When I did a Master of Science program in Sport Pedagogy, I was exposed to all sorts of interesting literature outside of veterinary medicine. One of the articles was about athletes’ choice of where they decided to go to university. I was struck by the simplicity of the methods but also how elegant they were. They used a “means-end” laddering method of interviewing. Basically, the researchers kept asking “why” until they got to a core life value. I thought this was fantastic, have used it in my own research, and think you can use it to make your life and career more successful.
I’ve talked before about being honest with yourself, but often it can be difficult to do. Not from lack of willingness, but from not knowing where to start? How do you know if you’re being honest or shying away from uncomfortable truths? My suggestions: 1) keep asking why and 2) map to self-determination theory (SDT).
- Keep asking why. This step is fairly self-explanatory. Just keep asking “why” whenever you come up with an answer. Some examples:
- “I want to go to vet school.” “Why?” “I want to be a veterinarian.” “Why?” “Because when I was young my dog got sick and we went to the vet and they got better.” OK, that’s good, but that’s a dead end, life-value-wise. Let’s try “Why else?” “Because I like science.” “Why?” “Because there are clear answers to problems and a systematic way to approach things.” This is also good, and now we may need to modify our why statement: “Why do you like that?” “Because I like order and being in control of things.” “Why?” “Because I had an unstable family life growing up and seek stability.” OK great, now we have two leads: a powerful childhood memory of a sick dog and a childhood experience which affected our personality.
- “I want to be a surgeon.” “Why?” “Because I like surgery.” “Why?” “Because I like being able to fix an animal quickly and I had a good surgery mentor in vet school.” As before, we need to modify our why statement: “Why do you like to fix animals quickly?” “Because I like seeing rapid results and don’t want to care for chronically ill animals.” “Why?” “Because that feeds my sense of accomplishment and competence.” Good, now let’s pursue the mentor aspect: “Why does the mentor matter?” “Because I saw that I could have a happy professional life as a surgeon.” “Why as a surgeon and not something else?” “Because I didn’t see a good model I could identify with from someone in another specialty.” Again, we have two foundations: want to feel accomplished and competent and an experience of seeing someone they could relate to being successful in this specialty.
- Map to self-determination theory. SDT suggests that we are internally motivated by autonomy, competence, and relatedness to others. Let’s use our previous examples:
- Childhood memory maps to relatedness- we saw the vet help our animal and the connections among those individuals and how that improved everyone’s life. Unstable family life- seeking autonomy and control over their own life.
- Want to feel accomplished and competent- clearly maps to competency. Mentor model maps to relatedness- we can see ourselves in that role.
OK, so how does this HELP us? Well, now we can ask: what ELSE can you do professionally that might address those core values? Let’s go back to our two examples above.
- Can being a veterinary technician satisfy these values? The job is stable- there’s always a demand for techs. You get good relatedness with the clients, patients, and other care staff. You use science. What’s not to love about this, according to our previous “why” queries? I have some thoughts:
- “I want to make more money.” OK, well, that didn’t come up in why you wanted to be a veterinarian. So maybe you value material goods and the social status they bring. That’s fine- just be honest about that.
- “I want to be The Doctor.” Well, again, that didn’t come up before. Why do you want to be The Doctor? The prestige? The social status? Because you want to be a leader? Again, any of these are fine, but just keep asking why.
- Can being an anesthesiologist satisfy these values? You get to demonstrate competency in the same time frame- things happen very quickly just as they do in surgery. You didn’t have a mentor model to go from, but could you reach out to anesthesiologists to find out what they think of their life happiness? What’s not to love about this, according to our previous “why” queries? I have some thoughts:
- “I want to work with clients.” “Why?” “I like the social standing that comes with people in the community seeing me as The Surgeon.” Good to know. Again, didn’t come up in the original why series.
- “Surgery is more important.” “Why?” “Because surgeons are actually DOING something for the patient, anesthesia is just supporting that effort.” Perfectly reasonable argument. If that’s your belief, go for surgery.
Let’s consider some responses to the above scenarios where the person realizes their life values may not map to their desired goals:
- “Could being a technician satisfy these values?” “Actually, yes. I get to deal with clients and be part of the care team and have good job security.” Now you don’t have to do 4 years of school which may put you massively into debt in order to realize your life’s fullness.
- “Can being an anesthesiologist satisfy these values?” “Actually, yes. I get to do complex work which challenges my skills and I see anesthesiologists who seem to be quite happy professionally.” Now you don’t have to do two specialty internships for maybe getting a shot at one of the most competitive residency applications around.
I encourage you to do this exercise because I see too many people with tunnel vision. They just see what they THINK their goal is, without necessarily questioning it. I taught an Introduction to Clinical Research course this fall and most of the students were pre-vet. At least one of them realized they could still do what they want professionally (help animals) without going to vet school- she’s looking at doing a PhD instead. She’ll save a ton of money and still get the ultimate life outcome she wants.
There’s no “right way” to do things. We are all individuals and all going through life in our own unique ways. Keep asking why and you will find what you REALLY need in life. What will REALLY make you happy. Once you discover that, then go pursue it.