On Dec. 31, 2020, I turn 30 years old. Not much to my name. Not much on my resumé. Not much in my bank account either. Just like many others who turned 30 before me and many more who will after me. 

Still, this is a birthday like no other. Like many others who will have their birthday on New Year’s Eve, I intend to savor it. Within reasonable health protocols, of course.

Birthdays are a time to celebrate the past. We indulge our nostalgia for a few hours and, after a quick bout of sadness over how it will never happen again, we return to the present, thankful for the memories, and set course once more for our adventure into the future.

Birthdays are also a time to torture ourselves with hindsight. It’s not the best way to cope with the idea of getting older, but we do it anyway. To be fair, science has given us an excuse of sorts: The brain’s prefrontal cortex, which Snell’s Clinical Neuroanatomy says “determines the initiative and judgment of an individual,” doesn’t fully form until around 25 years of age, which isn’t fair when you realize that a lot can happen in life—and probably has happened—by then. But the world does not stop at 25.

“Now, our society worships the prodigies, the Mozarts,” said Jake Tapper to the Class of 2017 at Dartmouth. “But to measure success by how old you are when you achieve it is silly. ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ wasn’t published until Mark Twain was 41.” Take it from someone who took “a little time” (seven years) to figure out what suited him: journalism.

We crave success and worship perfection. At the very least, we worship the illusion of perfection that success projects. We forget that we are human: imperfect but adaptable, capable of growth and change, not just by genius, but also by grit.

It’s not easy to find successful people who don’t shy away from talking about failure and struggle. Who tell you not to worry if you don’t know what to do with the rest of your life right now. Who tell you it can take a few years to figure that out and that’s okay. Who tell you to perish the thought of them having it all figured out at their age.

What if I told you my professors were once terrible students of the very things they teach today? But what kind of institution would allow such wretched students to teach our future physicians? The kind that doesn’t define success by how many of their graduates top the board exams. Whose teachers don’t give up on their wretched students, and who inspire me to follow in their footsteps. In fact, wretched students can make excellent teachers.

I’m not the only one who has struggled. My mentors have. Many others have. We owe it to them to keep going.

Was würdest du tun wenn du keine Angst hättest? What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Those words from my classmate in Intarmed who became an archaeologist never fail to stir me up.

Looking back is an old habit of mine. I’ve thought about how differently—how much better—I would have done in high school. In college. In medical school. I’ve thought about the opportunities I had failed to seize. About how better things could have been. About how different or easier it would be if I had done that one thing differently. About where and why I failed in the first place. 

It took me a few years, but I’ve learned to forgive myself for all of that. Learning from failure is not easy when you are trained to leave no room for it. That is the paradox of training as a physician.

“Where do you see yourself five years from now?”

I’ve had enough hell and heartbreak in life to learn to hate this question, but here goes:

I’d be more than halfway through specializing in a field that needs more experts. Experts who know how to communicate with the public without humiliating them for asking the right questions. I might have just begun to teach, and it would probably be a class I dreaded as a student. My exam questions would be tough, but they will not be designed to deny someone a well-deserved perfect score. Hopefully, I can become the kind of mentor I looked up to as a student, one who didn’t humiliate those who fell behind. I hope to earn enough to make ends meet and maybe a bit more for the rainy days. I don’t think I’ll have as much luck to have a book published before turning 40, but I’m going to write anyway.

I’m not sure I can do everything I just mentioned, but I know I don’t have to torture myself for not following all that down to the letter. I think I know enough about life now to not let fear hold me back. Enough to have a little faith in myself. Enough to know when to take a leap of faith.

On Dec. 31, 2020, I turn 30 years old. This is a birthday like no other. It deserves to be celebrated like no other. The best is yet to come. Our best days lie ahead of us. So here’s to failure, to fear, and to the future. And to more birthdays like no other. Mabuhay!  

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