I’m not sure I would’ve gotten into medical school if not for Ali Abdaal.
I discovered Ali when I was applying to medical school back in 2018. I had to prepare for an admissions test and interviews, and he had a series where he explained how to succeed in them. These videos helped me do well for my admissions, and his weekly medical student vlogs gave me insight and inspiration for what's about to happen to me for the next five years.
If you don’t know who he is yet, Ali Abdaal is a doctor, YouTuber, and podcaster. He makes content on how we can live happier, more productive lives.
While he was a medical student, most of his content revolved around his medical school journey and how to study effectively. Concepts like active recall and spaced repetition revolutionised my studying and made learning more pleasant.
His videos have supercharged my medical school experience and helped me survived my three years in medical school. Here are some of his ideas that have helped me out in medical school.
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. However, most of it is just hype. Everyone likes to brag about how hard their lives are.
After going through my first three years of medical school, I realised that it’s not that bad. Instead of going into something with the mindset of ‘this will be so difficult, it’s better to tell yourself that you can do it. I've just started my clinical years in medical school, and instead of listening to all the stories about how tiring it is and how it's difficult, I choose to not believe in the hype and believe in my ability to do it.
The hype is always there. When you take a step up from high school to college, some will scare you with how complicated life is. Now that I'm experiencing it, it doesn't seem that bad.
It’s busy but really fun
The way we feel about our lives depends on the story we tell ourselves.
Although medical school can get overwhelming very quickly, I would describe it as “It’s busy, but really fun”. Describing it positively makes me feel better about it, instead of complaining about how miserable my life is.
Get to vs have to
The key to being productive and happy is redefining the work you’re doing as something you get to do. 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 bothered to learn medicine, but realising that I get to do it makes me grateful for the opportunity and makes studying more pleasant.
Studying for Exams
Standard studying techniques such as note-taking, highlighting and re-reading aren’t effective. If you want to retain what you learn, you should test yourself while you learn it. Testing yourself has been proven to be better than re-reading and concept-mapping.
Instead of cramming for an exam, review what you learn over increasing intervals. This is called spaced repetition. It leverages the spacing effect, the phenomenon where you learn better when you spaced out your study sessions.
You should also approach exams like a game, where you try to recall everything you can remember and forget about it once it’s over. It gives you a sense of perspective instead of taking it too seriously. Your exams won’t matter after you graduate, but the relationships you create in school will last a lifetime.
If you’re devastated with your grades, ask yourself if you can learn something from it or if you can make the situation better. Once you’re done with that, you think if feeling bad will benefit you. If not, choose not to feel bad about it. One of the reasons one would get devastated by their exam results is because they put all of their eggs into the exams basket. To solve this, diversify your identity.
Reconsider Victory Conditions
There are usually multiple ways to win a board game. The same goes for life. There are many ways to win, so you must continuously reconsider the victory conditions. For example, if you're aiming to make $250k per year to be happy, review the other alternative paths to happiness. Think about the different ways to win the game.
Many medics spend their lives playing the academic game, with words like if I do well in medical school, I'll get into that neurosurgery training post - then I'll be happy. But if you speak to most neurosurgery trainees and ask them if they're happy, do you think they'll say yes?
I went into medical school to help people, but I realised that there’s another way I can win this game. By writing healthcare articles, I can scale my impact and save more lives than just being a doctor. This is one of the motivations behind why I write online. Ask yourself about the game you're optimising for. And 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. Firstly, recognise that no one is thinking about us. They are too busy minding their problems. Secondly, be content to be considered stupid. When you're okay with not knowing everything, you can learn from people who know more than you.
By being content with others thinking I'm an idiot, I'm more open to asking for help, which helps me learn faster!
Journey before Destination
If you want to be happy, you won't find it in your goals. You'll find it at the present moment, your journey. Therefore, continuously reflect if you're enjoying the journey you're taking. Always 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. It sounds like a win to me!
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.
For example, although Roam Research costs $15/month, it is such a delight to use that 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.
I have a deep respect for Ali, and he was one reason why I started writing online. If not for Ali, you 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.