The Pursuit of Proficiency: Follow These Tips to Climb Any Mountain


What my experience in pharmacy, jazz piano and language studies have in common

Think back to the first year in pharmacy school. How much did you know? How do you think you would have been able to handle being thrown into a pharmacy and asked to perform? The answer is most likely that you would have been completely incapable of doing the job, just like the rest of us. During our time in pharmacy school, we developed the ability to “start walking” in pharmacy and have been able to build on that since graduating to become proficient practitioners. Bridging the gap between the first year and today is a lot of growth and development. That did not happen by chance; rather, it was a carefully crafted curriculum that provided the pressure, in the form of grades, for example, and support to instill in us the necessary knowledge and abilities. What seemed impossible at first now feels comfortable.

Just like pharmacy, I have felt that on my journey to become proficient in other skills I have pursued. For me, that has namely been jazz piano and the Japanese language. Both these, as well as pharmacy, have felt frustrating and overwhelming, yet exciting at the same time. With jazz, I have memories of showing up at jam sessions every week at Tallula’s in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I mostly watched and tried to take it in, but I sat in on a song some of the time, and some of the time I crashed and burned. However, I also remember once calling a tune I knew very well, "Blue Bossa," and killing it. And that feeling gave me the motivation to go back and work even harder. My second home, besides pharmacy school, was music school. With Japanese, I remember the first time I held a conversation without using English for 45 minutes. It was not correct or pretty, but my language partner could still understand what I wanted to say well enough, and it was an incredible feeling. And though I still am very much on my journey with Japanese, I have come a long way.

One thing I have realized through these experiences is that long-term goals that require years of study and practice have common themes tying them together. Understanding that allows us to make the most use of our time and have a better perspective on the development of those goals.

Here are some tips to tackle the most difficult goals:

1. Most skills require a careful blend of theory, practice, and real-world experience. The combination of these 3 things, over time is what will develop proficiency in a skill. For pharmacy, there is a lot of bookwork and theory involved, but there are also skills in compounding and patient counseling, for example, that cannot be learned solely from a book. These skills must be practiced. In addition, one needs experience in a pharmacy to combine all those learned skills and do it within the workflow but adding the pressure of time constraints. As a student, you could spend an hour looking something up, but as a pharmacist that is nearly impossible. Using jazz piano as a comparison, this is similar to learning the bookwork of music theory, then the skill of scales and chords, then practicing songs with a play-along, and finally gaining experience in jam sessions with people watching.

2. Surround yourself with people better than you who want to see you succeed. Just like we had preceptors to guide us through the journey of student to pharmacist, we should surround ourselves with people who have already developed the skill we are seeking and who want us to succeed. This pushes us out of our comfort zone and forces development and growth in our attempt to keep up with them. A great benefit is that we can make a lot of friends with similar interests along the way. Obviously, with languages this would be a language partner who is a native speaker of the target language.

3. Practice to your weaknesses. If you have read the most recent diabetes guidelines several times and know them fairly well, for example, then you will not grow much by reading them again. Instead, do a continuing-education course on an unfamiliar topic, or read a guideline you haven’t read in a while. I can play a B-flat blues in my sleep, so if I am practicing, why would I practice that? Practicing to our weaknesses makes the best use of time and allows us to improve much faster.

4. Find a way to reflect on your progress. Find a way to look back periodically and see how much you have improved, because that can be difficult on a daily basis. For example, I have a couple of books that are bilingual English/Japanese with translation notes in the back. That book was impossible when I had only been studying 6 months or so. I have looked back every few months at that book after not seeing it for a while, and it looking easier each time let me know that I was on the right path.

5. Be patient and enjoy the journey. If you keep the above in mind, you will develop the skill you are after. In the meantime, enjoy the process, and know that with every hour you spend on something important, you are improving. One day, without even really knowing when you did it, you will realize that you reached your goal and are capable of performing the skill you set out to learn. One of my music professors in school said it nicely: “Jazz is a journey; enjoy it.”

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