of thinking like a physician. But we must also realize that the plate will never be empty. We are only human, and can only do so much; we will never know everything.

To be both calm and ambitious at the same time requires faith in one’s own mind and ability, an internal understand that while I can’t study every moment of everyday, I can still achieve my goals by approaching them one step at a time. I will leave you with this quote from Earl Nightingale, who is a motivational speaker featured in a musical album that I am very fond of. This paragraph helped me to form the ideal of calm ambition:

The only thing in the world that can take you to your goals in life is your mind. The ultimate creative capacity of the human brain may be for all practical purposes – infinite… Now, I’m going to assume you decided upon a goal. Your problem is, how do I achieve it? Look at it this way, your goal is in the future; your problem is to bridge the gap which exists between where you are now and the goal you intend to reach. This is a problem to solve. Successful people are not people without problems. They’re simply people who’ve learned to solve their problems. Living successfully, getting the things we want from life is a matter of solving the problems which stand between where we now are and the point we wish to reach…Each of us has a tendency to underestimate his or her own abilities. We should realize that we have within ourselves a reservoir of great ability. And it makes no difference whether you’re 17 or 70. Each time you write your goal on top of a sheet of paper don’t worry or become concerned about it. Think of it as only waiting to be reached, a problem only waiting to be solved. Face it with faith and bend all the great powers of your mind towards solving it. And believe me, solve it you will.

Thanks for reading,


3 responses to “Searching for calm ambition

  1. Hi David, Your stamina humbles me but I know you have what it take to be a compassionate physician -you certainly showed me that strenght when your Grandfather died.

    My love, Grandma

  2. I love that your grandma left a comment, and I love that you are learning to make time for yourself.

  3. Hi David – You article brought back memories I have of my daughter’s years here at OHSU. She
    graduated from OHSU Medical School, did 7 years of general surgery residency here, then went on to 2 external fellowship programs for the next 3 years in cranial facial surgery and in plastic/reconstructive surgery. Your perspective on balance is so right on target — especially for someone who’s been in program for less than a full term. Keep the focus on balance as you are now, and you will not only survive, but you will arrive at your goal a healthy physician.

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