I’m 37 today #illumedati 3

Hey everyone, it’s Medicine Mondays again. I don’t have all that much to talk about so I’m just going to do a stream of conscious type of post about “I’m 37 today“,

Just a fun meme I made

I’m 37 today

Am I an old man yet? Let me reminisce a little…

A lot has happened since I was a kid. It doesn’t seem all that long ago when I was in elementary school… I was just always expected to get 100% and be the top of the class. It was not even an expectation, it was an assumption. The most difficult part of those days was eating lunch as fast as possible to try to “tap a court” to play handball during recess.

Big fish. Small pond.

Then during middle school, when all the elementary schools came together and Honors classes started, I began to realize just how un-smart I was. These other guys were 100% above my level in all subjects. Many of them having already learned the math that was being taught from going to Kumon. For those who don’t know, Kumon is like extra classes during after school hours. However, there is no real limit to what is taught. As long as you master what is taught to you, you advance to the next level. For some of the kids I knew in middle school, they already knew pre-algebra and even algebra before we even started the school year.

As for me, I couldn’t understand how these guys could understand and do so well while I was floundering. I was studying so hard and trying my best, but I couldn’t be the top of the class anymore — at least not in my eyes. I’m not sure if this exists anymore, but back then, in math you had the top 7 students with their names on the chalkboard. This was updated after every test. They were called the “Super Seven”.

The Super Seven?


Grading was on a simple point system, usually 36 questions, 1 point each — with 2 bonus questions, 1 point each. So a “perfect score” was 38/36. By the end of the year, the top students were usually all above the 100% mark and could literally not take the last test and still get an A. Of course, they all did anyways because they all wanted to stay on the Super Seven. This level of competition was completely new to me — and it would eventually push me to work harder.

However, in my very first test in pre-algebra I got what amounted to a “C”, I think it was like 28/36. The first “C” I ever received on anything. Then, if you looked at the “Super Seven”, it had to be temporarily extended to 12 — because there were 12 people who all got 38/36. After that I really worked hard to make sure to try to get every last point I could on every test after that, but every day the chalkboard said:

Super Seven

  1. Shim
  2. Agrawal
  3. Kim
  4. Kim
  5. Kim
  6. Patel
  7. Chu

6 and 7 switched places some times, but 1-5 were basically set in stone. I kept plugging away though, trying to cancel out the “C” from my first test. Then on the very last test of the semester, I managed to eek out the top score, a 38/36. Finally, after a whole semester of hard work there it was:

Super Seven

  1. Shim
  2. Agrawal
  3. Kim
  4. Kim
  5. Kim
  6. Patel
  7. Nguyen

Finally, after all my work hard, my name was up there at number 7. For that last week of class before winter break my name sat there and I was so happy. Then, after winter break, I came back expecting to see my name still there at number 7… but it wasn’t to be. Winter break signaled the end of the semester and on the first day back the chalkboard was empty. All my hard work amounted to my name being on the board for only a few days. For that second semester I didn’t want the same thing to happen again and kept pace with the rest of the “Super Seven” for most of the year. I only managed to take 1st place once that year and only for a very short while.

I like to tell this story because I learned a lot from this experience, although I probably couldn’t articulate it at the time:

I learned that:

  • Success is fleeting…being exceptional once is not as important as doing well consistently.
  • Where you start off sets the tone for what you do afterwards. (biggest mistake of your life, compound interest)
  • My classmates were amazing.
  • I was very lucky.

But mostly I learned:

I was just “any other fish” in the pond now.

All of the people on that “Super Seven” board were and are special. There are Harvard, MIT, and UPenn graduates from there. A couple of them went to Cal with me (hooray for in state tuition!). All of them are exceptional individuals. I was with them all through high school and from what I know, out of the Super Seven — 3 are doctors (including me). By the way, if any of you ever see this page, I hope you’re doing well. Send me an email ([email protected]) and tell em what you’re up to.

It doesn’t end there though…

Once I went to Cal, I met so many kids who were just so so so smart. Everyone I met was either the valedictorian, or salutatorian, or got a 1580 on the SAT, or did something exceptional. More so than that, they were able to absorb information faster than me and understand it on a higher level.

I was just a “small fish in the sea” now.

Once again, I was forced tho raise to the challenge… unfortunately Organic Chemistry really crushed me. I didn’t know how I would be able to recover from it. As you may already know, I went to a Caribbean Medical School and moved on from there. I won’t bore you with the details, but I moved on internship, residency, and fellowship.

Now as a young attending, looking back on my life (as if I was an old man), I am able to reflect on my life a little. You meet so many interesting people along the way, and they affect you more than you know. The idea of being “worldly” may be considered overrated by some, but I think it’s very important.

  • If your mettle is never tested, you’ll never find your limits.
  • If you don’t struggle, you’ll only stay where you are.

The experience of being a small fish in the sea was very important. I’m not saying to just travel for the sake of travel — that’s leisure. What I’m saying is that life will probably give you opportunities to do something different or go somewhere else. It may be uncomfortable to you, but be better for your growth and your future.

After all that I know that I am just a tiny fish in the vast ocean.

However, tiny doesn’t mean insignificant. You do what you can do to the make the world a better place in your own way, in a way only you can do it.

Anything else?


I think that we learn the most during our medical careers at 3 separate points:

  1. 3rd year medical student
  2. Intern
  3. 1st year attending

These three years will be the most uncomfortable years of your life (in terms of learning). It is what I consider a perpetual state of discomfort, which fosters exponential growth.


I’m old now. Listen to me ramble.

Big fish in a small pond.

Any other fish in a small pond.

Small fish in the sea.

Tiny fish in the vast ocean.

  • If your mettle is never tested, you’ll never find your limits.
  • If you don’t struggle, you’ll only stay where you are.

Some degree of discomfort is good.

Short term perpetual discomfort fosters exponential growth.

Medicine Mondays Sensei


Agree? Disagree? Questions, Comments and Suggestions are welcome.

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3 thoughts on “I’m 37 today #illumedati

  • Anonymous

    Happy 37 years young birthday, Doctor Walter Nguyen! What a great article!
    Keep writing… Love your childhood stories! I remember your mom and I talking about taking you kids to Kumon :).
    Louise from Huntington Beach

  • Greenbacks Magnet

    Nice post. Growing up I felt like that in middle school. I was a small fish in a big pond. However, by the end of high school and college I was pulling no punches. I challenged teachers and adults if I felt I was being mistreated or not getting a fair shake. I was willing to work all night if I had to. I kept my head down and worked. Then one day I looked up and had 2 degrees, a paid off car, a home, 4 retirement accounts, and started the Personal Finance blog Greenbacks Magnet. It just goes to show that hard work and frugality can pay big dividends.


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