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I Survived Medical School Because of Ali Abdaal

6 min read
I Survived Medical School Because of Ali Abdaal

It was my second year of medical school, and I was studying harder than ever before. All I wanted was awards, yet I felt empty when I got them. Regret even, thinking about the things I sacrificed just so that I could get a better grade on my exams.

One day, while doing some house chores, I was listening to a podcast featuring Ali, where he introduced me to a paradigm shifting idea: think about the game you’re playing. It made me stop in my tracks and reassess what I was optimising for. I went into medicine to help others, but are getting awards really the best way to do that?

I discovered Ali Abdaal when I was applying to medical school back in 2018. I had to prepare for an admissions test and interviews, and his videos really helped me out. At that time, he was also posting vlogs on his life as a medical student, inspiring and giving me an insight behind medical school. Now, he writes a newsletter and continues making videos, and I’ve learned so much from him on how to live happier, more productive lives. Here are some of the best things I’ve learned from him.

Surviving Medical School

Don’t believe the hype

When I first entered medical school, I’d often hear stories about how hard it’s going to be. My seniors would talk about how all they do is study and scare us with how strict our consultants are. The thing is, most of it is just hype. Everyone likes to brag and exaggerate about how hard their lives are, and I’m guilty of that sometimes too.

My experience in medical school so far has not been that bad. And as I go through my medical training, I’ll probably hear more hype. But instead of thinking ‘this is so difficult’, it’s more pleasant and less anxiety inducing to tell yourself that you can do it.

And the hype will always be there. Choose not to listen to it.

It’s busy, but really fun

A lot of how we feel depends on what we tell ourselves. To that note, Ali taught me a great concept when it comes to navigating the challenges of medical training: it’s busy, but really fun". So instead of complaining about how miserable my life is, I tell myself that what I’m doing is actually interesting and meaningful. I'm still busy (and underpaid), but at least I'm having fun.

Get to vs have to

According to Ali, the key to being productive and happy is redefining the work you’re doing as something you get to do. So instead of saying “I have to do this”, tell yourself that “I get to do this”.

There are some days where I can’t be arsed to study, but I get to do it. I probably had a fair share of unfair advantages that led me to medical school, and some luck to be given the opportunity to read medicine. And telling myself that I get to study medicine gives me a bit of perspective and makes me feel grateful about where I am.

So now, whenever I complain about the Krebs cycle, I gaslight myself by telling that I get to memorise the Krebs cycle, and proceed to forget about it again. Maybe the real Krebs cycle is the cycle of memorising it and forgetting it.

Studying for Exams

This one was a game-changer for me. I’ve been studying wrongly this whole time by note-taking, highlighting, and re-reading. Ali taught me that if you want to retain what you learn, test yourself. Here’s a call to everyone to stop making fancy notes with Muji pens (disclaimer: I never was a part of this obsession, my handwriting has always been shit)

And instead of cramming for an exam, use spaced repetition and review what you learn over increasing intervals. It leverages the spacing effect, where you learn better when you space out your study sessions.

If you have exams coming up, it’s helpful to approach it like a game. Try to recall everything you can remember while answering the exams, and forget about it once it’s over. It gives you sense of perspective so you can stop taking it too seriously. Your exams won’t matter after you graduate, but the relationships you create in school will last a lifetime.

And if you’re devastated with your grades, ask yourself: can you learn something from it or can you make the situation better? Will feeling sad benefit you in anyway? If it doesn’t, choose not to feel bad about it.

Congratulations, you are now a Stoic.

Ali also taught me that the reason why someone would cry over exam results in the first place is that they put all of their eggs into the exams basket. To them, all they are worth is their grade. That's not a healthy way to think about life, so diversify your identity.

When you have money, it’s always smart to diversify your investments. That way if one of them goes south, you don’t lose everything. It’s also smart to diversify your identity, to invest your self-esteem and what you care about into a variety of different areas — business, social life, relationships, philanthropy, athletics — so that when one goes south, you’re not completely screwed over and emotionally wrecked. - Mark Manson

Reconsider Victory Conditions

I don’t really play board games, but there are usually multiple ways to win a board game. For example, in Monopoly Deal, you can either win by:

  1. having 3 sets of properties
  2. having a ton of money
  3. pissing your friends off

If you go through the rulebook, there are usually multiple ways to win a board game. And the same goes for life. There are many ways to win, so reconsider the victory conditions.

If you're aiming to make $250k per year just so that you can be happy, think again — is it the best way to be happy? Think about the different ways to win the game.

And many medics spend their lives playing the academic game (myself included), lying to themselves “If I do well in medical school, I'll finally get into surgical training — then I'll be happy”.

I have yet to find a single happy surgical trainee.

I went into medical school to help people, but I realised that there’s another way I can win this game. By writing online, I can scale my impact and impact more lives than just being a doctor.

So, ask yourself about the game you're optimising for. Are there any other ways to win the game?

Empowering lessons from Ali to Learn and Grow

Be content to be thought foolish

If you want to improve your life, be content to be thought foolish. The first step is to recognise that no one is thinking about us. Everyone’s busy with their own issues. Next, be content to be considered stupid. When you're okay with not knowing everything, you start learning from others.

I’m okay with people thinking I’m an idiot. As long as I learn from it :)

Journey before Destination

And if you want to be happy, you won't find it in your goals. You'll find it at the present moment, your journey. Always ask yourself if you're enjoying the journey you're taking. Think of the journey before destination.

Now and then, I reflect on whether my journey is enjoyable or not. There's no point reaching the top of the summit if you didn't enjoy the hike. I ask myself this when thinking about what projects to prioritise. Another way of thinking about picking an enjoyable journey is: "What looks like play to you but work for others?"

Worry about what you can control

We should only worry about the things that are within our control. Most things are things we have some control over, but not complete control. In such cases, it's essential to set goals that you have total control over—for example, setting a goal of doing your best for your examination instead of setting a goal of getting good results.

Everything is super low risk

Every endeavour is super low risk. Even if you fail it, you will learn something, and the experience will be a net positive.

For example, even if no one is reading my articles, I have learned how to build a website, make meaningful connections with people worldwide, and clarify my thoughts through writing. I’d do that for free.

The Value of Delight

Spending extra money is worth it if it encourages us to do more of what we want to do. This is what Ali calls the Value of Delight.

Roam Research costs $15/month, but it's so nice to use. It encourages me to write 10% more than a free equivalent like Obsidian. That extra 10% will compound over time and I'll get more than what I paid for. If something is expensive, but makes you do that thing you want to do more, go for it.

update: I no longer use Roam Research. I can't afford $15/month lol.

I have a deep respect for Ali, and he was one reasons why I started writing online. If not for Ali, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article today.

P.S. A very big thank you to my Write of Passage friends for their feedback on this article: Adam Tank, Henry Finkelstein, Gayatri Taley, Adam Cotterill, Michael Dean, Henry Finkelstein, and Tobi Emonts-Holley.

Medical School


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