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
The other morning, I ate breakfast at a swanky little place in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s the type of place that serves avocado toast but with salmon on it, and the coffee costs $8. It’s definitely not a place that makes me feel particularly at home, and less so when I have to ask hillbilly questions (much to my wife’s dismay) like “Does the water cost extra?”
The food at this café was amazing, and the server was oh-so-nice. Still, as the restaurant filled steadily, I found myself sitting with an empty coffee mug and no jelly for my biscuit. (I had been assured that coffee was free after the first cup.) I waited and waited for a refill and the chance to ask for whatever kind of jelly they might have had, but the opportunity never came. Instead, the lone server walked quickly and efficiently from table to table, seating people, fulfilling drink requests and taking orders. Her smile never wavered, she never stopped moving, and she never refilled my coffee mug or brought me jelly.
As I went to the washroom, I passed her frantically making a complicated breakfast drink order at the bar. I told her, “Wow, you are really hopping this morning! Is it usually this busy?” She said it was, so I followed up with, “Are you usually working alone like this?” She pursed her lips and looked at me with an obviously forced smile. “No.”
It wasn’t her fault that she was stranded alone in a busy restaurant. It wasn’t the restaurant’s fault for not being able to hire more servers during a national worker shortage (or perhaps that someone called out sick). And it wasn’t unreasonable for me to want a refill of my coffee or jelly for my biscuit. Sometimes, life is like that. No one does anything wrong, but the outcome is less than ideal.
Upon Further Reflection
I was working in the clinic on July 2, the Saturday before the Fourth. As you can imagine, I was up to my eyebrows in cases that “needed” to be seen before the long holiday weekend. I had a smile on my face, even as my technicians and I hustled from one room to the next. We saw the appointments. We saw the emergencies. We saw the rechecks for medication refills, and we even saw a random kitten that had been found beside the road and needed new-home services.
What we did not do was spend a significant amount of time with people, which was apparent when a first-time client, while checking out, asked at the front desk, “Is Dr. Roark always so, you know, in and out? We’re used to spending more time with our vet.”
When the front desk person shared the story, it felt like a punch to my gut. Not because I felt mistreated or unfairly judged but because I knew the client was right. I had hustled the pet owner in and back out and hadn’t given the due consideration I usually do.
Sure, it was the Saturday during the long holiday weekend and pets flooded into the clinic through every door and window, but that didn’t mean the client was wrong when she pointed out that she didn’t get quality time with me.
As I sat in the café and thought about my lack of coffee and jelly, I also thought about the unhappy July 2 client. Are people wrong to be frustrated when they have a reasonable request that isn’t met? Should service providers feel bad when they are doing the absolute best job possible under challenging circumstances and customers aren’t filled with joy about it?
My oldest daughter is 14 and recently came to the clinic with me. She wants to be a veterinarian one day, and I thought taking her would be a fun way to introduce her to the profession. So I took her, and, well, everything died. Tiny kittens with hookworms and flea anemia died, little puppies with congenital cleft palates died, beloved geriatric family members died, and a cat getting a blood transfusion died. It was, by all measures, a very bad day.
My daughter and I drove home for 20 minutes in absolute silence. When we pulled into the garage and I turned off the car, she just sat there. Finally, without looking at me, she said, “Is it often like that?” I thought for a long while and said, “No, that was particularly bad.” She didn’t say anything else. She just got out of the car and went inside.
I called my father, a retired general surgeon, and told him I was worried about my oldest daughter. She is deeply empathetic and desperately wants to make people happy. But being the overprotective dad that I am, I’m concerned she might be too softhearted to have a career as a veterinary health care provider. As we all know, the burden our profession regularly puts on its practitioners can be particularly heavy for people who tend to feel deeply or seek validation from others.
My father, who has seen many physicians come and go from health care, thought for a long while. Finally, he said, “You know, it’s been my experience that you can teach a kind person to be professional, but you can’t teach a professional person to be kind. I wouldn’t worry too much just yet. She can learn to find her own balance as she goes.”
My daughter is a kind person, and the world can be a hard place. But it’s a place where everyone can do their absolute best. They can hustle to serve everyone waiting for coffee or pet vaccinations, they can practice the best medicine, they can smile, and they can be kind. However, some outcomes will be less than ideal. People will be frustrated, pets will die, biscuits will go without jelly, and $8 cups of coffee will not get refilled, even though the people tasked with making those things not happen did everything a reasonable person could ask.
Four Key Takeaways
The reality of an imperfect world can be frustrating, and we’ve all felt defeated by it. The imperfection doesn’t mean, however, that kind people like my daughter (or me or you) shouldn’t do the work we set out to do. Likewise, it doesn’t mean that because we won’t always make others happy, we should shy away from doing things that we (and those who seek our services) care about.
The fact that we won’t always get ideal outcomes just means we need to be intentional about how we define success for ourselves. We need to focus on:
- Not taking the irritation of others personally.
- Keeping healthy boundaries between ourselves andour jobs.
- Letting the frustration of an imperfect world roll off our back.
- Making sure we disconnect, rest and recharge so that we can continue to make a difference.
We need to accept our limited power in this world. We need to balance empathy for unhappy people with pragmatic insight about our limitations and what we need to keep practicing medicine over the long term. Sometimes that balance will allow for the client’s ideal outcome, and sometimes it simply won’t. We need to get comfortable with that reality.
Lastly, we must remember that living in a hard and imperfect world makes our successes all the more meaningful. When things work out, we should celebrate. When people say kind things to us, we should hold on to them instead of discounting and shooing them away.
We need to accept that we cannot control anything more than what we can control, that we cannot be all things to all people and that sometimes we will do our best work and not everyone will end up satisfied. That is not failure. It’s life.