Life has taken me to some unusual places recently: sitting in a small boat surrounded by creepy puppets singing It’s a small world after all; somewhere called “soft play” (which is rather like being trapped inside the 1960s Batman TV show); and, most recently, a clinical pathology lab where I now spend the bulk of my working life.

Those puppets are absolutely terrifying! Video courtesy Backstage Disney, via YouTube.
Of these three, the last is by far and away the most enjoyable.

I have sung the praises of the puzzle-solving nature of clinical pathology before. The problem is that now it’s me who is supposed to be solving them – and being what is technically termed a “know-nothing bozo” in clin path terms, I find myself at the bottom of a very steep learning curve.

A familiar feeling

It’s not the first time I’ve faced such a curve. During these last few weeks I have been reminded many times how it felt to be a newly graduated vet in practice.

Although the nature of the job is very different, the feelings are eerily familiar – I wonder if they are familiar to you, too?

The sense of “imposter syndrome” is very strong – the feeling, deep in my bones, that I am here by complete accident, that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, and that any moment one of my colleagues will discover the terrible truth.

This is coupled with a fear of making mistakes, of doing something so utterly stupid that even the most seasoned of pathologists will shake their heads in years to come and remember the dark day when that idiot did that idiotic thing, and remember the dreadful mess they had to clean up afterwards.


There is also a feeling of helplessness. The lab I work in is very, very busy and my colleagues have an immense workload, which I why I am constantly surprised by how generous they are with their time for me.

Nevertheless, I see the work piling up and I desperately want to help – to make their days easier – but at the moment everything I can do adds to their workload rather than relieves them of some of it – that’s a little hard to adjust to coming from an environment where I was the one who was needed when things went wrong.

The learning curve I’m climbing is bumpy, too. Little moments of triumph – finally getting something right – are almost immediately dashed by yet another slide where I led myself up the garden path and was hopelessly wrong.

Some days I actually feel I might be able to do this job after all, other days I see the yawning, huge, impossible weight of all the things I don’t know and wonder what on Earth made me think it was possible for a muppet like me to ever be good enough for this.

Déjà vu

learning curve
“Some days it felt like that bloody curve would be the end of me, and some days I sprang up it like a gazelle.” Image: raywoo / Fotolia.

I felt all these feelings – every one of them – when I started my career as a veterinary surgeon. I remember the learning curve. It was steep, it was difficult, and it was painful – and even after 16 years I never made it to the top. But it did get easier over time.

Some days it felt like that bloody curve would be the end of me, and some days I sprang up it like a gazelle. But even when I felt as though I was sliding back down it, I was learning – and even those tough days made the next easier, ascending to the next peak.

It gets easier

I’m older now, and wiser, and I was expecting these feelings when I embarked on my new career. However, just like knowing you’re not going to be sleeping for a while when your baby is born, knowing it doesn’t necessarily make it easier when it happens.

But this time, I know it will get easier. It already has a little bit. I’ve had my peaks, and I’ve definitely had my troughs, but that curve gets easier to climb. The mountain slowly becomes a hill and the bumps get further apart, even if they never quite level out.

If, like me, you’re right at the bottom of it, then don’t worry. You can do this. You aren’t there by mistake, whatever your soul screams at you in the middle of the night.

Come on. Let’s climb it together.

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