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The Fear of Failure & Success

I know it's been a hot minute since I last wrote anything. I really missed sharing my thoughts and experiences with you! I just had so much on my plate that something had to give, so I put writing as a pass-time on hold. I can breathe again, so here I am! Thank you to everyone who reached out to ensure I was okay during all the months I didn't share anything on the blog. You guys are amazing! 😍

The last year has been one of the most rewarding for me- professionally and personally. I experience the most growth when I move away from my comfort zone. Each step forward or setback in my career requires a different version and level of development. In the months I have been M-I-A, one of my wildest realisations was that I didn't know how to deal with failure. I haven't always been the brightest and best, but I have succeeded and done well in pretty much everything I have done. Usually, when people ask what scares me the most, I'd say heights or losing my close friends and family. But in the last few months, the fear of failing stared at me, and I nearly lost it. I realised that no one taught or prepared me for when I fail at something or feel completely overwhelmed.

I have seen many quotes and read books about how failing at something isn't fatal, that it's only a stumbling block, but how to deal with and overcome this block isn't something I had quite learned. Growing up, we were conditioned to see failing at something as absolute life-crushing. Failure was viewed very negatively and was often associated with being inadequate. We often find ourselves being compared to our successful peers without considering that we are all different and we bloom at different paces. We must unlearn this. Whether we accept it or not, failure is part of life's processes. But it shouldn't be the end. We are all capable of starting again, of trying one more time. Like John Maxwell said in his book Failing Forward, the ability to embrace failure and learn from it is what distinguishes the achievers from the average. I'm not saying we should romanticise failing, but we should change our outlook and how we react to our failures and how we measure others.

"Success is not final, and failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts." -Sir Winston Churchill.

In the past seven months, I had to write a dissertation project for my final year in the Edinburgh Surgical Sciences Qualification (ESSQ) masters course. I also had to keep up with continuous assessments and exams that I had to pass to progress to the second year of Ortho surgery residency and not jeopardise my scholarship. And I was awarded a one-year research fellowship in Humanitarian Surgery Innovation. I was excited that my career was finally coming together and things were moving in the direction I wanted them to go. I have always considered myself someone who thrives under pressure, so everything made perfect sense. Until I almost reached my breaking point. I struggled to find my space in this new city and keep up with all the commitments. You can say that I could have given up some things, and you may be correct. But I had put so much work and effort into reaching this far that I didn't want to give up just yet.

When I just moved to Nairobi at the start of my training, I asked for tips and advice from an orthopod who had recently qualified from the same training program. One of the things she told me was 'extend yourself a lot of grace.' Unfortunately, that didn't sink in until after I failed my first end-of-module exam in Limbs and Spine anatomy. As orthopods, this was our primary module, and not passing your speciality module didn't favour you. I could tell you everything that went wrong on examination day, but the point is I didn't pass the exam. I was shaken. I knew this was just one end-of-module exam, but it was a big deal. I became consumed by the fear of not making it through the year. I wondered if I should just quit the residency program while I could rather than fail my end-of-year exams and have to repeat the class. Leaving was just as scary a thought as not passing my finals. It was similar to my dissertation project- I barely made the 50s in the project coursework. I kept asking for extensions and considerations for extenuating circumstances.

And as if failing and barely scrapping through my courses were not enough problems, my left shoulder started causing me so much pain. My MRI scan showed I had a torn shoulder labrum (one of the structures that help support the joint). In my doctor's opinion, I needed surgery. Between the surgery and the recovery, I needed at least 6-8weeks. Going through with the surgery meant giving up all the time I had to prepare for exams and write my dissertation. So, in short, giving up the academic year. Repairing a torn shoulder labrum is not the most complicated surgery. Still, I couldn't help but wonder if something went wrong during surgery. What if I can't use my arms? What if I can't be a surgeon? I couldn't deal with all these thoughts and decisions then, so I chose not to have the surgery.

Through those months, I cried so much- sometimes without good reason. I had insomnia- some nights seemed like they'd last forever. I had the worst acne breakouts my face had seen all my life. My hormones were all over the place. I gained so much weight. I still can't believe it. My heart was always racing. Let's just say my body and mind were in entirely different places. I longed and prayed for time to pass by quickly so all of this would end. I have a great support system, and my friends and my brothers are ever ready to listen to my rants, but the truth is, sometimes they don't get it. They didn't understand what the fear of not being good enough or failing was doing to me. They'd always say, 'you're smart, and you'll be okay,' and God knows that there have been many times when those words were all I needed. But this time, nothing felt okay, and I didn't know how to save myself from falling. Success is always celebrated, but what do we do when things don't go as planned?

Just thinking about it now, maybe part of my fear was also succeeding. Success and failure go hand-in-hand. The thought of finishing my second master's degree, starting a research fellowship with one of the most respected surgery colleges in the world (The Royal College of Surgeons of England) and progressing to my second year of residency, all in one year, probably scared the living daylight out of me. Like the pressure I had put on myself wasn't enough, one of my classmates realised I had done quite a bit before starting my ortho training. He sent me a message saying, 'you can't hide a lamp forever... its brightness just comes out.' He wondered why I shied away from the spotlight. It was not like my life was a secret. I share stories on this blog and on social media often. But I did not want to be in the spotlight in this new environment. I was in uncharted territories. I couldn't help but wonder 'what if'? What if people get higher expectations of me if they truly knew me? What if I didn't make it through the first year? Will I go back home? Will I lose my scholarship? What will I do? It was easier to go unnoticed- or so I thought anyway.

"Life is full of so many events and factors that determine overall success in life."

Just randomly, one morning, one of my best friends sent me a podcast. I've always been a believer in the power of storytelling. Hearing someone else's story lifted my mood that morning. So I formed a habit of listening to podcasts every morning- to ensure I had my daily dose of motivation to drag myself through the day. There were days when listening to podcasts or propranolol (for non-medics, propranolol helps to lower your heart rate) and a good dose of painkillers did the trick. Still, there were others when nothing seemed to help. But one thing that stuck with me from some podcasts was that the greater the discomfort, the greater the joy and rewards from the accomplishment. So eventually, I learned to embrace all of it, putting one foot in front of the other and just breathing.

I redefined what failure meant to me. I developed a positive mindset. On certain days it was harder to keep that mindset, but I was determined to not sink deeper than I had already. I put mental notes and affirmations on my wall and mirror. I constantly reminded myself that no matter what happens, whether I make it through the year successfully or not, my life will not be defined by these occurrences. I gave myself permission to fail. It was terrifying but also liberating. I realized that life is full of so many events and factors that determine overall success in life.

Fast forward several months, I passed my final exams, graduated with a distinction in my dissertation project report and overall degree classification, and am three months into my research fellowship. I am ecstatic!! I am still on a high. I still don't know how I managed to make it through all of this. All I can think of is that it can only be God. I still don't have all the answers to dealing with the fear of failure, but I accept that everything is a learning process. I learned to extend a lot of grace and constantly reminded myself that even if I failed, it was only temporary. I would have still learned something from that experience. This new stage in my life comes with new responsibilities, adventures, challenges, and expectations and requires me to constantly evolve. And if I stumble along the way, I will not give up. Instead, I will use whatever pressure I feel as motivation to go through every day. I am not scared to try, make a mistake, fail or retry. I am not afraid to exist or to step into the light.

Because you've read this post till the end, here are a few of my favourite pictures from the University of Edinburgh graduation!

And I'll find any excuse to show off this super cute pair of #ortho sneakers that I gifted myself for surviving year one of residency😆.

Always and forever a sneaker girl! ☺️

Until the next blog post,


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