Forget About Perfectionism; Instead, Strive for Excellence

17 May 2023

By Fara Bellows, MD

As surgeons, we are high-level performers who expect specific results from precise planning and execution. Throughout our education, we developed a keen awareness of the requirements for a particular outcome. Some of us may have even over-prepared during our academic years in order to ensure success.  The stakes are much higher when practicing medicine, and we may now strive for perfection, as we know that a single misstep can result in a devastating patient outcome.

Fortunately, we remain inherently detail oriented, thorough, and conscientious when providing patient care. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we have bad outcomes. Even a patient who undergoes a technically flawless operation can have complications. So how do we reconcile our desire for perfection in an uncontrollable world?

Essentially, we must learn to comfortably co-exist with our negative outcomes and accept the fact that bad things will happen. The only way to avoid complications is to not operate at all, and as surgeons, this is impossible. How we handle our complications can affect our ability to care for our patients, and we owe it to them to continue to provide exceptional care.

Here are some coping mechanisms we can utilize when things go wrong:

  • Practice self-compassion. Use self-talk that you would use for a friend or colleague who were in your situation. Dr. Kristin Neff1 has wonderful resources available on this topic.
  • Be present in the moment. Try not to ruminate on possible past or future events or interactions. If you need to re-center, take a few deep breaths and notice your surroundings. Take it one step further and ask yourself whether going back or looking forward is effective or useful at that particular time. It’s unlikely that the answer will be yes. You can break the cycle of rumination by playing a favorite song, podcast or audiobook, or performing a well-loved task or hobby.
  • Practice mindfulness. Use a meditation app such as headspace to reflect on how you feel about the situation at hand and work towards having a sense of comfort with it. 
  • Question whether what happened was within your control or not. If it was within your control, what can you learn from the experience that could improve your practice in the future? 
  • Look at the big picture. Think about how many people you have already helped and will continue to help in the future. The number of negative situations you will encounter is likely a small fraction of the entirety of your career.
  • Remind yourself of your power and capabilities, especially if this feedback is not regularly provided by others.

According to Vince Lombardi, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”  I implore all of us to internalize this concept and to always give ourselves some grace when things don’t go exactly as planned. Fill your own cup, and it will overflow to fill others.

  1. Dr. Kristin Neff. “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Published 2015 by William Morrow.

Fara Bellows, MD was born and raised in New York. She obtained her BS in biology from Cornell University, where she graduated magna cum laude. Dr. Bellows then went on to obtain her medical degree and undergo her urology residency at SUNY Downstate College of Medicine in Brooklyn, New York. Dr. Bellows is currently affiliated with OhioHealth Physician Group Urology, where she practices general urology at Berger Hospital in Circleville, Ohio. Special interests include kidney stones, primary urologic cancer management and lower urinary tract dysfunction. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her family. You can find her on Twitter @FaraBellowsMD.

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