Brain Waves: Quest for Perfection

Brain Waves: Quest for Perfection

Contributing Columnist, Maddie Dang

One of the memories I have from my freshmen orientation stands out more than others. More than four years ago, a presenter explained to the entire room that the majority of each incoming class at Tulane was following the premedical track and that the majority of us pursuing this difficult and intensive coursework would drop within the next year.

I sat there next to my mother, my eyes wide open, and my heart starting to beat more quickly with each passing second. I had wanted to be a doctor since I was 12 years old and had worked incredibly hard throughout high school. I couldn’t imagine that I would be one of the people who would drop premed.

Shortly after the beginning of my freshman year, I realized that hard work sometimes doesn’t cut it anymore. For my General Chemistry I class, I studied every single night, worked on problem set after problem set and went to the Tutoring Center for additional guidance. I still arrived at each test not knowing what I was doing and found myself struggling to meet the average.

I began having panic attacks. After each exam, I would have days where I felt like an absolute failure because I couldn’t understand what the teacher was asking for with his exam questions. I would cry to my friends about how I thought I wasn’t cut out to be a doctor, that I wasn’t living up to the teacher’s standards or my own.

Everyone told me I was being too hard on myself, that chemistry was really difficult but I didn’t take these as legitimate reasons for why I was having trouble. I honestly believed that I was not good enough — at learning, at studying, at being a human — to pass this class. I became depressed and obsessed with trying to get my grade up in this class, to the detriment of my sleeping, eating and social habits.

When I sat down in McAlister Auditorium to begin the final exam, I looked down at my paper and had the worst panic attack I’d ever had in my life. The words became jumbled, I couldn’t catch my breath, I began crying without realizing it and my hands shook uncontrollably to the point where I couldn’t hold my pencil. At one point the only thing I could think was, “It’s confirmed. I am a failure. I should not be a doctor. I can’t even pass chemistry.”

For the remainder of that night and for the bulk of the ensuing winter break, I attempted to forget how horrible that exam was. Once I received my grade about a week later, I discovered that I didn’t technically fail the class. I didn’t, however, live up to my own standards, even after working so hard. I felt like I failed myself.

After this incident, I began receiving counseling to help me cope with my stress levels and my struggles with my attempts to be perfect. I reached out to my friends more and learned how they coped with their stress. I began running more as a means of stress relief. Three years later, I still have my struggles, but for the most part, my experiences have not been nearly as severe. My story is part of the issue I think colleges and universities need to address: the push for perfection instilled in the students’ heads.

The quest for perfection drives students into depression and anxiety-filled existences, which in my experience has been miserable. Telling students that they have to learn to be average and learn to fail after teaching them for years that the only way for them to succeed is by being perfect is what creates this toxic environment filled with stress that we’re all steeped in.

I was lucky enough to have people in my life that listened to me, gave me hugs and kept me going throughout all of this.

Premed kids, if you’re questioning if this is the right track for you, remember that being a doctor isn’t the only profession in the world, even if sometimes it feels that way. If you’re unhappy and don’t think the work you’re doing in this track is worth it, remember that’s okay.

For anyone struggling in school and with the concept of failure, I have this to say: failure, even though it’s difficult, can be a learning experience. It can teach you how to overcome adversity and show you that you’re passionate about something, especially if you’re willing to keep going. Failing isn’t determined by the grade on a transcript. Failure begins when the person allows that grade to keep them from moving forward.