Wednesday 16 March 2016

Life, death and perfectionism

Lately, for various reasons, I've been thinking a lot about mistakes. I've always been a perfectionist, I don't think I know any pharmacists who aren't. But in recent years I have been trying to move towards a healthier form of attention to detail, which is tricky because a step away from perfectionism tends to swerve into embracing mediocrity (of the 'oh **** it I can't be bothered' variety). This healthy version is about recognising and accepting that there are limits to what I can do (such as the time available) and that if and when I make a mistake, I do my best to learn from it. That's how I explain it to colleagues at the beginning of their careers awho are struggling with their mental health in the face of all-consuming perfectionism. For myself I understand these as practical steps on the path of growing in humility.

So what happens when you've made a mistake that has serious consequences (or has contributed to serious harm, because these things are never straighforward) but by the time you find out about it, the consequences have already happened, there is nothing you can do about them, and your learning is limited because you don't know how or why the error occurred. How do you move away from perfectionism when you know that your work can have life and death consequences? How do you learn from a mistake when you know nothing about it except that it happened? When you don't even know what the consequences were because it was part of a chain of errors? How do you not veer off into finding a job with no direct impact on real people (or possibly, retiring to a remote cave)? 

On one level, the answer to these and many other questions is that I have no idea: I don't know how to live with this, I don't know how to move on from this. On the other hand, humility (I am fragile, limited and human and will make mistakes) and the knowledge that the truth undoubtedly does set us free, is absolutely what makes this possible. Loving truth means co-operating with an investigation. It means knowing that the truth is not just important for me but for those of my colleagues who were involved in the same chain of events and for our patients, past, present and future and their families. Embracing humility means not just the part about making mistakes, it may also mean recognising that I am good at what I do and therefore hiding in a cave is not the answer to one mistake. It means accepting that I may never know exactly what happened. And this faith perspective also involves trust and patience and generosity and forgiveness and prayer and no doubt a lot more. Maybe there will be no work-related learning point. Maybe my learning point is: grow in virtue

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