Although everyone may not agree, I would argue that the practice of surgery is an emotionally and mentally challenging endeavor. That we are so intimately involved in directly impacting a human being’s life—both positively and negatively— is both a privilege and a heavy weight (at times).
One facet of this challenge that I find particularly intriguing is that of humility and confidence. These components of our individual make-up are critical to our professional success, though the spectrum of surgeons that exist in our world display varying degrees of each of these characteristics.
On one extreme there is the over-confident, never-wrong surgeon who lacks introspection about their own limitations. I have heard, from both younger and older generations of surgeons, that one should never say ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I made a mistake’. Lacking any visible humility, I would guess that these practitioners are prone to professional and emotional isolation, regardless of the quality of their patient outcomes. And in the current era of heightened awareness and regard for emotional intelligence, these traits would seem to be (and perhaps should be) increasingly obsolete. I find it quite scary when (heavy editorializing here) a resident or junior faculty member conveys the feeling that they have it all ‘figured out’, and that ‘this is easy’. I would argue these dangerous attitudes must be addressed and re-aligned with reality.
On the other end of the spectrum is the surgeon who lacks the confidence necessary to perform their duties responsibility. I suspect we all know residents and faculty who are frequently paralyzed by the task in front of them, and/or are self-deprecating to the point of portraying inability. One could argue that these traits are as detrimental as over-confidence, and that personal and professional coaching/development are needed to ensure we have competent, safe surgeons in practice.
The sweet spot would seem to be a surgeon who is humbled by the responsibility of caring for another human life, but is thoughtful, deliberate and committed enough in their practice to develop the confidence necessary to achieve quality outcomes. I would imagine that these traits are visible in many of our more seasoned, experienced mentors, who lift us up on particularly bad days and who knock us down a little when we stray. We should strive for the right balance of humility and confidence—whatever that is—for our patients, our colleagues, and ourselves.