The fastest path veterinarians can take to unhappiness

Learn to compare yourself to other veterinarians in a healthy way.
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Apr 01, 2013


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I was a recent veterinary school graduate when I met Mrs. Anders and her 11 year-old tabby cat, Beauregard. Beauregard's regular veterinarian, Dr. Miller, was unavailable at the time of his appointment, and thus I found myself conducting this senior patient's wellness examination.

Beauregard had lost a little weight since his last visit, and I felt that we should do some blood work and a urinalysis to make sure all was well. Mrs. Anders was skeptical and said that Dr. Miller didn't usually need such diagnostic tests to know what was going on. "Dr. Miller is fantastic and I think, if she were here, she would be interested in having these diagnostics done as well," I responded.

Mrs. Anders considered my statement for a long moment. She then turned Beauregard's head to look him in the eyes and loudly whispered, "I think we should have waited for Dr. Miller."

At that moment, not only did Mrs. Anders compare me to Dr. Miller, but I compared myself to her. And it wasn't pretty. I saw her experience in medicine and surgery next to my inexperience, her unflappable nature next to my nervousness and her familiarity with this client next to my position as a practical stranger. Any comfort that I might have acquired in my short tenure at this practice disappeared like homemade brownies in the break room.

The upside and downside of personal comparison

As the driven overachievers we are, veterinary professionals are both fanatical and critical when comparing ourselves to others, and we're highly adept at tormenting ourselves when we don't like the result. Unfortunately, it's all too easy to find others who don't appear to work as hard as we do yet seem to reap greater rewards. There are always those who recall medical information more quickly, make more money, have more free time, catch lucky breaks, have more degrees, find favoritism in the practice, get more gift baskets from clients or date people who look like underwear models. There are always other clinics with more cars in the parking lot, more fans on Facebook, and nicer equipment than your clinic. As a profession full of type-A personalities, we are naturally inclined to take notice—and to become less happy because of it.

Attempting to keep up with the Joneses and comparing ourselves to others is natural. And comparison can have a benefit. Taking note of someone else's success strategy and evaluating it as a best practice you might adopt can make you better at what you do.

Dwelling on that comparison, however, is also a sure-fire way to become discontent. In this era of sharing personal highlight reels on social media, it's particularly easy to compare the setbacks in our own lives to triumphs in the lives of others.

How to escape with our happiness intact

Research highlighted by the Association for Psychological Science indicates that, while it requires conscious effort, we have the ability to disengage from this negative behavior by catching ourselves as it begins. That way, we escape the unfair and unproductive frustrations that come with holding ourselves up against what we perceive as the success of others.

If we want to be happy, it's imperative that we put our insecurities aside and focus simply on doing our best work. The performance of others means little when we consider our own ability to make a difference in the lives of pets and the people around us.

As I reflect on Mrs. Anders speaking to her cat in a Homer Simpsonesque whisper, I can't help but wish that I could go back and whisper into my own ear. I'd say, "You are doing what you are doing for the right reasons. Focus on the patient and the medicine. Think of what Dr. Miller's popularity with this client might teach you, and then move on. Oh yeah, and choose to be happy with who you are."

Ultimately, Mrs. Anders did the diagnostic testing. She even came back and saw me again, but it was weeks before my confidence returned to its previous (if precarious) position.

Learning by watching others is critical to our success in practice. But obsessing over our perceived inadequacies compared to others is folly. The fact that you have chosen to dedicate yourself to our wonderful profession indicates that you are already a special person. Focus on that, and the passions that drive you forward, and let's forget about keeping up with the Drs. Jones.

Dr. Andy Roark practices in Greenville, S.C. He is the founder and managing director of veterinary consulting firm Tall Oaks Enterprises. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@DrAndyRoark).