Deliberate Practice

I’ve never really spent much time looking at the bricks inlaid on the path that runs past the Li Ka Shing Center, but yesterday morning I snapped pictures of the following words while on break between lectures.  I was trying to catch an impression that I wanted to write about without exactly knowing what it was, but today I think I know.

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It came together after reading from the Harvard Business Review.

I hadn’t realized how breathtakingly relevant pieces from this journal could be to my training in medicine. As part of my Managing Difficult Conversations class, however, I was reading through an article in the HBR this morning when the following sentences jumped off the page and into my lap like an oversized tabby cat:

“Not all practice makes perfect. You need a particular kind of practice—deliberate practice—to develop expertise. When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all.”

This was particularly relevant because, just yesterday, I was mulling over how I am hesitant to do some parts of the physical exam when working with actual patients. The parts where I’m not yet confident of my skills.

Certain things I’ve practiced enough to feel mostly comfortable with—for example, placing the stethoscope in the four positions on the chest wall to listen to the heart. And some things are straightforward enough that they are no longer intimidating.  I am confident while feeling for the rush of blood through the carotid arteries, listening for bowel sounds, or examining the extremities for edema.

Other things leave me feeling like I’m approaching a forest with mist swirling about my feet. How exactly do I test strength and reflexes in a patient who is unable to leave the hospital bed?  Is that really the thyroid gland I’m feeling…or should I ask them to swallow one more time as I feel for the subtle slide of lobes beneath the skin? What if I forget to test one of the cranial nerves while doing the neurological exam?  What if I don’t feel something that is there, or if I think I feel something there that isn’t?

What if I mess up?

For me, our Practicum sessions this quarter have brought some of these anxieties to the forefront of my consciousness. In Practicum, we spend an afternoon in the hospital every other week, and during this time we each meet with an assigned patient to gather their history and perform parts of the physical exam. After the history and physical, we join our preceptor and present our patient’s case in (what is hopefully) a concise, organized manner. All this comes together to prepare us for when we start our clinical rotations, and it is an invaluable opportunity to gain actual experience in the hospital setting.

As I reflect on my own performance, however, I realize that my times of practice aren’t fully yielding the dividends I seek. This isn’t a fault of the sessions–Practicum gives me all the opportunities I need.  Since a good portion of my time is spent alone with my patient, I am the one who decides which questions to ask and which physical exam maneuvers to perform.  And as a student, I have the rare gift of time to do so.

But I have been drawn towards the things I already know how to do fairly well. I have the human love of discovery, but I also very much have the human love of competence. It’s uncomfortable pushing myself out onto the tight wire that spans the cliffs between what I am and what I can become.

As I read on, one other sentence in the HBR article caught my attention.  It especially stood out since we’ve been receiving coaching on how to improve the cohesiveness, clarity and delivery of our oral presentations in Practicum:

“Bear in mind that even Winston Churchill, one of the most charismatic figures of the twentieth century, practiced his oratory style in front of a mirror.”

It’s awkward to do so, perhaps, but this echoes what I’ve told about improving my presentation delivery by practicing out loud on my own.  More than any other time since starting medical school, I’m sensing that the way forward is through focused, intentional practice above and beyond what I would normally do in my sessions.  I need this deliberate practice–the sort of practice that drives me into the realms where I am not skilled, past all the whispering shadows of fears that would try to keep me out.

By embracing the discomfort of what I can’t do well, I will be in position to move forward in the way I need and want to.  I know who I am and who I have been; I am not one to back down in the face of challenges.  But somehow, my journey as a medical student is revealing vulnerabilities that have laid latent within my soul.

That’s okay, though.  As I talk with some of my classmates about these areas, I find that I’m not alone in how I feel.  We all have our own uncertainties, hopes, visions and vulnerabilities, and although on individual journeys, we’re still in this together.

I’m excited to see how far we’ll all have come a few years from now!  And since I’ve realized how to engage in deliberate practice, I’m not as afraid of falling short of my vision of who I want to be as a third- and fourth-year medical student.  I have a plan moving forward, and I believe I can actually get there.

I really do.

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