I was sixteen or seventeen. It was late on a Saturday night, and I was lazily flicking through channels like only a teenager can when I stumbled upon an interesting looking movie. I never did catch the title and I’ve long forgotten the plot, but it featured a young boy of about 13 years on a road trip of sorts with a wise old American Indian. What I do distinctly remember is a scene where the kid is upset over something that has happened. He’s crying and exasperated when his travel companion tells him that there are only two rules in life:
Rule number one: don’t sweat the small stuff.
Rule two: everything is small stuff.
I’ve since learnt that this is a well known quote, and even the title of a book, (Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff, by Richard Carlson PHD) but late on that particular night during my formative years, when things like exams with actual consequences, girl problems, career choices and the slow realisation that childhood was over were front of mind, it was an epiphany: very few of the things we agonise over are nearly as important as we make them out to be. Simple words. Not always so simple to apply.
About a decade later and two years out of vet school I found myself doing a sole charge locum in a mining town in South Africa. After my first few years of experience in the UK I was confident that I could handle most cases that came my way. Boy was I wrong… A blue collar mining town in South Africa will throw cases at you that you can’t even imagine while working in rural gentrified England. By the last day of the job I felt like the partially digested sock that I’d cut out of a dog the day before. I was both literally and figuratively ready to go home. And then the bulldog caesarian came in: failed to go into labour, 5 overcooked pups, all dead. Not my fault… until the practice owner phoned me the next week. The owners came home two days after surgery to find the bitch dead on the lawn with her guts hanging out of the popped open surgery site and a rotten pup stuck halfway down the birth canal. I didn’t check the birth canal! The owners were furious – they wanted a new dog of course. The clinic owner was unhappy. He made no secret of his opinion of my standard of work. My world fell apart: sleepless nights, stomach cramps, cold sweats. I gave all the money I’d earned during that hellish week to the breeder. I seriously considered fleeing back to the UK to run from my shame, but who would ever employ me again? I was ruined.
Surely this was not small stuff?! Surely some of the things that we worry about deserve a bit of worry? They have real consequences that can make real world differences to our future.
But here’s the thing: A week later I noticed that the sun still rose every day, I still had food to eat and a bed to sleep in. My friends were sympathetic and my mom still loved me. I applied for and got another locum job, replaced my lost income in a week, found more work, and within 2 months I landed a great permanent job. (And I’ve never failed to check the birth canal after a caesarian again!) My big crisis turned out to be a blip on the big picture that was my life. The further I removed myself from that scenario the less it mattered. It was just small stuff. All what really mattered had been my emotions – my response to the problem.
‘Ask yourself; will this matter a year from now?’ R. Carlson, from ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff.’
We all have a skill available to us that can help put our worries in perspective: we can mentally test-drive any given scenario and all it’s possible outcomes before doing a thing. We can imagine experiences, responses, tastes and smells and even feel the associated emotions. What will it feel like when you when you glide down the slopes on that ski holiday next year? What will that glass of wine taste like when you get home from work and how good will it make you feel? It’s an automatic but underrated tool that we use to decide if, based on the imagined outcomes achieved during the simulated experience, we should proceed with a particular action. It’s also why nobody ever needs to make broccoli and onion flavoured ice cream to see if it’ll be nice.
During the early stages of human evolution individuals who showed the earliest signs of this nifty mental trick probably managed to select themselves for reproductive success by avoiding certain fatal mistakes: ’Should I try to steal a bit of mammoth meat from that sabre tooth cat?’ These days we mostly use our ‘life-simulator’ to make decisions about fairly mundane, non-life threatening things, but sometimes our mid-brains struggle to tell the difference between whether we are merely considering how to navigate a tricky social situation, or how to best avoid being eaten by a large carnivore. This can lead to exaggerated levels of negative emotion about things that do not necessarily warrant it. If we fail to specify what exactly it is that we are afraid of and what actual damage it can do to us we run the risk of living in a state of vague but perpetual anxiety. As Dr Jordan Peterson puts it: “Something is out there in the woods. You know that with certainty. But often it’s only a squirrel.”
So how do we differentiate squirrels from bears? Well, we can examine the thing that worries us – find out what about it scares us and which of those things are valid concerns by test-driving the experience. What would actually happen if the worst case scenario came to pass? Writer, investor and podcaster Tim Ferris calls this exercise ‘fear setting’ (https://tim.blog/2017/05/15/fear-setting/):
For example: You’re a recent graduate, and tomorrow you have to spey a fat Rottie. You’ve done quite a few routine spays, and they’ve gone pretty well, but you also know that they are not easy surgeries. You’re scared. (And you have good reason to be – things can go wrong!) But have you defined what exactly you’re afraid of? What is most likely to go wrong, and what will the consequences be if it does?
Picture yourself doing the surgery. You know what you should do – you’ve been preparing for years. Now picture it all going wrong: you’re cutting the ovarian pedicle, but your ligature slips and you see blood welling in the abdomen. You follow all the steps for finding and ligating a bleeding stump, but you can’t find it. It keeps bleeding. Nobody comes to help you, the dog goes anoxic, arrests and dies. What then? Well it’s a nightmare! You have to phone the owner to tell them their previously healthy dog is dead. (She was a nice Rottie by the way. Or maybe it was a Labrador.) The owner is furious and lodges a compliant with the Board. Your boss fires you, you’re found as negligent and you loose your licence to practice. You’ve lost your livelihood, and that nice dog is dead. And it’s all your fault. Surely that’s not small stuff?!
Now you’re sweating and panicking: “I cant do that spey tomorrow. It could be the end of me!”
See things for what they are. Do what you can. Endure and bear it.
Go back to the start of your pretend scenario and look at what is more likely to happen: see things for what they really are. Your worst case scenario is highly unlikely. Bleeding stumps are normally found, or they stop bleeding. Spays don’t normally die. Occasionally things do die: it’s a fact of life. Did you let her suffer? Did you try your best? Was it your intention to kill her or to upset an owner? Will it affect your personal relationships, your ability to pay for food, your survival? The owner is upset: can you control her response or her anger? The veterinary council does not readily take licences away for honest mistakes, just like employers don’t easily fire for it. Would you want to work for a boss who does? If you lost your career, would you still have your intelligence? Your health? Could you find another job? A different, maybe even better, career.
Then you do what you can: you make sure that you are well prepared, get enough sleep the night before the surgery and eat a good breakfast on the day, you follow the techniques that you’ve developed for spays, and if something goes wrong you follow the protocols for what to do in these scenarios. Can you ask for help? Make sure you know what to do in case the dog does crash, or that somebody who does is there if you need them. And if she does somehow die – make sure your records are adequate, contact your association. Are you insured? If you’re prepared you can minimise the risk of things going wrong, be prepared in case they do go wrong and mitigate the fallout.
But it would still suck. Sometimes things happen that suck. It’s not personal – it’s just life. You can’t always control it, but you can control your response to it. It will pass. Things will get better. You can endure and bear it. You can learn from it, try to take something useful from it – even if it is only a valuable lesson learnt.
Are you still afraid? What do you have left to fear? A damaged ego, appearing incapable? Fair enough – the loss of face in front of others is a fear that’s right up there with fear of death for most of us. But will it matter in a year’s time? Will it even matter next week?