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
My friend — we’ll call her Mykel — is a good veterinarian. She’s a committed, generous leader who cares about the people in her practice. She is vulnerable and brave, open and caring, and she acts according to an obvious desire to make our profession a better place. To be honest, I have long aspired to be more like her as opposed to the grumbling old man I fear I might one day turn into.
That’s why I was bothered so much when Mykel told me of her recent struggles. Two years ago, work was going great. Readers of her local newspaper even voted her practice the county’s “Best Employer.” Since then, however, things have gone downhill. Three credentialed veterinary technicians left the practice, and everyone else is now swamped with work. In addition, the corporate group that co-owns her clinic is making unhappy noise about the drop in revenue.
Mykel told me she has been wracking her brain to figure out what went sideways. She’s rethinking not just her business strategies but also her whole style of leadership. Surely, as the leader of this practice, she must be doing something very wrong for things to have taken such a turn. Right?
The day after I talked with Mykel, another longtime friend — we’ll call him David — called me to chat. It was an unusual conversation. He wanted to apologize in case I thought he hadn’t been acting like himself.
Like many of us, David fills his home and heart with pets he treats almost like his children. He explained that he had just been through what felt like an endless string of illnesses and emergencies with his beloved furry family members, including multiple euthanasias. After taking one emotional hit after another, month after month, he was (as he put it) just trying to “get my s— together.”
I couldn’t help but see commonalities in my conversations with these two people I admire. I could see and hear their pain and feelings of being overwhelmed, and in both cases, I was left with the sense that they might think their struggles must be somehow deserved — that some failure of theirs caused the hardships.
On the one hand, I get it: Owning our problems and taking responsibility for our part in them is a tried-and-true strategy for leading an empowered life. But at the same time, I found myself wanting to remind both of my friends that we could all stand to remember how little control we have over the world. Not everything that goes wrong in our lives is a result of our mistakes. Sometimes, things just happen.
I got a painful reminder of that lesson months ago when my wife called me into the bathroom one morning and asked me to palpate something in her left armpit. She wondered, “Is this anything?” After agreeing that something was there — it was firm and about the size of a BB pellet — we decided it needed to be checked.
Thus began a season of waiting. Wait for scans. Wait for a biopsy. Wait to find out that the tiny lump was, in fact, cancerous and locally invasive but had been caught early. Wait for the genetic testing that would tell us what sort of treatment plan to make, and then wait for the treatment to begin. We had a lot of time during all the waiting to let the reality of our situation wash over us and to wonder how we got there.
Here’s the thing: My wife has always been the healthiest person I know. She is a college professor who studies endocrine disruptors. She doesn’t use personal care products that have fragrances or microwave food in plastics or do any of a long list of things she tries to tell me about but which I keep forgetting. So, how could she have cancer in her early 40s? What went wrong?
Sages, Hustlers and Backpackers
As someone who gives advice for a living, I am acutely aware of the perceived power of a good idea. I have met thousands of people searching for the right bit of insight to help them reverse their fortunes and escape a tough spot. People often think they only need to read the right book, attend the right lecture or listen to the right podcast, and then — ta-da! — life will be rosy. People are often looking for a sage, someone who can save them with some magical piece of knowledge.
Sometimes, these seekers find a hustler instead of a sage. You’ve likely seen these characters in real life or online. In fact, their favorite word after “hustle” is “grind,” as you’ll notice if you peruse the effort-related mantras they push:
- “Rise and grind.”
- “Greatness only comes before hustle in the dictionary.”
The hustlers tell us to push through the pain because, they say, we get relief from hardship exclusively through sustained and intense effort.
Both sages and hustlers have something useful to offer. Knowledge really is power. Sometimes, a great lecture or article can change how you live and work. And it’s a fact that there is no substitute for grit and hard work. But when we place our desperate faith into seeking just the right information or mindset, we might espouse the mistaken belief that “Everything that has happened thus far happened because of me and the choices I made, so whatever happens now depends on me and what I do next.”
That’s an awful lot of pressure to put on ourselves, and it’s not even true.
The knowledge of sages and the motivation of hustlers are only beneficial in situations where we have control, and those situations are not as common as we might wish. That’s why we often don’t get what we need when we look for answers. We get it instead when we look at the backpackers.
The truth is, we’re all wandering in the wilderness. Each of us is making our way on a trail that’s not exactly like the one anyone else has walked before or that anyone will walk again. Sometimes, on our unique journeys, we walk alone. Sometimes, we walk with others. Sometimes, we get fantastic views, and sometimes, we get swarmed by mosquitos. Sometimes, our packs feel light, and sometimes, the burden we carry feels enormous. Sometimes, we find clever shortcuts, and sometimes, we take the long way through a swamp, on a circular trail or up a steep hill. Sometimes, we push ourselves to move quickly, and sometimes, we have to rest.
Am I taking the metaphor too far? My point is we can control how we respond to the obstacles along our way, but we can’t control the wilderness any more than we can control the weather. We will get sunshine and storms, and there’s no point in obsessively analyzing our behavior as if it caused a downpour. Sometimes, we simply must hike in the rain.
To Those Hiking in the Rain
It’s great to be a problem solver. It’s admirable to learn from mistakes and take responsibility for our actions. It’s also wonderfully freeing to remember that we simply cannot outwork or outthink some situations. There is peace to be found in acknowledging that we can’t control everything.
Mykel has been hit with the unfortunate coincidence of multiple veterinarians moving on at the same time, thanks to fate and circumstance, and she’s still spread thin because of a hiring shortage that has roots in multiple causes, none of which is her fault. As far as I can see, she’s not doing anything wrong in her business.
As for David, I don’t think he needs to “get my s— together.” He couldn’t control the fact that several of his pets got old and sick at the same time. I hope he’ll release himself from the pressure to change the reality and instead be kind to himself, rest as needed and believe that on the other side of sorrow comes joy.
I know my friends deserve to grant themselves grace for not being able to undo situations they didn’t cause, just as I know my wife deserves to get through her cancer journey without worrying that she could have controlled her life into going some other way. She didn’t miss a key piece of information that could have prevented her tumor, nor did she fail to apply herself adequately to the goal of not getting sick. Cancer isn’t a mistake she made; it’s a thing that happened. Unfortunately, she got rained on, and because I walk with her, I’ll be rained on as well until the clouds break. Meanwhile, on this hill and whatever twists and turns come after it, we will hold each other’s hand and appreciate the views even more because we hiked through some bad weather to reach them.
No storm lasts forever. Keep on walking.