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Fail Early, Fail Fast, and Grow

06/07/2015, 10:00pm EDT
By Ryan Balmes

"Failure is an opportunity to grow."

Here’s what you will learn from this blog post: fail early, fail fast, and grow.


I’ve accomplished some pretty awesome achievements in my early career. On the surface you likely think I just did everything right, but that just isn’t true.

In residency, I needed a talk from my residency director to get my attitude in check.

In fellowship, I failed to miss the obvious objective signs with an initial evaluation - during a fellowship live patient exam.

These are just a few examples of when I failed, but I argue to change your perspective on failure. Failure is the opportunity to grow. In the clinic, it is an opportunity to be a better clinician.

Let’s take a look back at you educational career thus far.

Failure isn’t encouraged to learn from. You’ve made it to PT school mainly by a long stream of successes academically, and that’s okay. You need to have an adequate knowledge base. But having 18 plus years of academic excellence rarely translates to being a great clinician. Knowledge tested through exams is based on a finite number of data. It’s a body of work that’s tightly presented and once you studied adequately enough, you can confidently score 80% or above.

So let’s ask yourself, when evaluating a new patient for first time, can you possibly know everything about your patient enough to make the right treatment plan?

Likely not - and this holds particularly true when you’re a student and new grad. Even with the freshness of book smarts, you simply don’t have enough experience of data to make the best decisions.

So when you’re a student and new grad in clinic, I’d encourage you to fail. Fail quickly, fail fast, and grow.

Now remember this too - absolutely do not fail in regards to patient safety and contraindications!

If you’re early in your career I’d encourage you to be in situations where you can fail purposefully, in an environment that subtly encourages you to fail.

Take for example residency training. During mentorship, where you’ll be observed in how you work with your patients, a great mentorship session is when you fail - fail to recognize certain details in that subjective exam, fail to ensure that exercise is performed with the correct verbal and/or tactile cues, or fail to say “thank you for coming in today”.

A good mentor or clinical instructor will highlight your misteps, and use the experience as a teaching moment for you. Trust me, you’ll never forget your first failures. Those experiences will help you become a better clinician.

From your failures, whether big or small, make the most of them and definitely perform a self-reflection from your experiences. You’ll always want to ask, could you have done better? If you have a patient that you’ve seen a similar condition previously, ask yourself, what makes this patient different this time? what makes it similar? will my previous treatment plan and strategy work for this patient?

And if you’re lost in what questions to ask yourself, then pick the minds of your more experienced colleagues!

As a student or new grad, if you truly want to become a great clinician, take these early years with gusto and seek to quickly accelerate your learning. Fail fast and grow.
Dr. Ryan Balmes
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Ryan Balmes, DPT

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Ryan Balmes is a physical therapist practicing orthopaedic and sports physical therapy with performance always in mind. He is a board certified clinical specialist in Orthopaedics and Sports physical therapy and a Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapists. With his specializations, Ryan is passionate about giving back to the profession by teaching and mentoring to elevate clinical practice. Ryan's personal blog page can be found at his Haven Profile. 

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