Why astronaut and ER doctor Dave Williams thinks failure is as important as success
'It's what we do when we don't succeed that determines whether we will succeed,' Williams says
Originally published on January 5, 2019
ER doctor Dave Williams has seen a lot of success in his life.
In 1992, he was chosen out of 5,000 applicants to be a Canadian astronaut. He has flown into orbit twice aboard the space shuttles Columbia and Endeavour. He's performed three space walks, totalling over seventeen hours — a Canadian record. He's been the CEO of a major health organization, overseeing five hospitals.
But Williams says there have been many failures, too. He talked to White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman about rebounding after setbacks, and how success is impossible without failure.
You almost didn't become a physician because you had some setbacks.
Yes, getting into medical school is very challenging from an academic perspective. I had some setbacks as an undergraduate and graduate student that made it a bit more difficult for me. But I learned that it's what we do when we don't succeed that determines whether we will succeed. Failure is truly an opportunity for learning and personal growth if you're willing to embrace it. If you can learn from it, you can go forward and succeed.
Can you tell me about what happened?
The first year I was in graduate school my father had passed away. It was a very difficult time and there was a comprehensive exam that I had to do to get into the PhD program. And I didn't succeed at that. That was a big emotional blow and a very significant moment in my life. But then I had this other comprehensive exam in physiology and I got the top mark at that. So I was able to prevail at the end of the day. I ultimately got in medical school at McGill and graduated with the gold medal.
I know that a lot of our colleagues in medicine seem to have a lot of difficulty dealing with failure and mistakes, which I think are inevitable.
This is one of the challenges with many students who pursue a career in medicine. These are really smart, talented individuals who've done well as undergraduates. They've succeeded at everything they've tried to. They get into medical school. They succeed in medical school. Arguably, they haven't had the opportunity to fall flat on their face and fail. That was the one benefit that I had before I got into medical school. I had experienced failure firsthand. As physicians, we understand that we try our best for our patients all the time. There are times when it's not going to work out the way we hoped. We have to be able to rebound from that and go on.
At age 50, you were diagnosed with prostate cancer. That was one of the few times when I got the sense that you were frightened.
You know, it's interesting, as physicians — especially emergency physicians — we're used to dealing with unforeseen circumstances. We're used to resuscitations. These sorts of things happen all the time. It's a different story when you're on the receiving end of the information, when someone looks you straight in the eye and says, 'You have cancer.' All of a sudden you've joined a club that you have no desire to join: the cancer club. Despite all my medical training, as soon as I was told I had cancer I thought, 'I'm going to die.' It took a while for me to get around the fact that I don't need to respond emotionally. I have to respond intellectually, figure this out and solve it like I was treating another patient. So that kicked in about 24 hours later but the news was devastating in the beginning.
Was there a sense that 'I've got to beat this thing or I won't get back into space?'
Oh, there's absolutely no question. You know, it was actually a sense of 'I've got to beat this thing or maybe I might not live.' And then you go from there to the practical reality of thinking, 'OK, I'm going to survive this,' and then you begin to wonder, 'Can I actually go and fly in space again?' But I had to get back my medical certification as an astronaut and a pilot. I lost everything when I went for surgery. But I was able to get it back within about four months.
What did you take away from your time as a patient?
I went into the hospital as an astronaut clinician. But as soon as I was told to put the gown on and lie down on the stretcher, I went from being a physician to being a patient. I began to understand what the journey of a patient is really all about.
During my post-operative recovery, I would get out of bed and I'd hobble around the corridor limping and holding an IV pole, barely able to hold myself up. And the cleaner would be coaching me, 'Dave, you're looking good today. You're walking better, you're standing up straighter.' At the end of the five-day hospital admission, one of the nurses came in to take out my IV. She looks me straight in the eye and says, 'You're a doctor, aren't you? Did you learn anything while you're in here?' I said, 'In fact, I have.' She said, 'You will remember, won't you?' I promised her that I would remember. That helped me as a CEO at Southlake: understanding the importance of the patient perspective.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.