A half filled glass isn’t enough

Around fifteen years ago in a parking lot in Kilkenny, Ireland, I saw this stencilled onto the toilet block wall of a restaurant:

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This bit of street art has always stayed with me. It’s front and centre in my mind when I’m faced with any decision that involves both money and ethics, and I’m pretty sure I’ve made some major life decisions influenced in no small measure by this snippet of vandalistic wisdom.

 About 5 years into my veterinary career,  at the nadir of my job satisfaction and all round well being as a vet, the thought occurred to me that the same thinking could, and should, also be applied to veterinary science: Don’t love veterinary science – it won’t love you back. Why put your heart into a career that will only repay you by slowly breaking you down? 

It seemed to me that as vets we invested so much of ourselves into veterinary science, and for what? For demanding ungrateful clients and uncooperative animals, for low wages, high stress and a shoddy personal life? What kind of a job is that?! I resented my career choice, dreaded my work days and lived only for weekends and holidays, so I invented the hedgehog approach: roll into work each day with the best of me  safely tucked inside an impenetrable prickly exterior.

You can survive like this for a long time. You may even be successful. But it’s not sustainable, and it’s not necessary.

When we adopt this attitude we go to work saturated with preconceived ideas of how bad it is to be a practicing vet:  how stupid our clients are, how challenging it is to work with animals, and how undervalued we are. We learn this from our peers and our mentors (and we are taught this lesson early on in our careers). We discuss it on social media and lament it over dinner. And then we confirm these beliefs in our day to day work. It’s called confirmation bias: the tendency to search for, interpret, favour and recall information in a way that confirms one’s previously held beliefs, and the rejection of any new information that casts doubt on those beliefs. 

In reality the majority of our work life will consist of routine jobs interspersed with unusual and satisfying cases. We’ll have many success stories  and meet countless happy clients who are grateful for what we do. But life being the way it is and people being people, there will inevitably be unhappy clients, complaints, aggressive animals, mistakes and bad days. Our biassed little brains, with their minds already made up, will forget the mundane and will discount all the good stuff, and instead latch onto the handful of negative experiences. Then it will add this new evidence which supports the belief that it sucks to be a vet to the pre-exisiting sea of negativity, and happily (or miserably!) wallow in the cesspit that it has created for itself.

It took me more than 10 years to realise that this way of thinking is a subconscious choice, but a choice none the less. This also means that you can consciously choose the opposite: you can choose to expect good things. You can lean into every encounter expecting magic, and keep your eyes open so that you recognise when magic does happen. When the inevitable bad things happen you might now just say to yourself “hey, I didn’t like that”, instead of “you see – it’s just as I expected”. And when all those good things do happen: when that client is genuinely thankful or you get a quick cuddle with that pup or that very sick cat starts to eat for the first time in weeks, or a colleague makes you coffee, your mind will now use that experience to confirm your newfound belief that you were right to expect a good day. Luckily confirmation bias works both ways. 

If you love veterinary science – if you decide to love it and put your heart into it completely, it will love you back.

The upshot of this is that your demeanour might change. That permanent scowl that you didn’t even know you had may disappear. You might look forward to that next consult, and eventually some of the people you deal with will start to mirror your attitude. This in turn will make more good things happen, creating a self-fulfilling feedback loop of good vibes.

Once you are out of your negativity rut you will start to identify with clarity which things really do bother you without exaggerating them, and which things you enjoy. You can start looking at ways to actively change your situation: you can gird yourself with extra knowledge about those cases that scare you, you can find and develop your niche so you can do more of what you like and less of what you don’t.  Make sure it’s the right workplace for you. Maybe you like being a vet, but you just don’t like who you work with? In the words of Jordan Peterson: “Consult your resentment. …resentment always means one of two things. Either the resentful person is immature, in which case he or she should shut up, quit whining, and get on with it, or there is tyranny afoot – in which case the person subjugated has a moral obligation to speak up.’

Are you getting enough sleep and exercise? It’s very hard to have the right attitude if you’re neglecting the very basics. Perhaps you actually love your job, but you are simply working too many hours and you’re just tired, and not actually depressed?  When you can be honest with yourself and say hand on heart that your attitude is right, and you’ve changed everything that you can change, and you still hate it, then (and only then ) can you say that maybe this really isn’t what you are meant to be doing.

I still hold firmly to the fiscal wisdom learnt from that Irish toilet wall all those years ago, but these days I believe  that if you ‘love veterinary science if you decide to love it and  put your heart into it completely, it will love you back.’ It might be a slightly twisted kind of love that kicks your ass every now and again, but it’s love none the less.

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