Category Archives: Success

Have a Life Mission Statement

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Strategic planning is one of those oft-maligned phrases which stinks of corporate America.  It involves ideas like Vision and Values and all sorts of other things that companies claim to espouse but probably don’t follow in reality.  The principle of strategic planning is sitting down and figuring out what your organization is about and what it wants to do and usually includes a Mission Statement, a list of Values, and a Vision.  Mission statements are either overly long, encompassing everything an organization may do, or pithy and non-helpful, such as “We strive to be the premier provider of this service.” But are they really so unhelpful?

Strategic planning is the process of deciding what it is you want your organization to do, look like, act like, and feel like.  Theoretically, it should form the foundation for everything an entity does. When in doubt, consult the strategic plan. When a decision needs to be made, consult the strategic plan.  This simplifies decision making, makes sure everyone in the organization is on the same page, and creates a clear direction for leadership to pursue.

The problem with strategic planning isn’t the process or idea of the thing.  The problem is that it is so rarely done well. This is particularly egregious in the mission statement.

The mission statement _should_ be a concise, clear statement of the fundamental goal of the organization.  One of my favorite’s is Pepsi’s old “We sell soda”. I also like IKEA’s, “To create a better everyday life for the many people,” and TED, “Spread ideas.”

I like these because they are short, simple, and help guide the organization.  Someone pitches to Pepsi, “Hey, this whole bottled water thing is huge. What should we do?”  “Is it soda?” “No.” “Well, then we don’t sell it.” (Obviously, Pepsi changed this position later.)  IKEA wants to help EVERYDAY life for MANY people. Will they focus on luxury goods for the 1%? Of course not.  A discussion at TED, “I think we could do some really cool dynamic lighting for our next conference!” “Does it help spread ideas?”  “Well, no, but it will look amazing!” Mission statements should present a CLEAR direction.

Instead, mission statements often drone on and get endlessly bogged down and watered down.  Here are some examples of mission statements I like less:

 McDonald’s: “McDonald’s brand mission is to be our customers’ favorite place and way to eat and drink.  Our worldwide operations are aligned around a global strategy called the Plan to Win, which centers on an exceptional customer experience–People, Products, Place, Price, and Promotion.”

What are you saying?  Why tell us about your operations in your mission statement?  Maybe if they had stopped at the first sentence I would be more on board.

An undisclosed vet school: “The mission of the CVM is to improve the health of animals and people by: 1) discovering and disseminating new knowledge and skills, 2) educating current and future veterinarians and biomedical scientists, and 3) providing innovative veterinary services.”

Another: “The College of Veterinary Medicine is dedicated to the enhancement of the health and well-being of animals and human beings through excellence in education, research, professional practice and committed service to the State, the nation and the world.”

Okay, yes… you are a vet school.  Of course you do teaching, research, and service.  These are mission statements which are so obvious and generic that they are unhelpful for guiding the organization.

Contrast these with some mission statements from vet schools I like:

“Our mission is to advance the health of animals, people, and the environment.”

BOOM!  “Should we hire a systems engineer?” “Will it advance the health of animals, people, or environment?”  “Yes” “Then do it.” “Should we hire an astrophysicist?” “Will it advance the health of animals, people, or environment?”  “No” “Then don’t do it.”

“[Our organization’s] mission is to lead the advancement of health and science for the betterment of animals, humans, and their environment.”

LEADING the advancement, not just following.  For the BETTERMENT- this may include physical health, psychological health, or arguably life improvements.

OK, now you know what a mission statement is and my preferences, I would like you to think of a mission statement for yourself.  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Keep it short.  One sentence or less.
  2. It CAN change over time!  You don’t need to set in stone your whole purpose in life now.
  3. This may be really hard, particularly if you are early in your career.
  4. You may not be generic.  No “I want to help animals.”

What is the purpose of this exercise?  Well, like an organization’s mission statement, it may help guide your decision making.  Many veterinary professionals are familiar with the idea that they constantly get asked to do things, and if they keep saying “yes”, they will have no time for themselves or what they want to do.  If you have a mission statement, it can help guide your decision making. Let’s use mine as an example.

“I help people be better,” is my current mission statement.  It has been through a few iterations. First, it’s not perfect- it’s probably a little too simplistic.  I like it because it reminds me of some core ideas I like: Kaizen and self-determination theory. It pulls in every major thing I have done in my life: Boy Scouts, martial arts, dancing, veterinary medicine, relationships.  It’s focused on skill building and maximizing self-actualization. So now let’s put it into practice.

“Vetducator, can you help me with some statistics on this project?”  If it’s just plugging some numbers like an automaton, “no”. If it’s helping them learn a little about statistics while running some numbers, and contributing to a quality manuscript which will improve their CV or prepare them for boards, “yes”.

“Vetducator, would you like to add video and podcasts to the blog?”  Well, these things will probably help people with their career and life, so yes.

“Vetducator, do you want to write this book chapter?”  Have I written one before? If not, I might develop or learn a new skill.  If I’m not learning something, will this help others grow as people? Possibly, depending on the subject.

Your life mission statement can be general for your entire life, like mine, or you could focus it just on your professional pursuits.  It may not be for everyone, and I thought it was a bit hokey at first. The more time has passed, the more useful I have found having a life mission statement to be.  I at least recommend you work through the process to help distill what you really want to do with your life.

Post in the comments with what you think your life mission statement might be.  I will comment on the first ten to post! This is a developmental process- post an imperfect one- you can always get better!

6 Steps to Being a Professional via Email

I was talking to a surgeon friend of mine about applicants for their surgery internship program.  She told me they had three general pools- amazing, middling, and not-ranking. She emailed one applicant from each pool to set up a time to chat about the program.  Their responses fell out exactly as the group had already placed them.

The not-rankable applicant replied 4 days after the initial email, on Jan. 4th, “Hey, that sounds good.  How about 1/6 at 5pm?”

First, there was no address line.  Second, they only provided a single time.  Third, my friend had clearly instructed the applicants to schedule time the week of 1/7. Fourth, they were proposing a weekend, which is a bit of an imposition. Fifth, they only gave my friend 2 days to figure out the scheduling.  Clearly, this person does not have their act together, so will not be ranked.

The middling applicant replied within 24 hours, “Dear Dr. X, thank you for the offer.  I am available 1/7 at 11am or 1/8 at 12pm.”

This applicant included a form of address and provided two options during the week indicated.  A fairly reasonable response, so clearly a decent applicant. However, the applicant did not confirm the date once it was set or check in the day before. Furthermore, the applicant then did not answer the phone at the appointed time, moving them pretty close to the ‘not ranking’ pool.

The amazing applicant replied within 4 hours, “Dear Dr. X, thank you so much for the offer to talk.  I am very interested to hear about your program. I am available the following times: 1/7 11am, 1/8 12pm, 1/9 3pm.  Please let me know which works best for you, or if there is another time which would be better. Thank you again and I look forward to speaking with you.”

This applicant is clearly enthusiastic, appreciative, and engaged.  They had a rapid response, gave numerous options, and overall just presented a proper, professional image via email.  They also followed up 24 hours before the set time to confirm the day and time. Of COURSE they’re at the top of the applicant pile.

Responding professionally in an email does not seem particularly burdensome to me, but from this small sample, we can see that it is a skill which not everyone possesses.  And these are applicants for a surgery internship, who have done a rotating internship already, and, presumably, want an extremely exclusive position as a surgery resident.

EVERY email my surgeon friend gets from these applicants should be impeccable. How in the world do these applicants think they are ever going to get a residency position?  Okay, enough of my ranting, here’s what you have to do, Applicants of the World:

1) Respond promptly. This doesn’t necessarily mean in the same hour, but if you can respond the same day, that indicates you are enthusiastic and eager.  “But what if I’m in surgery all day!” Sure, but you do go home eventually, don’t you? When you do, send a reply.

2) Demonstrate enthusiasm.  Yes, you may be enthusiastic on the inside, but if you can’t express that, the reader does not know.  Show your enthusiasm in your word choice and what you say.

3) Be courteous. Respect the recipient’s time and energy.  If they are trying to schedule a time with you, give THEM as many options as possible and be willing to defer your time for theirs.  Don’t expect them to move their schedule for yours. Give plenty of notice.

4) Follow up.  If you have communicated about an appointment, send an email to confirm the day before.  If you have sent an email and don’t hear back, send a check-in message.

5) Use a form of address.  This one’s simple. In professional correspondence with people you do not know, address them properly in the email.  “Dear Dr. X,” or “Dear Mr./Ms. Y.” It’s not hard, it doesn’t take much time, it doesn’t cost any more. Why NOT do this?

6) Proofread.  Always proof your emails before sending them out.  I’d say a solid 10% of my own emails have some kind of typo I pick up after writing them which I would not have noticed if I hadn’t proofed them.

So, there you go.  Pretty simple steps to make sure your emails get perceived as professional.  Please share this around so that every email I get from now on will be wonderfully polished.

Why Do I Do This Blog?

Jerry feels my pain.

I was listening to The White Coat Investor’s podcast interview with Dr. Bonnie. Regarding her motivation to write a blog, she said she was “…getting tired of writing the same answers over and over again….”  This Spoke to me so strongly, it inspired me to write this entire post. THIS. This is my motivation. I want you all to Be Better, and I could only reach a handful of students at my home institution, and I got tired of giving the same advice, year after year.  These are basic, important, and fundamental principles to advancing your career. Let’s do a brief review.

1) Care about your application. THIS IS YOUR LIFE! You spent how many years and hours of sweat and tears to apply to and get through undergrad to get to vet school, and you’re just going to leave the rest to chance?  WTH? You need to care about your application for your next step at least as much as you cared about everything to GET you there! Polish your materials. Read blog posts and do your research. The amount of time you need to move from an OK application to a Good application is nominal, and I am still shocked that people don’t take this simple step.

2) Be a god-damned professional.  I didn’t think this was hard or needed to be said, but it does.  The items in the How to be Successful series are, in my mind, simple and self-evident, but I have learned this is not universally true.  If you want to get ahead, you have to be Good, not Adequate. Push ahead, never give up, and keep getting better.

3) Interview well.  I understand interviewing is challenging.  It is a rare event, so it is hard to get much skill acquisition.  There is often a lot riding on it, so it is high stakes. For these reasons, you MUST prepare and practice.  There is not an alternative if you want to advance your career.

4) Be positive. I’m not talking about bouncy-bubbly-always-on personality.  I mean: do you bring PROBLEMS or do you bring SOLUTIONS? The latter type of people get ahead, the former just makes everything worse.

I tried to think of a fifth point, and I couldn’t.  This is it. It is simple. Please, for my sake, just do a little bit of work on the culmination of your whole professional life to this point.  Help me help you.

How to be Successful: Give Timelines

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

I ask my wife to do a surprising number of projects.  Occasionally research projects, but more often household ones like, “Can you figure out if Arcadia Power covers us and how to sign up with them?” and “Can you book lodging for our next trip?”  Early in our relationship, I assumed these would be done immediately, even if I didn’t need the task completed for another two weeks. Once she made it clear that it was easier for her to complete these tasks if she knew when I expected her to finish it, everything was much easier for both of us.

I started applying this principle to co-workers and anyone whom I needed a response from and it translated into a significant improvement in response rate.  Since the way I work, I respond very quickly to asks for work, I assumed everyone else prioritized their work similarly. I came to understand that many people work on the basis of deadlines- they work on projects which have the earliest deadlines first.  I still don’t quite fully understand it, but I use the principle, and I recommend you do, too.

Providing deadlines tells the recipient a few things.  One, it tells them that their input is _required_. It is easy for people to read an email and think, “Ah, well, they are asking me, but maybe it is a courtesy or just to be complete.  I don’t need to reply.” Putting a deadline indicates you need a response from everyone involved. Two, it helps people prioritize their to-do list according to what is most pressing. Three, it gives some sense of the amount of work/effort is required.  If you give a deadline by the end of the week to most academics, it should be an _extremely_ time sensitive matter or something they can answer quickly. If you give a deadline 3-6 weeks away, that suggests you want them to actually contemplate and think about the response, and give a substantive one.

I use a variety of strategies when providing deadlines.  I have the opt-out deadline, which is usually framed as, “This is what I am going to do unless I hear from anyone by X date.”  This is usually when I don’t need input from others and am including them as a courtesy, and because if they DO have strong feelings, I want to know about it.

I have the opt-in with a specific solution short-term deadline, which is framed as, “Here is what I would like to send.  Please chime in with your feedback by X date.” This sends a message that I want and need their feedback. The feedback I expect to get, because of the short timeline (less than 1 week), is usually something like, “OK” or “No, I think we should make this minor change.”  This is often done at the end of a process, where I have already solicited more complex responses.

I have the opt-in with a specific solution long-term deadline, which is framed as, “Here is the current draft.  Please review and provide suggestions by X date.” This date is usually the end of the month or some similar 3-6 week window.  I want and need constructive, thoughtful, cognitively complex input for this, and know that it needs to fit into others’ schedules.  Nonetheless, providing a timeline is helpful so people can put it into their own to-do list framework.

Finally, I have the opt-in optional with a very long-term deadline, which is framed as, “I know you’re busy, and I am working on this project.  Please let me know if you want to participate by X date.” That date is usually 2-6 months into the future, as this is a placeholder for a project or an attempt to determine who may be interested in a novel project.  In this case, I am not expecting much thoughtful contribution, but providing the far deadline allows me to determine who is Actually Interested and who is not. Those who are interested will reply relatively early. Those who are not interested will never reply.

Giving deadlines can be useful at all levels of your veterinary career.  Undergraduate progressing to vet school, “Dear Dr. X, here-is-a-letter-asking-you-to-write-a-letter-of-recommendation-for-me.  Please let me know if you would be able and willing to write a letter for me by (some reasonable date at least 2 weeks away).”  Veterinary student interested in an internship, “Dear Internship Director, I would love the opportunity to speak with a current intern.  Please let me know if there is someone who can talk to me by (some reasonable date).” You can ask for deadlines from people who are higher “rank” than you as long as you are respectful and reasonable with the deadline.

There are many strategies to using deadlines.  Mine would not work in corporate America, where things are more time-sensitive.  Fortunately, in academia, we are usually working with relatively long timelines. Do you like getting deadlines or not? Do they help motivate you? How do you assign deadlines differently?

How to be Successful: Be an RFHB

The other day I popped my head into a faculty member’s office to talk with them about their current struggles with some students.  The faculty member mentioned one student who was being needy and dramatic and problematic, and I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if they just acted like a Reasonable Fucking Human Being?”  The faculty member laughed and loved that term, because it summarizes so many important but ineffable qualities.

I can’t remember which of my friends coined this term, but it has been one of the most useful terms in my life: Reasonable Fucking Human Being (RFHB).  This is not “an amazing person” or “an incompetent asshat.”  It is not “Spock-like emotionlessness” or “perfect in every way.”  This is the baseline level at which people should be functioning. It is not a high standard.  Yet, it is amazing how often people who should know better do not meet this simple qualification.

To be an RFHB, you need to not be dramatic.  If you can’t avoid being dramatic, you at least need to be able to calm down and speak rationally.  You need to have expectations which are fair and reasonable. You need to not expect people to read your mind.  You need to treat people with a basic level of respect, because they are also soft squishy smart monkeys trying to stimulate dopamine activity on a rocky ball hurtling through the cosmos.

To be an RFHB, you can be emotional, but you need to acknowledge your emotionality.  You need to listen. You need to not interrupt. If you do interrupt someone, you need to be aware of that and apologize.  You need to present solutions and not just gripe, unless all you want is sympathy, in which case you should make that clear.  You need to think about the future and be aware of the consequences of your decisions.

To be an RFHB, you need to be compassionate.  You need to care at least a little about your fellow human beings.  You need to try to minimize suffering- not just starving children in third world countries, but with the words you use and how you deal with the people around you.  You need to trust and accept the trust that progressively builds as you interact with others. You need to understand the rules and, if you don’t accept them, be willing to accept the consequences of breaking them.

To be an RFHB, you need to look out for the ‘little guy’.  You need to support individuals against the oppression of the majority.  You need to understand privilege and not expect others to do things the way you do them.  You need to understand the relationship between work, effort, and outcome. You need to be humble and accept responsibility for your actions and work to improve as a person.

In a word: just be cool.  OK, that’s three words. It seems really really simple to me.  Just be… reasonable. That’s it. That’s the baseline. From there, you can work on being a zero.

Examples of Good Stories from Letters of Intent

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Once, I read a letter of intent from an applicant which was filled with personal, but relevant, stories.  It created a compelling narrative which I believe made them a great applicant.

That, right there, is a narrative story.  It relates an event on a personal level, rather than just relating the facts.  Another way to start this post may have been: Stories are important because mankind has used storytelling for as long as we have had language, and they create powerful engagement with a listener/reader.  Each opener works fine, but I believe the storytelling one is slightly better. You can use this same strategy in your letter of intent.

One of the most common recommendations I give to applicants as well as interviewees is: tell a story.  Relate it to your own personal experience. Behavioral interviewing regularly uses this strategy, such as: “Tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult ethical decision.”  Given this recommendation, I thought it may be helpful to provide some examples of particularly good stories. These have been made anonymous and unidentifiable.

“During my time at <shop>, I worked to expand our product lines, reach out to our alumni, partner with Unseen University’s SCAVMA for mutual benefit, and move to a new location. Between the growth in available merchandise, development of a user-friendly website, increase in foot traffic, and more optimal hours – <the shop> has been able to generate revenue and continue giving back to the college.”

“When I moved to the States from Another Country, I knew very little English.  Many have told me ‘it’s impossible, you can’t do it’; but this only motivated me to push myself, and work incredibly hard to overcome these barriers and strive to pursue my goals with excellence.  Today, many are not even able to pick up on my accent and I hope to bring this ‘can-do’ attitude to your institution.”

“Working in a surgery referral practice* I had the opportunity to see firsthand the immense value added to an owner’s life when their pet’s life is saved or its quality of life is improved, and that is when I finally realized that I wanted to become a veterinarian.”

* – There should be a comma here.

“Through my unique experience pursuing an MPH, my eyes have been opened to the human influence present in veterinary medicine. This, in turn, has made me more aware of the importance in recognizing the human-animal bond and cultural influences when it comes to animal health and welfare. Teaching classes to children and adults has shaped my development as an effective communicator during my clinical year at Unseen University. It is my hope to continuing exploring this perspective at your institution.”

“I can remember the feeling of profound amazement the first time I was able to watch the motion of a beating heart during a partial lung lobectomy procedure, the frustration of a meticulously placed cortical screw giving way, the disappointment of being unable to help a critical patient, and the confusion of an atypical presentation. It seems that Murphy’s Law has a special place for veterinary medicine in its heart. These experiences provided me the opportunity to witness creative thinking when things did not go as planned, taught me that dedication to our patients, clients, and colleagues helps to ensure a smooth running machine, and demonstrated the importance of perseverance when progress seems impossible.”

“As the daughter of two veterinarians, I was exposed to both the professional and personal aspects of veterinary medicine from a young age. Working at my parents’ small animal general practice for many years showed me the emotional and mental fulfillment that comes from caring for people and their animals as well as solving medical challenges on a daily basis.”

“Recently, I externed at a large multi-specialty center and met diplomates in various disciplines as well as the current interns. This gave me a chance to get familiar with the expectations of an intern. I saw the long working hours, financial restraints and sleepless nights during internship. I see these hardships as seeds of dedication and passion that will help me bloom into a well-informed, more confident and skillful clinician. I was inspired seeing the diplomates, residents and interns working on very challenging cases. I aspire to be like them one day and hope one day to inspire others.”

What I hope you will see with all of these examples is not just a recitation of facts, but an interpretation of the experience.  “I had this happen, this is what I learned.” This is the core of storytelling- the Hero’s Journey.  You have a challenge, and you learn from it.  It’s a simple narrative but, if you can apply it to your letters, I believe they will be more compelling.

Using ETC., E.G., and I.E. Correctly

This is a short, but important, PSA-style blog entry.  You are probably using abbreviations like i.e., e.g., and etc. incorrectly in your applications.  It isn’t a fatal flaw, but it is really distracting to those of us who spend a lot of time reading and writing.  So here is a quick, simple guide on the use of these abbreviations.

i.e. should be read as “that is”.  For example: I went on a long journey (i.e. a trip across the country) before I started college.  This is identical to writing: I went on a long journey- that is, a trip across the country- before I started college.

e.g. should be read as “for example”.  For example: I went on many adventures (e.g. helping a village care for its goats in Nepal) during my year before college.  This is identical to writing: I went on many adventures, for example, helping a village care for its goals in Nepal, during my year before college.

etc. should be read as “and so forth”.  For example: During my year before college, I walked, hiked, biked, flew, etc. around the world.  This is identical to writing: During my year before college, I walked, hiked, biked, flew, and so forth around the world.

It is rare that a sentence contains all three of these abbreviations, so in general I would suggest you avoid using more than one.  After you use one, go back and read it with the literal definitions I have given above and see if they make sense. These three are often confused, and it reflects a certain lack of attention to detail if you commit this error.

Podcast Episode 8 – Dr. Jason Eberhardt

Dr. Eberhardt and I were ‘middle management’ at a new institution so shared many struggles and successes. Although we lead sometimes apparently different lives, we feel very similarly about success and how to achieve in veterinary medicine. I hope you enjoy!

How to be Successful: Aim for Zero Inbox

How do you know what is on your to-do list?  Do you keep checklists on your phone or on the fridge?  How do you update/check them during the day? What about tasks that require communicating with others, often over email?  

Managing your to-do list is essential so that you can be considered reliable and dependable. If there are two individuals: one who Gets Things Done and one who Does Not, which will have a better professional reputation and be able to progress through life more successfully?  There are dozens of task management systems, but I believe there is one which is easy, free, readily available, and highly functional: your email account.

Using your email as your to-do list makes it accessible.  You can access it via your phone, laptop, desktop computer.  When I am at work, I have a window with my inbox open at all times so I can see incoming messages and handle them appropriately.  I can see at a glance who is involved in the messages and what the last date on a task was. Gmail (and most other email systems) creates threads so I can keep track of all the messages related to that topic.

Some people use different folders to manage their to-do list, rather than their inbox.  This is fine; it’s the principle which matters. I keep a folder of ‘awaiting response’ messages, because it is shocking to me how often I send out an email and never hear back from someone who should have responded.  I also keep folders like ‘Personal’, ‘Professional’, and ‘Karate’ to hold important messages to which I need to refer back for long periods of time.

The goal is to achieve Zero Inbox because that means I have taken care of all the tasks I am currently responsible for.  Once I achieve that goal, then I know I can move on to starting new projects. This keeps me from getting overwhelmed and over-committing.

Be sure if you use this system to make an email account which is NOT the one you have at your institution.  You will move on one day (if a student) or you may not be there forever, and many institutions drop your email account once you leave

You don’t have to use this exact system, but I want you to engage in the principle.  You need to keep track of what you are responsible for and act to take care of things for which you are responsible.  Don’t be one of those people who just gets tasks and never takes care of them. You will not be well-regarded professionally- it will definitely adversely affect your professional progression.

Podcast Episode 7 – Dr. Jarred Williams

Dr. Williams and I worked together at an institution and spent many a night doing colic cases together. He has insight into the world of veterinary equine medicine and equine surgery. I hope his insight is helpful to those of you interested in that path!