Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Can you teach an old dog new tricks? As a veterinary professional, I hope you will agree that yes, you can teach that old dog something new. It just might require a little more patience and a lot more enticing motivators! This fall I am about to explore this idea of “old dogs” and “new tricks” on a personal level when at 52 I head back to university. On a good day, I am energized and excited by the prospect. On all the other days I wonder what was I thinking, is this my mid-life crisis?

We each have a story. One that led up to where we are today and, like those “Choose your own Adventure” books I loved to read with my kids, we have no idea where the story leads. I am about to go to page 104 to find out.

Veterinarian, wife, mother, daughter, friend. A story I suspect is not so different from many of yours. It was a full and busy life negotiating through the challenges and joys of each role but then in 2016, I hit a wall. At the time it took me by surprise. For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a veterinarian. I loved being a vet in a small community. Supporting the bond my clients shared with their pets fulfilled and defined me in so many ways. I had a supportive partner, a beautiful new purpose-designed hospital, an engaged and loyal team, and a thriving practice. Looking back, it shouldn’t have surprised me. Our practice was growing rapidly and I was struggling to find the energy needed for my hands-on management style while also working as a veterinarian and fulfilling the other roles in my life. I would start each day with enthusiasm but the non-stop needs of this beast we had created, left me drained by days end. Together, my partner (and husband) looked at ways to put the life back in our lifestyle and it was during one of these conversations that it became apparent just how was burnt out I had become. As we brainstormed strategies to manage our practice and also take care of ourselves, he said, “Just 10 more years, Elaine. In 10 more years, we can sell”. I told him I couldn’t live like this for 10 more years and he suggested 5, at which point I broke down and through my tears admitted I didn’t think I could go on for 5 more days, let alone 5 more years! I stopped sobbing and we looked at each other. It was time to make a new plan.

If you want to “suck it up” and continue managing your own practice turn to page 48.

If you want to hire a practice manager and make yourself less available to your clients and your team go to page 63.

If you want to sell your practice and jump into an uncertain future go to page 85. 

We chose page 85.

Page 85 turned out to be a very good choice. It took us around the world, working as volunteer veterinarians and gave us the time and space needed to figure out the next chapter of our story. While working on volunteer projects in hot, humid and challenging conditions with severely limited resources I rediscovered the joy of being a veterinarian and my passion for not only my profession but also the people in it. I met amazing young veterinarians and veterinary technicians from around the world and as we worked together I admired their skill and dedication but discovered a darker narrative of frustration and disillusionment that so many were experiencing in their professional lives at home. Dysfunctional workplaces, long hours, high student debt, low pay, unrealistic client expectations, and burnout were a far too common theme in our profession. As we discussed the challenges facing the veterinary profession I knew it was time to do more than talk about the issues, I needed to find ways to effect positive change and move our profession forward to a happier and more productive place. I started to pay more attention to the dynamics of these volunteer teams and was fascinated by how quickly a group of strangers could come together and become a cohesive team. Able to deliver veterinary care in the most challenging of conditions. I considered the effectiveness of different leadership styles and how they influenced not only the team members but also the success of the project. No longer the leader myself, it was eye-opening to experience the impact of leadership at a personal level. I started to explore the science of positive psychology as well as the characteristics and habits of happy people and I was fascinated by the effect workplace culture had on employee satisfaction, retention and productivity. This, I felt, might hold one of the secrets to healing our profession. Maybe it wasn’t about having it all. Maybe it was about having enough.

I had reached another turning point in my story.

If you want to continue working part-time as a volunteer and locum veterinarian go to page 92.

If you want to start a new career trajectory at age 52 go to page 104.

The decision has been made and when I flip to page 104 next week, I will be a student at Royal Roads University enrolled in the Graduate Certificate in Values-Based Leadership. I am excited and also a little terrified. But I believe in the power of positive leadership. Inspired leaders, community, connection and a culture of cooperation, are needed as we create a new narrative that will guide us through the challenges facing the veterinary profession in the years ahead.