Jordan Spieth’s painful pursuit of perfection, green jackets, and learning from failure.

The Masters Tournament is almost too perfect. The golf course itself is pristine and picturesque – every vista a postcard. The golfers are skilled, the spectators robotically well behaved, the commentators obsequious in their adulation of the players, the course, the “tradition”. Even the caddies are required to dress in the same white overalls, seemingly to blend in and not distract from the scenery and spectacle. The winner is presented with a jacket, the colour of which one would select for no other purpose. The result of all this is a bizarre collision of the sporting world with the Stepford Wives, all set in Fantasyland.

Despite all this artifice and contrivance, frail humanity emerges from time to time, and it certainly did earlier this month at this year’s tournament.

Jordan-SpiethOne year ago, Jordan Spieth, a 21 year old previously unheralded professional golfer, won the tournament in rather spectacular fashion. In doing so, he displayed a degree of skill and poise that one normally associates with much more “mature” professionals. He immediately vaulted to the top of the golfing world, that world rather desperately in search of a new hero following the precipitous demise of one Mr. Woods (another story). Mr. Spieth took up the mantle with aplomb, continuing to win several tournaments over the following year, always with a reserved dignity and deference for “the game”, winning the admiration of true aficionados.

JordanSpieth2All this came crashing down about half way through the final round of this year’s tournament. At that point Mr. Spieth had been leading since the start and was a full five strokes ahead of the field. Commentators had begun the coronation, speaking in hushed, admiring tones of his youth and speculating on how many records he would break during the career before him. The fans were poised for a repeat winner. All was right in the golfing world.

And then, the improbable, the unexpected, the inexplicable…happened. Mr. Spieth began golfing like a Sunday duffer. Balls were struck in errant directions, poor swings, bad decisions, two balls in the water. In less than an hour, the five stroke lead turned into a two stroke deficit. He looked, for the first time in his young career, visibly shaken, even bewildered. The perfection Spieth3he’d achieved and come to expect based on all his prior experience seemed to abandon him. He tried valiantly to recover, but to no avail. He ended tied for second place, losing to a previously little known golfer from Britain named Danny Willet, whose manner and demeanour upon winning seemed more akin to an English Premier League soccer game, a point not lost on either the commentators nor rather staid tournament officials.

To make matters worse for Mr. Spieth, he was required to engage in the traditional ceremony that calls for the previous champion to present the green jacket to the new winner. His expression at that time really said it all.
So what will become of Mr. Spieth? Retired golfers and previous champions, when asked to comment, spoke catastrophically of the depth of trauma speculating that “he may never recover psychologically”.

Spieth4From time to time, sporting events present revealing and poignant insights into the human condition. Those insights are not provided by times of great accomplishment and perfect application of practiced skills, but rather by times like these, when all of us can identify with the person and derive insights for ourselves. Golf provides a particularly apt metaphor because the object of the game is perfection, as defined rather clearly for every hole played. We all recognize that perfection is an unobtainable aspiration, but the trap for the very proficient, like Mr. Spieth, is that they live tantalizingly close to that goal and have made it their life’s work, so that times of failure are magnified in importance and, of course, very public.

The relevance to students and practitioners of medicine is obvious. We strive for perfection and mistakes, although rare, can be both consequential and visible.

Mr. Spieth, the golfer, has come second in a tournament that was his to win, but remains one of the most proficient practitioners of his craft in the world, and retains the potential to have a long, lucrative, perhaps uniquely successful career. But the test he now faces has nothing to do with golf skill. It has everything to do with Mr. Spieth, the man, and his ability to engage the same frailties and inevitable adversities we all face in our much more mundane lives.

Folks with great potential (talent, skill, natural gifts) are relatively common in our world. Such natural aptitude that crumbles in the face of adversity is of little reliable use to anyone. And adversity, unfortunately, is inevitable for us all. It’s inevitable in the sporting world, the business world, and certainly in the study and practice of medicine.

Moreover, the ability to not only endure but to actually learn from and improve as a result of those negative experiences is a defining attribute of those few who become truly great practitioners of their chosen professions.

The term that’s become most commonly associated with this trait, is resilience, and sports clubs, businesses, the military and medical training programs, are all looking for it.

So what is resilience? Basically, it is what allows us to overcome adversity. Much is being written on the topic, but in application to Mr. Spieth’s challenge, and the challenge faced by medical folks regularly in the course of their work, it might come down to five key issues.

Commitment. Adversity tests the true depth of commitment to our chosen occupation. How much do we really wish to pursue the life we find ourselves living? For the uncommitted, adversity provides excuses and convenient exit strategies. For the truly committed, it galvanizes resolve, allows us to push through those difficult experiences, and even promotes learning from them.

Confidence. Adversity experiences challenge self-confidence. Furthermore, they provide something of an acid test as to whether the confidence that takes us to work each day is founded on a truly held, internally validated faith in our own abilities, or is an illusion buttressed by fragile external validations.

Perspective. The ability to see a single issue for what it is. One failure, no matter how dramatic and visible, should not outweigh or excessively distract from otherwise consistent success. This lesson is obviously harder for the young.

The support of people we trust. Whether friends, family or mentors, we all need people we trust to have our best interests at heart, and who possess the judgment and objectivity to help us find our way through these experiences. They are precious and indispensible.

Time. Recovery takes time. Time to renew commitment, to restore confidence, to gain perspective. The greater the trauma, the more time required. We are skilled at deferring, but ultimately cannot and should not avoid coming to grips with negative experiences at some point. “Pay me now, or pay me later”.

Having said all this, I’m not worried about Mr. Spieth. It seems, at least to the casual observer, that he has the first two attributes well in hand. His family and friends, I’m sure, will provide the perspective, and time is on his side. He is, and will continue to be, a highly successful golfer. This experience will likely make him an even greater golfer, and even more admired for having overcome it. By undergoing his adversity experience in such a public and dramatic fashion, he provides us all a gift of insight that we can apply in our imperfect lives and careers, perhaps something far beyond golf and the pursuit of green jackets.



Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Associate Dean,
Undergraduate Medical Education

8 Responses to Jordan Spieth’s painful pursuit of perfection, green jackets, and learning from failure.

  1. Dr. S,

    As always, thanks for the great post! Golf analogies usually resonate with me….

    I find the “support of people we trust” pillar particularly compelling. For Spieth one such person seems to be his caddy, Michael Greller. Objectively, Greller, a former math teacher, really has no business being on the PGA. But interestingly, he describes his role as Spieth’s “personality manager” as more central to his job, even more so than providing any added expertise about the game. Spieth has unreasonably high expectations of himself, and Greller seemingly helps him manage those expectations towards a positive effect. In the interviews after the Sunday round, you hear Greller say “our loss” and “we could’ve done better”. There is something to be said for working shot by shot with somebody who is trying to help make you the best version of yourself. Finding your Greller, and being someone’s Greller are noble goals but often actually quite difficult as medical students and residents in our current model of education that sees us rotating so frequently. I would venture that the development of such powerful and unique day-to-day working relationships, and the ability for them to positively influence our resiliency, takes more than a couple of weeks at a time.

    You can bet Spieth (and Greller) will be back at Augusta next year, just as we’ll walk through the doors of KGH tomorrow morning. I’ll try to be as forgiving of myself and supportive of my colleagues as I was of him while watching a few weeks ago.


  2. Alex Menard says:

    Dr Sanfilippo,

    Another home run (or Eagle???) Thoroughly enjoyed it. As we discuss resilience, grit, perseverance in medical trainees, we seem to forget to share our own personal failures. M&M rounds seem to lean more towards the great saves, or the interesting cases, and less about our own medicine failures. Some researchers (A Duckworth) believe that resilience can be developed and trained. It may be of benefit to our trainees for us to share some of our failures, how it affected us, and how we dealt with it. I’ve certainly learned more from studying my failures (I’ve had my share) and my colleagues (a rare occurrence similar to a solar eclipse, but still worth looking at!), than from looking at my successes.

    At our own international conference (SIR), the event usually ends with a large M&M round. It is the most popular session, and the most valuable. The biggest names in my discipline present rather impressive misses and mistakes, and we all leave the room with a higher level of respect for them, and new knowledge and confidence to deal with future failures.

    Expectations from our trainees are high, and I wonder if they would be better equipped to deal with their future disappointments and failures if we shared some of ours.



    • Great comment Alex. Physicians of all specialties continue to find sharing of experiences (good and bad) the very best learning experience. As you note, it’s not just about knowledge transmission, but also about the sharing among colleagues of positive and negative outcomes, mutual support, and modelling those practices for our learners.

  3. David Walker says:

    I remember in gritty detail making sequential and progressively immutable mistakes in the care of a very sick young man very early in my training absent any meaningful or helpful supervision. Despite all odds and my mistakes, he survived but until he did I found myself in a very dark existential place. He and I were lucky and I learned a great deal of medicine and more about myself during that one episode. This experience helped me significantly when things went wrong or I failed my patients in my subsequent career. Advances in the way we create systems to reduce error acknowledge our frailty, but we need somehow to be able to achieve the learning that accompanies failure without the harm to others. Osler would agree. That is why I play golf.

  4. Kunal Jain says:

    Extremely well-written, Dr. Sanfilippo, and anything to do with golf is right down my alley! If I may, I would wonder why you suggest that the lesson involved with perspective is especially harder for the young? Is it because we are earlier on in our stages of development, and thus, have had less relative successful experiences to which to compare? I would be interested in hearing your opinion on this. Again, really enjoyed reading the article! Thanks.
    – KJ

    • One of the few advantages of getting older Kunal (and are there are very few indeed), is that one accumulates a sufficient number of both positive and negative experiences that their impact is felt as part of a greater body of professional or personal activity. Individual events thus have less personal impact. For the young, such experiences are few, or may be completely new, thus more difficult to place in perspective. This also speaks to the crucial role of mentors, who can help provide that perspective.

  5. Sheila Pinchin says:

    I’m late reading this blog article, but so glad I’ve come to it. Resilience is a word that speaks to all of us, physicians and non-physicians and Dr. Sanfilippo, you’ve helped us with your wonderful way with metaphor to see how it can be a helpful and fruitful part of our lives. Thank you!

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