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Veterinary School is Not Like Real Life

Sharing a beer with him at the North American Veterinary Conference (NAVC) this week, I felt like I was talking to a younger version of myself.

He had only graduated from veterinary college 11 months ago, and that light of hope we all enter school with, still shone in his young eyes. But I saw pain too, a pain I well recognized.

“Veterinary school really beats you down” I heard him say. “They crush your spirit. Break you apart, tell you that you’re no good, that you’ve never been good in the past, that you’ll never be good in the future.”

A lot has been written lately about the potential consequences of excessive praise during childhood. That children raised to be “hard workers” develop resiliency, creativity, and a can-do attitude that carries them through life’s inevitable challenges. Children who are told they are “intelligent” learn to focus only on the end result of succeeding at the task, not the process involved. These children learn that failing a task is equivalent to failing as a human being; as a result, they limit their risk of exposure to failure, and resist taking on new challenges.

A veterinary recruiter in another lecture at NAVC revealed her perspective: every veterinarian is smart. You have to be, to get into veterinary school in the first place. Being smart is a baseline, expected trait, and it’s not enough to get you hired. It’s emotional intelligence (which is a learned skill) where some of us are lacking: the ability to monitor, discriminate between, label appropriately, and react to one’s own and other people’s emotions, and to use that information to guide thinking and behavior.

Back to my new young colleague. “I failed a class in veterinary school once” he admitted. “It’s the first time in my life I failed a course. I had to repeat the course, and the shame of that failure followed me through the rest of school. Every time there was a new project, I was labelled as the guy who had to do a repeat.”

The worst part of this failure, my friend revealed, was that he was wholly unprepared to deal with the emotional consequences of failure on his own, with no parents, or teachers to rescue him and tell him how smart he was. Life was teaching him that he was not, in fact, perfect. Repeating the class wasn’t that much work, and he passed easily the second time. Dealing with the fear that his classmates thought less of him because he had to repeat the class, was crushing to a young man who wasn’t used to failure.

“They don’t teach you how to be a leader in veterinary school” my new friend continued. “There are no classes about how to run a business, or how to attract, train and retain great staff. They teach you how to study for tests, pass classes, and compare yourself to your colleagues, all of whom seem smarter than you”.

I believe this young man’s experience is far from unique. Many times through the years, I’ve spoken with colleagues, who nearly break down in tears telling me how they were constantly compared against their classmates in veterinary school, and could never quite “measure up”.

What happens next though, varies widely between individuals, and that’s where things get particularly interesting. How do these young students, failing for the first time in their genius lives, handle those failures?

In one small animal surgical lab back at school, the first time I had ever attempted to sew anything, ever, I was asked to repair a cut section of rubber tube using various techniques, all of which I was supposed to have memorized by that day. The instructor, a board-certified surgeon, wrote on my report that my knowledge of surgical throws was sub-par, and implied that if I didn’t improve quickly, I was never going to amount to much of a surgeon. My classmates in this course were some of our highest achievers, and failing in front of them was embarrassing. So embarrassing, in fact, that after graduation, I accepted an internship directed towards training me to become an internal medicine specialist, just so that I would never have to sew anything, ever again. Just because of that one lab. Eek!

Avoiding failure was my initial plan of action, and it could have changed my entire career. Luckily for me (since I’m pretty darn happy with how my life has turned out so far) I didn’t achieve my residency after this year-long internship. It turns out after a whole lot of years of hard work and practice, I’ve become a pretty darn good surgeon. Which leads me to…

…the story of a different lab back at veterinary school, this time with horse people, I was asked to learn how to tie a quick-release knot, used to tie a halter rope to a fixed object that could be quickly untied in case the horse freaked out and tried to strangle itself. For those who know me, you know I’m not a horse person. Honestly, it was not very important to my long term goals whether or not I passed the course. But it’s a funny thing. The instructor of this course taught very differently, and while he was quite emphatic about the importance of this knot, he also understood that some of us had never been around a horse before, and were understandably intimidated. Plus, my fellow students in this course – all of whom had grown up with horses – were so encouraging and reassuring about my ability to learn this knot, that I spent weeks, months, practicing, and practicing, and practicing the knot until I could do it in my sleep. Do I work on horses now? Heck no. But you better believe I tie everything, and I’m talking everything, with this quick-release knot now. When I take Leo to the grocery store, I tie his balloon to the shopping cart with a quick-release knot. Tying up a branch in my back yard? Quick-release knot. In fact, if I’m tying anything to a fixed object now, I can’t do it without a quick-release knot. That knot is in my bones now. And all because I was encouraged to do something new, and convinced by my teacher, and my peers, that I could do it.

Back to my new friend, the young graduate sharing his story of failure and anxiety, at NAVC. His take-away from failing that course in veterinary school was that the secret to success in life, was to read more books, take more classes, practice more techniques, and become the best veterinarian he can be. So that if he tried hard enough, and learned enough things, he might never fail again.

My new friend revealed he had no plans to own his own practice, mostly because nobody had taught him how to own a practice. Learning by trial and error was, of course, too risky. He knew exactly how to be an employee, however, so to avoid yet another failure, his plan was to work for a large corporate practice for the foreseeable future.

I cringed, but I understood where he was coming from, since I had done the same thing for 10 years before starting Leo’s Pet Care.

As we all have painfully learned during the last little while, suicide is prevalent in veterinary medicine, and some of our colleagues are hiding very painful secrets. Perhaps you know someone who is holding herself to an unreasonably high standard, or beating himself up for perceived failures. Surely you know a colleague who has cried in self-loathing after a perfectly normal, reasonable, expected case complication.

None of us is perfect. And in fact, it turns out that when we try to be perfect, we are less effective at helping our clients, none of whom are perfect, or expect us to be perfect, either.

I told my young new friend at NAVC this, and lots of other things during our short meeting. “No matter how confident you feel about your current role as the relatively powerless employee of a large, safe corporation now, it’s entirely possible – likely even – that your goals may change in the future. You may change gears, and fall in love with some completely new aspect of veterinary medicine that you couldn’t even imagine yourself doing now. That’s OK, and doesn’t mean you’ve failed at being an employee, it just means you’ve grown, and you’re ready for your next adventure.”

I’m not sure he heard the subtle empathy and reassurance that I was trying to deliver, but I’m hoping maybe, he will hear my voice in the back of his mind, encouraging him to try, the next time he considers practice ownership, or attempting a new surgical procedure, or the next time a patient dies that shouldn’t have died.

You know how people always say “I wish I knew then, what I know now”? Well, it’s possible, and it might be easier than we think.

Mentor a young person (or a bunch of young people!). Teach them that mistakes are inevitable, change is inevitable, death is inevitable, failure is inevitable. And, if you’re brave, and you try hard enough, and are willing to accept the possibility that you might screw the whole thing up, even you can learn how to run a veterinary practice, or tie a quick-release knot.

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