Sometimes wrong, but never in doubt.

While in medical school, I heard the phrase “a good surgeon is sometimes wrong, but never in doubt” often quoted. I realize that this mantra most certainly has it’s role in surgery—a place where debating the diagnosis and course of action means potentially delaying emergently life-saving treatment. By not being able to immediately decide whether or not you are going to operate, you’ve essentially made your decision. If you’re debating, you’re not operating. Every second you spend in an internal debate could cost your patient his or her life or at the very least optimal recovery and quality of living for a period of time. Surgeons must be trained to think and act quickly and to not waste time with second-guessing when the situation commands certainty and definite action.

Outside of the world of medicine and even at times within it, I think this is some of the most detrimental advice you could ever give to someone—particularly a budding physician. As a doctor you are cast the responsibility for people’s lives. This is a position of immense honor and responsibility and is something to be earned, cherished and protected. We must act decisively, yes. But not to the point that we blind ourselves to our limitations, not to the point that we close ourselves off to the learning that occurs when we open ourselves up to criticism. Now, I’m not saying that the people who quoted this phrase were neglecting this fact, but that there are potential dangers hiding in it’s implications if we were to take it at face value.

I remember cringing every time I heard someone encourage my classmates and I to abandon doubt, wondering if at this very moment my peers are being shaped into the kind of physician that fails to see their mistakes, the kind that chooses being right over being good. These are traits I hope I never adopt. I hope I am never so sure of myself that I stop questioning my understanding of the world and why I think and act in the ways that I do. I hope that I am never so attached to my beliefs that I respond from a place of defense rather than receptivity. I hope that I am never so confident that I lose the ability to be humble. I hope that I never trade flexibility for absolute certainty. I hope that I never become so wrapped up in championing my beliefs that I forget how to ask for help. I hope that I never become so knowledgeable that I become un-teachable, because there is always, always something we can be taught.

While the stakes may be higher in a field like medicine, self-assurance at the expense of receptivity is almost universally detrimental. If we’re hell-bent on proving how right we are, we’re missing the opportunity for learning that lies in acknowledging when we’re wrong. And anchoring bias–this latching on to our initial impression at the expense of considering new potentially conflicting, but revealing information–is a potent source of medical error. There are far wiser ways to deal with our ignorance than pretending it doesn’t exist.

Another important point is that we shouldn’t always look to our superiors in unquestioning faith, nor should we doubt the contributions of those who have not climbed the academic or corporate ladder. No matter how high we climb, we have to be humble enough to accept that the answers we seek can come from anywhere at any time; lack of a degree or qualifications or prestige does not preclude expertise and the presence of such does not guarantee it.

Being honest about our lack of knowing means that we will inevitably be underestimated—our capabilities will be questioned, our intelligence doubted and our accomplishments discounted. But that’s not really the point, is it? We’re not here to convince people how intelligent we are. We are here to learn and to grow and to help others do the same.

It has been said that the smartest of people freely admit that they know nothing and that the telltale sign of ignorance is supreme confidence in knowing. I can recall dozens of times in my life, increasingly more so as I traveled down the pre-medical path and into medical school, where I was cast looks of judgment, disapproval and disdain when I blatantly admitted I didn’t understand (this happens often). In my mind, I never understand. Even as I grasp the meaning of the words presented, I am instantly aware that what’s being said is the tip of an iceberg I never previously knew existed. To learn one thing—to really learn it—is to become aware that there are inherently many, many more lurking beneath the surface of which we know nothing. The more we know, the less we think we know, essentially. And this is important, because it is the not knowing that prompts us to look for more.

It is questioning, skepticism, and curiosity that contributes new information to our realm of understanding, not steadfast assuredness and unconditional attachment to what is already known. Thoughtful consideration of what is uncertain is absolutely required if you wish to fully and accurately grasp a situation. True intelligence cannot exist without holding space for doubt.

This much, I know. And I wish to live life in question, not in answer.

2 thoughts on “Sometimes wrong, but never in doubt.

  1. Dear Jessica,
    I just wanted to leave a warm and heartfelt “thank you“ for writing this text. I am a doctor in Germany, currently in my residency at the ICU and you just put into words what I am trying to remember every day.
    So again, thanks for your precise and thoughtfull words.

    1. You are so welcome, Karolin. It means the world to me that you took the time to read & connect–I’m both shocked & encouraged that my words resonated all the way to Germany! Good luck with the remainder of your residency, cheering you on from afar, sister! xx

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