karyn shanks md liftoff functional medicine healing failure is our true teacher

Healing Our Lives Means Embracing Failure

My whole practice of medicine—my identity as a physician, my philosophy of what constitutes healing, and my approach to my clients—is built on a series of failures.

I tried to become an academic physician after my three-year residency in internal medicine. You know, ivory towers and the “truth.” I wanted to be part of that, where innovation and great wisdom came to bear on what we did for our patients. When my residency was winding down I spoke with the chair of the department about continuing to work in the academic hospital where I’d trained, teaching and seeing patients. My chair enthusiastically welcomed me as a new junior faculty member as soon as I finished my residency. When I told him I wanted to work part-time because my first child was due in a few months, he graciously agreed and we shook hands on our deal. I couldn’t imagine carrying a full-time patient load (in medicine this means far more than the standard forty hour work week) and be the kind of mom I wanted to be.

The department chair changed his mind when my new son was just a couple months old. “Professional physicians work full-time,” he told me. I was stunned but remained resolute about being my child’s primary care provider. But I also loved my work and was passionate about becoming a great doctor and building a medical practice. I wanted both. On my terms. And I felt it could be done. But my chair’s words reverberated inside me: You’re not a professional physician if you work part-time. Was I a wimp? Couldn’t I be a good mom on the terms that felt right for me as well as an excellent physician?

I knew in my core that my child and my aspirations as a mom must come first. And that it would, in fact, make me a better doctor to live a more balanced life than what I saw in many of my mentors. When this transpired back in the early 1990’s, physicians weren’t working part-time. I didn’t know anyone who did. They also didn’t question the horrendous work hours and treatment of interns, which was all, in my mind, institutionalized craziness. I wasn’t alone in my thinking but I was certainly alone in my actions, to turn down an academic position because of the expectation of long work hours. There was a better way—for me. I knew this. But I felt deflated and lost.

I let my love for my new son inspire my new direction. I took a temporary position at a family practice clinic in a rural area and eventually joined an internal medicine group, then was hired by a hospital to launch an integrative medicine program. I worked part-time in all these jobs and managed to balance family and my career quite successfully. Eventually I ended up where I am now, working in my own unique practice, using the knowledge and skills acquired over the past twenty-five years to address the needs of clients with chronic complex illness.

In retrospect I’m thankful that I was so stubborn and resolute. I stayed my course in spite of my deep feelings that I had failed. Though the experience was painful, I knew, without a moment of doubt or hesitation, that I had made the correct choice. I would not know for many years to come that the choice was a pivotal moment for me as a doctor and a healer. I shudder to think about what could have happened to me had I stayed in academic medicine (though I believe I would have found my way out eventually). While academics has its place in the growth of medicine, it can be a slow moving beast with great hesitancy about change, no matter how important and necessary that change is for the lives of our patients. My own curiosity and aspirations for innovation, expansion and discovery, would have been restricted. My readiness and enthusiasm to jump forward into the future of medicine and healing would have been squashed.

I am relieved that the door to academic medicine closed on me at that critical juncture of my life. My choice placed me squarely on a path of personal discovery and evolution that would lead me to a richer understanding of human beings and what constitutes healing—through Functional Medicine and body-mind wisdom. I was led to change my understanding of what the best medicine is, and to become one of the pioneers of a revolutionary sea change in medicine throughout our country and around the world. I am proud of that.

I also got to learn that failure and disappointment can open doors to better ways. Having to struggle is not necessarily a sign that we have failed as human beings or that the gods aren’t smiling on us. The popular understanding of the law of attraction over-simplifies what it takes to create the life we want by teasing us with the illusion that we can control every outcome if we just think and feel correctly. It makes us judge ourselves when we run into difficulty. The path to getting what we want contains twists and turns that we can’t anticipate and don’t expect. We may become frustrated, disenchanted or discouraged, but these experiences of “failure” may contain those necessary elements that carve us into our greater selves in ways that we could never plan or predict on our own. These are the mysterious and miraculous parts of our journey that no planning could ever account for.

Here’s my advice to you all: Screw up, fall down, mess up. This is the only way you’ll ever be able to prove to yourself that you risked trying. Every moment of every day, you are walking into the unknown. There will be change. There are risks, you may get in over your head, and, inevitably, you will fail.

And when you do fail, you must be tender with yourself as life offers up its most precious lessons to you in this way. Understand that your failures are the guideposts, the intuitive guidance, the life school that redirects you down a new and unexpected path, the path that is better for you at this time or that closes doors to old ways that no longer serve you. We must learn to say “thank you” instead of hanging our heads.

The only true failures are losing faith, giving up, or not trying in the first place. The only success is discovery, plain and simple. Life is and always will be risky and uncertain. The time has come to stop letting fear get in the way of our progress and to embrace the truth that tomorrow will be a better day. The fabric of this mysterious life is ours to create and we are all in this beautiful mess together.

“Fail, fail again, fail better.”                                                                                                                                                                                        -Pema Chodron, Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better; wise advise for leaning into the unknown.                       

How has failure shaped you?


Karyn Shanks MD


Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.


    I cannot agree with you more on the power of our failures or mistakes to catapult us into even better lives if we allow them. I see one of my most difficult lessons as a ‘gift’ to make me a better person. I am so grateful. I appreciate your site immensely and that you listened to yourself despite the obstacles to get where you are. Now I have a choice suited for me.
    Thank you.


    Thank you for your kind words, Cathy.
    Yes, failure really rocks, doesn’t it? I have
    learned to always see it as the Universe showing
    me a better way.


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