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Standing Out

Ben_3_2Ben Bryner -- Here is a picture of me taken when I was an exchange student in Japan. It was back in high school, so if you can't recognize the teenaged version of me in the picture, I'm in the front row, in the center. As an exchange student I went to school with my host brother's class. This is me on the last day of school there. I'd been through a lot with the group; I'd fended off attacks with wooden swords in kendo, tried (vainly) to learn Japanese archery, struggled with calligraphy, etc. But although I wore the same uniform as all the other students at the high school, I kind of stood out. This is just the way things go as a pale teenager with curly hair in a midsize Japanese city. I stuck out enough that while I was at a baseball game (a major tournament game for my host brother's school team) someone from the local newspaper asked if they could take my picture. I got a copy of the paper later, and the caption read something like "The Tochiku baseball team is cheered on by a new blue-eyed friend."

Class_nocoat_8My experience in Japan was life-changing for a number of reasons, but perhaps mostly because it forced me to stand out. I was a fairly quiet kid before that, but in Japan it was pointless to try to blend into the background. Because of this, I started to become more outgoing and forced myself to get better at (and enjoy) meeting new people. When you look visibly out of place, you aren't that familiar with the language and you realize you know very little about the culture of the area, the only real options are to embrace your novelty and bizarreness and not worry about it, or to curl up into a ball and refuse to interact with anyone. (I tried the latter for a couple of days, but that was pretty awful so I switched over to the first.)

The lesson I took from this experience that's relevant to medical school was that it's difficult to be an outsider, but there's nothing you can do except to be open about it. On each rotation, you'll be thrust into a new system where you're clearly an outsider. Whether it's the operating rooms, the ICU or an outpatient clinic, everybody who works there normally knows what they're supposed to be doing and what roles different people play. There's no way you can know this going in, there's no way you can figure out who everybody is ahead of time, and there's no way you can hide once you get there. (Especially not in the OR.)

On the bright side, most people will expect to see unfamiliar faces from time to time, and usually you can find a sympathetic person to help you out. I have certainly benefited from the advice of a friendly nurse, an experienced tech, or a knowledgeable PA who have a lot of experience with a given service or clinic. Almost always this has been because I was open about being new to that area, having no real idea of how things go, and asking sincerely and politely for advice. Not everyone's willing to help, but most people are. So don't be discouraged. Also, when you rotate to a new service you should still have some applicable knowledge you can carry over with you; this was often not the case in Japan, like, for example, when it came to figuring out how to use the toilet.

But I'm getting distracted. The other point I wanted to make is that in your applications and interviews one of the goals should be to make yourself stand out. Everyone's busy enough (and human enough) that they'll be more likely to pick someone they can remember clearly. Given the sea of faces and conservative outfits that are present at these interviews, most things that make you stand out will work in your favor. (OK, obviously not if it's something embarrassing.) No big surprise, but it’s something I like to keep in mind during interviews or meetings.

When I got back from Japan there was definitely some reverse culture shock. And not just when I would see things like strangely huge containers of ketchup and mustard at the grocery store. It was also weird not looking so different. More comfortable, certainly; but each day didn't force me to reflect on who I was and what others were seeing when they looked at me. I guess I wrote that I expected something like that in my application essay for the program (and, like Dave Barry, when traveling to Japan I cannot overstate the importance of having somebody else pay for the trip), but I didn't realize how true it was. I also didn't realize it would be so relevant more than ten years down the road.

September 15, 2008 in Ben Bryner | Permalink


Could you be the tall boy with the blonde, curly hair giving the peace symbol?! And I know what you mean about standing out. No matter what color my hair, I tend to stand out quite a bit, and more often than not, that's been an advantage, rather than a liability! :)

Posted by: Kendra | Sep 16, 2008 4:06:13 AM

u really showed ur sensitivity in this piece :-)... in this life u really have to stand out or be extinct... not only in applying to med school... because when u get accepted, u wanna stand out for residency later on ( so u study, u do the menial jobs etc...to have better grades, to get higher score on the USMLE or other board exams)when u go to residency, u wanna stand out to become the chief.... then when u are on private practice... to stand out w/ patients... ....

Posted by: ninette_umpa | Sep 18, 2008 9:09:08 PM

So... Its just not me!! feels like I am not alone who feels the same way. I mean especially about the way I felt when I first came into this country. But, I should say one thing... Honestly, Americans are very friendly (It is just my opinion. No offense!)I have come across many of them who offered a hand of help.
Well, coming to "standing out"... I feel there should be something that holds it to the main stream so that it wouldn't look bizarre. I believe "balance" is one more thing that helps us succeed and probably, at its best might help us "stand out".

Posted by: Manasa Musunuri | Sep 23, 2008 8:34:16 PM

i just recently started medical school in England. Being Asian, I'm standing out most the time in a class filled with local students. The crucial factor in this change for me is time. The longer I stay here, the more I feel there's a place for me and that I'm actually part of the big picture. You probably felt more at ease after being in Japan for quite a while. I totally understand how you tried to "curl up into a ball" and blend in because I've tried that myself. Now I'm moving on to being more sociable and less afraid of being here. Hopefully this will only get better and better.

Posted by: workaholic88 | Sep 24, 2008 11:36:40 AM

To stand out then you really have to be ready to learn, and as U said there are a lot of characters out there with different approaches to life so to stand out in thier field then it has to be their way or U'll never. Sometimes you dont even have to go far to have this experience. In Ghana there are different tribes with different languages, I recently took a health trip to one of the tribes. It was lovely, I had my own ideas about the place before I got there but when I arrived I realised my preformed ideas were all going to let me down. So I had to drop all of them and pick up as a new comer. Is good to have preformed ideas but when you get there and you realise is not the best, its advisable to drop it. Humility is one special attribute we all need, if we have it we shall always stand tall. I'm a 6th year medical student from University of Ghana Medical School, Ghana west Africa. That was a lovely piece I've taken my quota let all read and take theirs.

Posted by: Alphonse Dzakpasu | Oct 2, 2008 4:01:24 AM

These colonies can sometimes be very large with smaller colonies making up a part of the larger, dominating colony.

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