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
Yesterday, I saw a client who informed me that she wouldn’t follow any of my nutrition advice because of “You know, dog food kickbacks.” Fortunately, she said, she had found the perfect dog food by sending a swab of her dog’s saliva to a company on the internet. Also yesterday: I treated a cat who went full “tiger ancestor” on me, I had a hard talk about expensive medicine with a guy who had only $67 in his account until his next paycheck, and I spoke with a veterinary practice owner about how in the world our profession can find a way to pay better wages to our support staff. Then, I scrolled through the online comments on a post by a college student thinking about going to veterinary school. Hundreds of responses basically read, “Don’t do it.”
What a day.
I suspect most of us wonder at some point in our careers (perhaps after too many days like yesterday) why anyone would want to do this job.
Two years ago, I hit that wall and wanted to quit. I felt burned out. I dreaded every appointment. I knew so many other veterinarians who felt the same way, and their complaints resonated deeply with me. For months, all I wanted to do was stay home and avoid going to work. I had lost my connection to the meaning of our profession.
Today, I love my work more than ever. I even loved my job yesterday.
I want to share my path from despair to enjoyment in case it helps someone who feels the way I did a couple of years ago. Some simple but important shifts in perspective helped me reengage with my work joyously and satisfactorily.
There Is No Dragon
When people ask me about overcoming burnout, I share a fairy tale I made up to explain the experience. The story goes like this:
Once upon a time, a hero was on a quest to capture a dragon. Season after season, she pursued her quest, exploring the wilds, learning new skills and fighting battles in her search for the elusive dragon. Finally, she arrived one day at the dragon’s lair. After climbing boulders and crawling through mud to get inside, she stood up in the cave and looked around. There she found … nothing. The dragon wasn’t there. It had never been. In fact, all she saw was a sentence written on the cave wall: “Dragons do not exist.” The hero looked back at the years spent on her quest — all the work she had done and everything she had overcome — and thought, “Now I’m here, and there’s no dragon to capture as my prize? What the hell was the point?”
That was my experience in veterinary medicine, and I don’t think I am alone. It turns out that in veterinary practice, as in life, no accomplishment is so fulfilling that it seals our happiness and ensures a lasting sense of victory. No surgical success, no advanced degree, no client praise — nothing. No single triumph will land us at a feeling of happy ever after. There is no dragon.
The veterinary career track inherently requires us to work toward our goals for decades: acing college science classes, getting into veterinary school, graduating with a job offer, excelling at our specialty, etc. Along the way, many of us develop the sense that we are failing if we are not always pushing toward a next goal. So, we keep setting new goals. We tell ourselves that the sacrifices we made over the years will be repaid just as soon as our quest is over — when we get the job, marry the partner, pay off the debt, get the raise or start the veterinary practice. But when we hit those milestones, we immediately ask, “What’s next?” It’s frustrating and exhausting to realize that the finish line just keeps moving. We’ve been on a quest to capture the dragon so long that we don’t know what the dragon is anymore; we just know we don’t feel right unless we’re striving toward something.
The Key: Enjoy Doing Medicine
If there is no dragon, then what is the point of all this? The lesson I learned is that a career in veterinary medicine is not a means to anything else. It’s not a path to happiness. It’s not a path to contentment. It’s not a path to a lasting sense of success and personal fulfillment. It’s just a path. But a path has value.
Veterinary medicine is the work I do every day — nothing more, nothing less. In the fairy tale I imagine, our hero never does find a dragon, but she comes to realize that she enjoyed herself while she was on her quest, and she wants to get back out there. She likes exploring the wilds, learning new tricks and bravely marching into battle. That’s why her journey isn’t a failure. Once she frees herself from the misperception that her quest was about capturing a dragon, she realizes that she just loves questing.
If we want to love having careers in medicine, we have to love doing medicine. That means feeling satisfaction in examining animals and solving medical puzzles. It means finding joy in meeting people who care deeply about their pets, guiding people who have been misinformed and spending our workdays with our colleagues, all the while knowing we cannot fix every problem we encounter. I bet that if you’re reading this, you have felt that joy before. And if you’ve lost it, you can feel it again.
Vacations Aren’t the Answer
A common belief is that relaxation, not work, makes people happy. It’s why we fantasize about spending less time at the clinic and more time on the couch or beach. And it’s true that people in this profession need their time off. Most of us could probably stand to enforce the boundaries around our free time a little better. But we have to be realistic about what we expect from our downtime.
Studies show that jobs, in general, are easier to enjoy than unstructured free time because they have built-in challenges, goals and rules, which encourage us to concentrate and engage. Unstructured free time must be molded into something that can be enjoyed and that requires effort.
Have you ever looked up after a busy morning at work to find that afternoon has arrived and the day got away from you? Or started the week only to find that, in a blink, it’s Friday already? In psychological terms, this state of being fully engaged in work to the point that you lose track of time is called flow. If your hours and days are flying past, then congratulations, you’re in a state of flow, and you have a job that fully engages your mind and spirit. That’s wonderful.
Happiness and Fun Don’t Overlap Every Minute
When I was young, my father took me on hiking trips into the Appalachian Mountains. I wasn’t as grateful for the experiences then as I am now because my father had absolutely zero chill. We could not go on a gentle three-mile walk in the woods. Nope, our father-son hikes came with a 10-mile minimum. When my dad was involved, we went big or went home, and I was not allowed to go home. I wouldn’t have called these hikes “fun” while I was on them.
I often felt thirsty and tired on our hikes and sensed that my legs had turned to jelly. Looking back now, I can see that — especially at the end of each hike — I also felt proud. I felt special for getting to go on these outings. Splayed out to rest on the rocky overlooks, I savored the views. I had long talks with my father, I breathed fresh air, and I learned about the land around us. When each hike was over, I knew I had done something that mattered to me and that other people could not do. There were moments on the steep, rocky inclines when I felt anything but happy, but today, I’m grateful for those experiences, not because they brought me to some elusive goal but because the hikes were a meaningful and memorable way to spend my time.
Nowadays, I get a similar sense of pride and gratitude from my work. Yes, even on a day like yesterday, full of difficult moments. I chose this hard work, and I get to do it every day.
When I started looking at my work this way, I began approaching days like yesterday as part of my quest — as worthy challenges rather than pointless frustration. I took pride in how I handled my cases, including the ones that couldn’t possibly qualify as best-case scenarios. And I did a better job taking note of small joys. I internalized the short, simple thank-you notes from clients. I started taking a little more time to listen to clients talk about the lives they lead and their (often quirky) perspectives on the world. I recognized that, often, a sad euthanasia case was the final moment of a glorious life and a moment I was privileged to share with an animal and family.
Enjoy the Walk
There is no perfect job, not in veterinary medicine nor any other field. A career can’t give anyone nonstop happiness, solve all our problems or affirm our value as people. Waiting for a job — any job — to deliver us to some ultimate sense of achievement and inner peace is a mistake. That’s not what the quest is about.
What veterinary medicine can do is give us a path to walk on during our days on earth. Our profession offers challenges that engage our minds, and it gives us a chance to make a difference in the lives of others. Those are great reasons to get up, go to work and enjoy the journey.
LEARN AND EARN
One CE credit hour will be awarded to VetFolio visitors who complete any of these free courses on burnout and personal wellness:
- “Manager’s Toolbox: Staff Training and Self Care,” with Megan Brashear. (Enter code care21tvb at vetfolio.com/redeem through Sept. 30, 2021.)
- “Top Ways to Avoid Burnout and Build Resilience,” with Dave Nichol, bit.ly/3r340BZ
- “New Study on Wellbeing and Mental Health of Veterinarians,” with Dr. Christine Royal, Dr. Judson Vasconcelos and John Volk, bit.ly/36p2twK