Discharge Notes columnist Dr. Andy Roark is a practicing veterinarian, international speaker and author. He founded the Uncharted Veterinary Conference. His Facebook page, podcast, website and YouTube show reach millions of people every month. Dr. Roark is a three-time winner of the NAVC Practice Management Speaker of the Year Award. Learn more at drandyroark.comRead Articles Written by Andy Roark
I got stuck in traffic one morning behind the city yard-waste truck. It stopped at every house so a front-end loader could pick up and deposit piles of leaves and fallen tree limbs. There was no way around, and the workers seemed oblivious to the mile-long traffic jam they unintentionally created. To make matters worse, this happened on my way to jury duty. I had received a summons in the mail three weeks earlier and quickly learned that not having time for jury duty does not excuse you. In fact, when I told my brother, a lawyer, that dispensing fair and balanced justice didn’t fit into my work schedule, he did not spare my feelings. He said, “You have zero power in this situation.”
That line really got to me.
Let me be vulnerable here and flatly say I do not like how little control I have over reality. The idea that the world around me couldn’t care less about my schedule, my SMART goals, my commitments or what is convenient for me can’t be right, can it?
At some level, a stubborn little corner of my brain insists that if I just talk things out with reality, we surely could come to a mutually beneficial solution that accommodates my needs and wants.
My frustration with reality’s poor customer service seems to increase as I age. Sure, I’m always irritated when pet owners don’t follow my advice, fellow parents drop off their sick children at our house for sleepovers, and Mondays (despite my dislike of them) continue to happen. Lately, however, I feel as though reality is really testing me. The pandemic. A labor shortage. Inflation. Middle age. (The years are taking a toll on my body in a way that suggests time doesn’t care a whit about the age I feel on the inside.)
Given how much I dislike not controlling reality, and how reality seems to increasingly flaunt my lack of authority, I have struggled mightily to find inner peace (or even conceptualize what inner peace looks like). As I look around our profession and see people struggling with hiring, workloads, customer service and pricing, I suspect many of my colleagues would like a little help navigating a reality in which we human beings seem to have so little control over so much of our world.
The Shopping Cart Incident
The day before the traffic jam, I went shopping with my wife. We paid for our groceries and rolled our cart out the automatic doors and into the largely empty parking lot. Another shopper followed directly behind us, wheeling her own cart.
After we passed a few cars, a bag on the bottom of my cart began to fall. My wife asked me to stop the cart so she could intervene. As I came to a halt, the woman wheeling her cart behind us almost ran into me and then stopped.
As my wife balanced the load, I had that sense of being watched closely, so I turned around. The other shopper, inexplicably, was standing directly behind me. She sighed, rolled her eyes and continued to wait for us to resume our journey forward. It was as if she thought she couldn’t pass us, that we were driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic instead of pushing shopping carts through a wide-open parking lot. She did not move until we restarted our trek to the car.
When we got in the car, I asked my wife, “Should I have pulled over?”
In retrospect, I can see that maybe the woman felt as I did when I was stuck behind the truck on my way to jury duty.
When struggling to accept the realities of our world, I think a critical piece of our strategy has to be differentiating what we control from what we do not. Some obstacles, like gravity, rainy days and taxes, must be accepted. I cannot change the fact that I was summoned to jury duty any more than I can change the fact that traffic was terrible on my drive there. The shopper behind me had zero control over the fact that I stopped my cart directly in front of her. Those are all realities.
Ironically, once we accept what’s beyond our control, we get some control back. We get to decide whether we are victims of the circumstances imposed upon us or whether we are people who will do whatever is necessary to be successful within the reality we face.
Once we accept reality and understand we can’t change it — traffic is horrible, I have a date with a judge, the shopping cart stopped right in front of me — we have a chance to exercise some autonomy.
For example, the choices available to me when I was stuck behind the truck were:
- Sweat and rage aloud in my car.
- Relax and wait.
Either way, I had the choice to call the courthouse to communicate my lateness or not call and just hope for the best when I got there. Those were my options.
When the woman following me in the parking lot accepted the reality that I was stopping my cart, she also had options. She could wait for me (which she did), or she could steer her cart around me and keep going. The power was hers, but the frustration on her face indicated that whatever would happen next was utterly beyond her control. I now wonder: When I stopped my cart, had she experienced so many powerless situations in her life that her mind instantly assumed this was another one? Maybe she had gotten stuck behind too many yard trucks.
My shopping cart story:
- Is 100% true.
- Clearly illustrates how we can slip into seeing ourselves as victims of our circumstances instead of empowered decision-makers operating within the constraints of reality.
How many of us have faced a frustrating situation beyond our control and immediately given away our agency? How many times have we been the woman in the parking lot waiting for someone to get out of our way? I don’t think any of us can say, “That never happens.”
Taking Power Back Where We Can
Here’s where I tie my grocery shopping and jury duty adventures into veterinary practice: None of us can control the number of pets needing veterinary care on a given day or how their owners behave. We can’t control how many qualified applicants answer our job posting. We can’t control the main source of jobs in our community, the rising cost of health care or the veterinary clinic down the road engaged in dubious business practices. What we can control is how we respond to those realities.
When we entered this profession, we took on the obligation to do the best we can in the situations we encounter. We might have only a small amount of control over the world, but we can be proud of how we use our control.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get ready to hear a court case.