Using the Pillars of Stoicism to Navigate the Medical School Curriculum

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Medicine is a field that requires finding a level of comfort in the unknown.

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Nikhil Rajulapati

No matter how many textbooks I read or patients I meet, there will always be a clinical scenario that I do not expect. Medicine is projected to be a world where doubt and insecurity cannot exist, however this can be difficult to achieve as a medical student.

As a medical student, every day feels like the first day of school. There is always something to learn as I navigate the inner workings of long running teams. Trying to do my best in a new atmosphere that may not even be designed for my presence can be debilitating and fatiguing. The goal of achieving excellence can be difficult as impostor syndrome slowly develops. So, I ask myself, “How do I succeed in such an environment that’s so challenging and unpredictable?” While the answer to this question may be unique to every student, Stoicism may represent a possible solution for some.

Stoicism is the ancient philosophy heralded by Seneca and Marcus to navigate life in Ancient Rome. Despite existing millennia ago, the Ancient Romans composed their thoughts in a way that may be helpful to people in the modern day. By providing the scaffolding and ideologies to tackle everyday concerns, Stoicism may help provide the structure needed to cope with the inconsistent nature of the hospital setting.

One of the core beliefs found in Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” is the idea that we cannot control certain events in life, but we can enhance our reactions to them. While I cannot control the fact that an attending may be verbally abusive or surgeries in the OR start late, I can change my reaction to build emotional resilience. I can reassign my priorities in life to avoid letting the challenge of medical school drag me down. Reforming the mind can help minimize the anxiety of an unpredictable setting while instilling the confidence to take on the world and achieve my goals.

In the hospital, it can be difficult to find a role that contributes to the greater good of the patient. As a student, I may not be trusted with many tasks so I may feel excluded and unmotivated. However, Stoicism states that whether a person succeeds or fails, the only goal that matters is trying your best and implementing maximum effort.

On days when I may feel defeated or unmotivated to perform, Stoicism provides the ideology to try my best by providing motivation and emphasizing my role in the grand universe. When attendings and staff feel too intimidating to work with, Stoicism emphasizes simplifying life to its core ingredients while ignoring its flash distractions. For the various challenges life or the hospital may throw my way, Stoicism provides a crucial and revitalizing perspective.

While Marcus Aurelius lived as a Roman Emperor, his struggles to get out of bed are relatable.  If I feel like I’m losing control, feel like giving up, or no longer feel like myself, practicing Stoicism can help me gain back control and feel more like myself. The journey towards a career in medicine is long and arduous, but by taking the steps to build a strong mindset, and incorporating Stoicism into my life, I know I can achieve my goal.

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The views and opinions expressed in this collection are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Association of American Medical Colleges.