Four Pillars of Success for Every Physician

by Jen Barna MD | Life Journey, Podcast, Resilience

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DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast

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“That reminds me of Richard Branson, the billionaire entrepreneur. People have asked him often, what is his key to success and one of the things he says is, I’m just not as afraid of failure as everybody else because I learn something so important every time something goes different than what I planned it to be. He doesn’t even say something goes wrong or ‘I failed.’ And so that reminds me so much of listening to your stories of being able to say ‘Oh yeah, I thought it would go that way, but look how it’s gone differently.’ I mean it’s no surprise to me that you became a scientist and that you have solved so many problems for so many people because you look at each problem as possibility, not as a measure of your self worth immediately in the moment whether it goes exactly as planned. So I love that.”- Jill Farmer

Join co-lead Coach, Jill Farmer as she sits down with the fascinating Dr. Lillit Garibyan, MD PhD.  They discuss Dr. Garibyan’s four keys to success that led a 12 year old immigrant to become one of the leaders and great innovators in her field of medicine at Harvard University:

  1. Trust that we can learn and explore when we are in difficult situations.  You don’t have to know everything to be an expert.
  2. Every problem can be a possibility.
  3. Be a Trail Blazer.
  4. When you’re on that journey to the unknown, commit to it and execute.  This is the hero’s part of the journey where you have to stick with it and power through. Recognize that there will be ups and downs. There always are, even for the most successful people in the world.

Tune in to get inspired and learn The Four Pillars that have served Dr. Garibyan throughout her life. Dr. Garibyan is a  board certified dermatologist who specializes in medical, surgical and cosmetic/laser dermatology. She is also a lecturer in dermatology at Harvard Medical School where she conducts cutting-edge and innovative research in dermatology. She is the co-founder of the Magic Wand Initiative [email protected] Find more info on Dr. Garibyan here:

Are you a physician who would like to tell your story? Reach out to Jen at [email protected]   And if you like our podcast and would like to subscribe and leave us a 5 star review, we would be extremely grateful!  Some links in our blogs and show notes are affiliate links, and purchases made via those links may result in small payments to DW. These help toward our production costs. Thank you for supporting DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast! Occasionally, we discuss financial and legal topics. We are not financial or legal professionals. Please consult a licensed professional for financial or legal advice regarding your specific situation.

Podcast produced by: Amanda Taran

Please enjoy the full transcript below

Jill: That reminds me of Richard Branson, the billionaire entrepreneur. People have asked him often, “What is his key to success?” One of the things he says is, “I’m just not as afraid of failure as everybody else because I learn something so important every time something goes different than what I planned it to be.” He doesn’t even say something goes wrong or I failed. And so that reminds me so much of listening to your stories of being able to say “Oh yeah, I thought it would go that way, but look how it’s gone differently.” It’s no surprise to me that you became a scientist and that you have solved so many problems for so many people because you look at each problem as a possibility, not as a measure of your self-worth immediately in the moment whether it goes exactly as planned. So, I love that.

[DocWorking theme]

Jen: Hi, this is Dr. Jen Barna. Welcome to DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. At DocWorking, our specialty is coaching physicians to achieve the best of life and medicine. This is the podcast where we talk with doctors about real life outside of medicine. 

Jill: Hello, and welcome everyone. I’m Jill Farmer, one of the lead coaches at And I am so excited today to be joined by Dr. Lilit Garibyan, an MD, PhD from Harvard Medical School. We’re going to be talking today about ‘The Four Pillars of Success’ that have really helped Dr. Garibyan come from a life as an immigrant who literally came to this country with nothing to now be an incredible doctor who’s really making inroads and discoveries that could lead to some very important things in medicine. So, Dr. Garibyan, thank you so much Lilit for being here. It’s just really exciting to be able to have this conversation with you today. But before we get into those four pillars, let’s just start with your story. Tell us how you came to the United States, and what life looked like for you and your family when you came here first.

Dr. Lilit: Yeah, well, thank you so much, Jill for having me here today. I’m very honored to have this opportunity to speak with you. I always learn stuff from you. So, it’s great to be here. I will start by telling everyone that my family and I immigrated to the United States in 1991 from Armenia. I was 12 years old at that time and we left Armenia, because war broke out with one of the neighboring countries Azerbaijan, my family just wanted us to be safe and have a better future. So, we just left to come to the United States for better opportunities. However, at that time, we weren’t really prepared for it, because we didn’t plan on it. So, none of us spoke English, we didn’t have any roadmap of what America is or how it works, the system here. So, it was very challenging to come here and start from scratch as a teenager, you know, those were also challenging years for me. 

Because my parents didn’t speak English, it was hard to get jobs. So, socio-economically, we had to struggle for many years. But I think the key part that helped us survive and thrive in the United States was our love for knowledge and learning. At least for me, personally, that’s what really got me to where I am today. Starting from junior high at which point I was in ESL, which is English for second language level zero, I didn’t even speak enough to be level one. I started my journey from there and by sophomore year of high school, I was in honors English. So, I really worked hard and believed in the fact that my love for education, and my love for learning new knowledge will get me to where I am today.

Jill: Yeah, and I know that’s that first pillar, that we’re going to talk about today. There are four pillars of success is learning, trusting that we can learn and explore when we’re in challenging situations, and that can move us through them. I think that was such a powerful imprint for you. I know, based on our earlier conversations that learning the language and doing what you needed to do to learn the language was the pathway toward you being able to achieve what you wanted to achieve in those early years. It definitely left an imprint on you. I even see it in your work and in practice. Now, if you don’t know something, your first inclination is to dive in and get more information and learn. Is that true?

Dr. Lilit: Correct. Because, Jill, none of us are born knowing everything. 

Jill: Right. 

Dr. Lilit: There’s always situations where we are faced with new opportunities or new environments where we don’t know how things work. Because I’ve had that experience where I’d like took knowledge, learned it, and allowed it to get me to where I am, now, I almost rely on that as a way of life and I would have highly recommend everyone to do that. There’s a lot of books and seminars, and now, with the

web, and our access to information, one could learn almost anything. So, if there’s something new that you don’t know how it works, or you want to try a new position, or a job, or opportunity, I highly recommend starting by seeking that knowledge, learning from books, seminars, and talking to people.

Jill: Yeah, and I love this. Because it separates what I think can be a problem for a lot of physicians, which is this presumption because they’ve always been smart and in high achieving, that they should already know everything. They forget that the real achievement and success in life comes not from just automatically already having that fixed intelligence, it comes from the ability to problem solve, and to move through, and learn what you need to do in challenging situations. So, I think, it’s that growth mindset versus the fixed mindset stuff. In your case, a lot of physicians are used to always being the A+ student, and being recognized as their– with their high academic potential. I know, in your case, you had that really hard work that led you from not having mastery of the language to high level English. But you also had teachers in high school that were basically telling you, “You weren’t college material.” Isn’t that true?

Dr. Lilit: Yes. I think the hardest part is believing in yourself at the beginning, when you’re not a master in the new knowledge and information and not giving up, because you’re going to have, the naysayers who try to put you down, who try to say, you’re not worth it or you’re not going to be able to get it, I mean, I had a high school counselor who told me not to even apply to college. I probably won’t get in because my SAT scores were average, because my verbal score was low. It kind of brought down the average. But a classmate told me, “You know, Lilit, what do you have to lose, just go ahead and apply.” 

Because we were a low-income family, four of the UC systems, you could even apply for free. We were living in California at that time. So, I said, “That’s true. I have nothing to lose. I don’t even have to pay for this.” So, I applied and I got it. I was so excited. So, I ran back to tell the school counselor that, “Look, I got in,” and he was shocked, too. He sat me down, he said, “Well, this is great, but I really want you to do well, when you go to college. So, I would highly recommend that you go two years to Glendale Community College, and then transfer to UCLA. UCLA is very hard, I’m not sure if you could handle it. I’m doing this really for you. I want you to succeed.” That was a really eye-opening experience, because these are the people that are there to encourage you, to support you. Yet, they’re trying to hold you back. 

At that time, my parents didn’t have money. I had to take some loans, I didn’t know what loans were. When I asked they said, “Oh, this is a money you borrow, and if you go and you don’t do well, then they’ll take you to jail if you can’t pay back this money.” So, here I was. Having my school counselor tell me that, I’m not qualified to go that I probably will fail if I go, I have to take a loan, and if I don’t pay back, I’m going to go to jail. So, I had to make a decision. Am I going to go to UCLA or not? So, situations like that really make you wonder what steps to take and I’m glad that I did the right thing, and I went, because I truly believe in my love for knowledge and my ability to learn, and I trust that, that will help me succeed. But like you said, I think at the beginning, it’s difficult and most people give up at that time, but I hope that people start believing and being a little bit more confident about themselves and keep going because eventually it will pay off.

Jill: Yeah, and it leads us to our second pillar. So, the first pillar is really trust in your ability to learn and explore. You don’t already have to know everything or be the expert. Trust in that ability as a way to help you build success. The second one I love is that every problem can become a possibility. So, tell me what led you to that awareness. What experience, specific experience in your own life led you to that truth? 

Dr. Lilit: Yeah, so, there were a lot of situations in life and especially early on growing up that I saw it as a problem. For example, we needed to buy basketball shoes for being part of the basketball team in high school. I didn’t really have the money to do that. My parents didn’t have the money. So, that was a problem. But instead of allowing that problem take over me, make me feel bad, give up, or just feel as a victim, what I chose to do, I said, “Okay, this is the problem, but what if this is an opportunity for me to do something new to try to find the money for this?” So, what I did is I worked in the cafeteria and I got a job doing [unintelligible [00:10:01]. I tutored classmates, I drove rich kids to make money. So, I made that extra money and paid for the shoes. 

At the time, the purpose was really just the shoes. But when I look back now, honestly, those experiences like really helped me develop my interpersonal skills and how to interact with people. It ended up paying me much more than just those shoes. But it helped me solve the problem. The same thing in UCLA. We didn’t have money for some of the tuition. So, I also got a job working as a security officer in the police department. Again, met such great people to help me make my experience at UCLA even more enjoyable. And also, during breaks, a lot of kids would go to vacations, because they could afford and my family didn’t have that opportunity. So, I could have just felt that, “Oh, no, this is such a problem. I can’t go on vacations, I can’t have fun.” 

But I viewed it as well. On the positive side, I’m home. I have the textbooks for next semester. I could sit and read everything and be prepared. So, I always try to look at the positive side of everything. Because that’s what keeps you going. If you start looking at the negative, then that really puts you down and creates this negative feeling where you just don’t want to continue anymore. But if you just flip it and reframe the problem and just say, “You know what, maybe this is an opportunity for me to learn,” and focus on that, then you will find more energy to keep going.

Jill: Yeah, and That reminds me of Richard Branson, the billionaire entrepreneur. People have asked him often, “What is his key to success?” One of the things he says is, “I’m just not as afraid of failure as everybody else because I learn something so important every time something goes different than what I planned it to be.” He doesn’t even say something goes wrong or I failed but he just says– and so that reminds me so much of listening to your stories of being able to say “Oh, yeah, I thought it would go that way, but look how it’s gone differently.” I mean, it’s no surprise to me that you became a scientist and that you have solved so many problems for so many people because you look at each problem as possibility, not as a measure of your self-worth immediately in the moment whether it goes exactly as planned. So, I love that. So, pillar number three is to be a trailblazer. So, tell us how you have been able to be a trailblazer and why you think more people need to be able to appreciate that within themselves as a pillar of success?

Dr. Lilit: Thank you. Well, for my own life here in the US, I’m the first one from our family to go to college, graduate, get MD and PhD degrees from Harvard. So, that really has been a trailblazing experience. To do that without any support from the people that you’re close to, it was difficult. But I think looking back now, it was one of the best experiences, because you set an example for not just your family, but everybody else who comes from similar backgrounds as you. But here I want to take the opportunity to talk about my research because I think that is a great example of how I was able to blaze new trails in the research work that I’m doing. So, my PhD at Harvard was in immunology. When I was doing the dermatology residency, I’ve met this inspiring professor, Dr. Rox Anderson, who is laser and device technology development expert, and he’s developed a lot of the lasers we have in dermatology like laser hair removal, laser tattoo removal, CoolSculpting, which is a fat removal procedure. So, he was talking about CoolSculpting. 

When I was a resident and he said that this device is very popular, over 15 million treatments have been done worldwide by patients. But one of the major side effects from it, which is completely reversible. But it’s this numbness in the treated area that lasts about six to eight weeks. When I first heard about it, I was like, “Wow, this is amazing. What if we could induce that numbness or loss of sensation in areas where people feel pain and itch.” This lasts for about six to eight weeks, and then it goes back to normal. But you could treat their symptoms for six to eight weeks. We don’t have great

therapies for itch and pain and we see patients come and complain about this every day dermatology clinics. 

So, I approached him and I asked him, “You know, if I could join his lab to study this.” Honestly, at that time, I had no idea how neurobiology worked, how the nerves on the skin really functioned. My background was totally in something different. I didn’t have engineering background or device development background, but I really felt passionate about this problem, and I wanted to study it, and I wanted to learn it, and he said, “Sure, come and join my lab.” So, for me like to take that step to blaze new trail of learning something completely new was a great opportunity, because the success now is just amazing. How much we discovered and how much we developed from the study that I will probably talk about later.

Jill: Yeah, we’re going to do a whole another podcast just about that whole exciting journey. Because being a trailblazer requires an ability to not be certain about everything. I think that’s something that you really embody beautifully, that can be an inspiration to all of us. Well, I’ll learn new things, and I’m willing to work through problems as a possibility and to reframe them. So, I’m not just quitting when things don’t go as expected. But then, I’ve got to find that within me a courage to be willing to move forward into unknown territory. 

I think what you’re reminding us with this pillar is you named it in your own life looking at the things that worked for you to create success is you’re reminding us that that’s where the real magic happens. When we really get brave enough to try the absolutely new thing, and then just be willing to let it deliver and show us. You could never could have known, I’m guessing as you were that PhD student switching into this new area, all of the different things that would unfold for you at that moment. You just knew you just wanted to try it.

Dr. Lilit: You know, we as physicians have that a lot like, we always want to play it safe and not take risks. I could have stayed in immunology. I knew the field really well. I did a PhD, and then I could have published lots of papers, I would have hit the ground running from day one and build on what I already had. But what I learned is that, when you feel passionate about something, take a chance. If you really feel that you want to do it, don’t let fear hold you back. Because you will never know what more you have to give until you take that step. They call this stretch assignments or stretch opportunities from the books that I’m reading, I didn’t know that that was the term. 

But if you always play it safe, you will just constrain yourself to this one path, and you won’t allow yourself to try new experiences where you might even be better in that. I feel like I’m better in what I do now than immunology, because I really love it and it creates more opportunities. So, my advice would be to just take a risk. You never know where it’s going to take you, but you have to do it for the journey, and-

Jill: Right. 

Dr. Lilit: -not for, I’m going to get this out of this. 

Jill: The outcome.

Dr. Lilit: Exactly. [laughs] 

Jill: Right. We get so attached to the outcome that it just holds us back and keeps us small in so many ways instead of committing to exploration of the journey, which you remind us. Then the fourth pillar which you identify that have helped you build success. I know you want this to inspire other people to is when you’re on that journey in the unknown, commit to it and execute, which is another way of saying, this is the hero’s part of the journey where you have to be willing to stick with it and move through. Tell us a little bit about how you came to that and how this pillar has led you to success?

Dr. Lilit: Yeah, so, Jill, this is where you know, when people hear success stories, they feel like everything just worked out by magic.

Jill: [laughs] 

Dr. Lilit: A lot of times, we just hear the beginning and the end and you’re like, “Wow.” You think like it was a straight shot. But in reality, everybody has ups and downs. Even great companies like Amazon, or other big successful people have had their ups and downs, and that’s the reality. Everybody goes through this roller coaster ride. The most important part is, if you have committed to the journey, is when you’re on the downfall, don’t give up. You have to believe that, “Okay, the up part is going to come.” When you’re in the up, you have to know that it’s going to go down again at one point. [laughs] 

So, I think being prepared for that mentally is what helps you to keep going. My advice is that, don’t give up, don’t get bogged down with getting everything perfect. You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to have downtimes, you’re not going to know everything, and you’re not going to have everything figured out in your journey right. But you have to keep your eye on the prize and focus on what’s in front of you, and take it one step at a time. I think that’s what really has helped me to stay committed to what I’m doing. I really want to make a new therapy that I could bring back to patients and help them and I keep reminding myself every day, “Why am I doing this, especially in those downtimes?” Because honestly, at the end of the day, there’s nothing more rewarding than to see a new technology benefit a patient and to say that you had a hand in doing this. To me, that’s what really keeps me going.

Jill: Yeah, very powerful. Dr. Lilit Garibyan, thank you so much for sharing your four pillars of success. Again, they are number one, learn and explore. Number two, every problem is a possibility. Number three, be a trailblazer. And number four, commit to the journey and execute. It has been so great to have you here on DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast.

Dr. Lilit: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure being here. 

Jill: Make sure listeners that you tune in. We’re going to have some more conversations with Dr. Garibyan as well about some things that we touched on, but that are really exciting, so that you can have some understanding about some things that she’s cofounded, that could really revolutionize medicine, so make sure you tune in for those as well. Until next time, we’ll see ya.

[DocWorking theme]

Amanda: Hello, and thank you for listening. This is Amanda Taran. I’m the producer of the DocWorking Podcast. If you enjoyed our podcast, please like and subscribe. We would also love it if you check out our website, which is And you can also find us on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. Our Instagram is @docworkingone and that is with the number one. When you check us out on social, please let us know what you would like to hear on the podcast. Your feedback really means a lot to us. And if you’re a physician with a story to tell, please reach out to Jen at [email protected]. Thank you, again, and we’ll see you next time.


Board-certified practicing radiologist, founder and CEO of DocWorking, and host of top ranked DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast

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