When I was in medical school, I bought myself several pairs of pants at the Gap. Because I despise shopping, I found a style I liked, and purchased four identical pairs in different colors, thinking my surgery residency interview wardrobe was now complete. At $48 a pop, not on sale, this was an expensive investment. But, I needed to start looking like a doctor, instead of a hippie-freak, and as much as I hated dressing up, my wardrobe of ratty jeans, Birkenstocks, and rock T shirts was sorely in need of an overhaul. Interviewing for residency is a complicated business. It's not enough to be smart, you also have to look and act it, projecting professionalism, personality, and poise under pressure. Because of the way residency matching works, you really have to sell yourself, especially if you're a woman in your mid-30s, with a state college nursing background that's accompanied by a startling absence of peer-reviewed publications, research experience, or fancy credentials, who happens to be vying with brilliant scholars nearly half your age for a coveted general surgery spot at Vanderbilt or Emory University. Here's how "the match" works. You rank each program where you've interviewed, the programs rank you, and when the numbers are crunched across the nation the third Thursday in March, you'll land a spot based on how those two variables match up. Needless to say, the likelihood of being disappointed is extremely high. It doesn't matter who you are or how much influence you think you might have, there's just no manipulating the system. To make matters worse, not everyone will match. This unfortunate circumstance necessitates a day of its own, known as Scramble Day, in which unmatched candidates hustle for vacant residency spots.
Even though I'd tried the pants on when I was at the Gap, once I got them home, they just didn't fit. They were all too big. I tried cinching them at the waist with a belt, which accomplished little more than bunching them up in a most unflattering way, exposing me to the grave threat of camel-toe. I even tried washing one pair to see if they'd shrink, but that didn't work, either. My attempts at reconciling this Apparel 911 left me with four pairs of pants that didn't fit, one of which now sported a tiny bleach spot. Deeming the pants unwearable, I folded them up and put them back into the bag with the receipt. They sat in the guest room closet for close to two months until I casually mentioned my ill-fated purchase to Rana, my shopping-savvy friend and fellow medical student. She scrutinized me in utter disbelief before exclaiming, "How is it possible that you've made it all the way through medical school, and you can't return a freakin' pair of pants to the Gap?!" It certainly was embarrassing. For some reason, I'd always had a hang up about returning items to the store. Luckily, I don't like to shop. It sounds ridiculous, but I equated approaching a customer service representative to inquire about a refund or an exchange with standing before a firing squad--I'd be at someone else's mercy, risking humiliation, rejection, and bodily harm, most notably to my Achilles' heel, a disabling self-consciousness engendered by my fragile, fragmented ego. What if they said, "No"? Recognizing that I had a serious mismatching of assertiveness in the intellectual and common sense departments, Rana informed me that, on Saturday, I was going to march myself into the Gap to return those pants, and that she was coming with me.
At ten o'clock that Saturday morning, Rana whisked me off to the mall. On the way there, we practiced the entire scenario: walking confidently into the store with the ill-fitting pants, assuredly summoning the customer service person, and successfully completing the return transaction. She made it sound so easy. Moments after we entered the Gap, headed straight for the service counter, I froze. I couldn't do it. The dread involved in returning those pants was just too overwhelming. I stood there, motionless, a future surgeon afraid of my own shadow. "Give me your credit card and come with me," Rana instructed. To the woman behind the counter, she simply said, "I need to return these pants. They are unsatisfactory. Here's the receipt." Within seconds, and with no questions asked, the pants were returned and my credit card, refunded. Rana was graceful about the whole fiasco. "Being assertive isn't about being aggressive or bitchy; it's about getting your needs met."
That was twelve years ago. Since then, in addition to returning items that don't fit, I've arbitrated my divorce, negotiated contracts and warranty extensions, confronted unprofessionally-behaving colleagues, and begun addressing obstacles to communication within my family. I've found a suitable exchange, trading my ego for a voice that's confident, consistent, and congruent, one that enables me to be my own best advocate. The inner me finally matches the outer me. Although I still fall off the wagon from time to time, taking things too personally or letting people get under my skin, I'm aware of it now and can jump right back on. Speaking up for myself actually permits me to listen more receptively to others. I readily acknowledge that the world would be a boring place if I was right about everything, a self-deprecating quality that prevents me from taking myself too seriously. I also embrace the philosophy that opinions are like dirtbuttons...everybody's got one. I don't take anyone very seriously. Life itself is serious, but it's way too short to waste, fearing the unknown. Here's what I've learned about life so far: when I quit being afraid of "no," the world became a "yes."
P.S. I matched in general surgery at my first-ranked choice, Emory University, and was the first person from my medical school accepted into Emory's general surgery program. A year later, I switched to anesthesiology...lifestyle, lifestyle, lifestyle :-)
|Our medical school graduation. From left to right, I'm on the end of the 2nd row. Rana is on the 3rd row, third from left.|