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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

Veterinary Medicine's "Perfect" Problem

Updated: Jan 9, 2019

I’ve screwed up.

I’m feeling safe sharing that with you. After all, I did introduce you to the concept of psychological safety. So yeah, today I’m telling you I’ve screwed up. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true.

When I bought my first vet hospital I was flying blind, by the seat of my pants, almost entirely clueless about all the ins and out of business ownership and administration. I made all sorts of mistakes. For example, I didn’t file for a sales tax license until at least a month after opening our doors and then, for the first year, I neglected to file the online monthly collection form. Oops!

I also had this goofy marketing idea that involved me and my partners plastering stickers all over the city. It totally flopped. Luckily it didn’t result in any fines!

In the end, though, I enjoyed more successes than failures and learned a ton. The truth is I probably learned more from what didn’t work than what did. All this screwing up has taught me a valuable lesson I want to bestow on my fellow veterinary professionals (ie, my most favorite people in the world) – all success, all the time, makes Darcy DVM a dull girl.

Did you know by the time Babe Ruth retired he was the “proud” owner of the record for most strikeouts ever? That’s right, he “failed” at the plate more than anyone in baseball history. We’ve heard from Grandma for as long as we’ve lived we’ve got to get comfortable screwing up in order to get to the really great accomplishments and contributions in life. Now we have some scientific evidence to support Grandma’s insight.

Don’t get me wrong – the work we do in veterinary medicine sometimes means failure results in the loss of life. In those cases I’d advocate for a diligent, failure-averse Darcy DVM caring for my pet. The problem I see in our industry is the need for perfection in the few truly tenuous scenarios bleeds over in to every aspect of our lives. The science tells us our almost ubiquitous fear of failure is hurting us.

The science tells us our almost ubiquitous fear of failure is hurting us.

An overwhelming fear of failure, as we see in chronic perfectionism, is physiologically akin to being in a constant state of “fight or flight.” This can result in a significant decrease in creativity, memory, and our ability to learn. From a neuroscientific perspective, when we are told (or simply believe on our own) we absolutely cannot make a mistake it turns on the same fight or flight response as if a super cranky kitty cat was plotting our demise.

Sometimes, though, a fear of failure can increase creativity in the short run but, in the long term, when mistake avoidance is the primary focus, the work becomes more stressful, takes longer to complete, and innovation decreases.

The counterintuitive takeaway here is simple. The field of veterinary medicine is sometimes high stakes, constantly evolving, and rarely predictable. These realities require creativity, innovation, collaboration, and the ability to learn and grow. Our desire to do it absolutely perfectly, all the time, every time is holding us back. To overcome our challenges we have got to learn to lighten up on ourselves and each other.

So what do we do about it? First and foremost all of us in veterinary medicine – owners, managers, doctors, technicians, and so on – should openly recognize the problem of unending perfectionism. Like donuts, perfectionism is best used in moderation. After this compassionate look in the mirror there are a few other steps I’d like you to consider:

1) Create solid systems for the few places perfectionism makes sense. You’ll probably agree, calculating drug doses isn’t an activity by which we should celebrate mistakes. So, build a system in your hospital to maximize success there as much as possible such as a double check policy.

2) Celebrate effort and behavior. We are so good at celebrating achievements, and it’s almost automatic. The first time a tech places an IV catheter hoots and hollers and high fives spread throughout the practice, and rightfully so. When I first tried placing a catheter I blew it. I also blew it the second, and third, and fourth times. And so it went. I was ready to give up and even considered quitting as a tech all together. Luckily I had a mentor who praised my efforts and stuck with me. Eventually I got it and went on to tech for almost ten years before getting into management, ownership, and now consulting and coaching.

Sometimes when all we celebrate are the successes we end up demonizing failure. The problem there is that we are all fallible humans. Every one of us makes mistakes, has an off day, or misses the mark from time to time. Celebrating only success eventually excludes us all. Celebrating effort and behavior, sometimes in epic fashion, opens the door for us all to find successes.

Merck gives stock options to research scientists who admit their research isn’t working. Eli Lilly hosts “failure parties.” Grey Advertising has a “Heroic Failure Award” ceremony. Why? Because they recognize success hangs on the coattails of failure. What can your hospital do to support positive efforts that don’t work out?

3) Reframe failures as learning opportunities. Most of the time mistakes and failures come from our human imperfections, not a deep seated desire to “do bad.” I’ve had the fortune of meeting thousands of veterinary professionals and I haven’t yet met one who woke up in the morning thinking, “man, I can’t wait to screw up today!” We all try and do the best we can with what we have.

With that in mind, take advantage of failures and mistakes. Bring them to the forefront, not to shame whoever was involved, but as a post-mortem of sorts to help you and your team learn how to grow from and avoid such failures in the future. The more often you do this empathetically and genuinely the easier it will become and you, your team, your clients, and your patients will reap the benefits.

Thomas Edison is one of the most famous inventors. Most of us think of him with awe and wonder. However, he had countless terrible ideas both before and after inventing the light bulb. And the light bulb itself took hundreds of failed iterations before he finally found a concept that worked. Steve Jobs led efforts for some really terrible ideas at Apple, some of which I’ve never even heard of! Ever hear of Google X? That’s because that “genius” idea lasted all of one day before they scrapped it.

Had people like Edison, Jobs, and the founders of Google allowed a fear of failure to grow into perfectionism they likely would have never “failed their way to success.”

Had people like Edison, Jobs, and the founders of Google allowed a fear of failure to grow into perfectionism they likely would have never “failed their way to success.”

We should all strive to be the best we can be with what we have. However, if we adopt a dogma of perfection we’re leaving so much creativity, innovation, and growth on the table. And these are all things we and our industry so sorely need. If we’re not making mistakes now and again, we aren’t pushing ourselves enough. Not to mention, mistake-free people bore me. So with that in mind, I’ll ask, “what have you screwed up lately?”

- Written by Josh Vaisman

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