Tag Archives: psychology

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!

How to Be Successful: Show Up

The Vetducator - success by opening doors by showing up.

Show up.  That’s it.  End of blog post.  You can believe me and stop reading or you can read on if you need more convincing.

Living in the South is strange in so many ways.  One which you would not expect is the approach service workers (plumbers, electricians, roofers, contractors, etc.) take to showing up.  That is, maybe they will and maybe they won’t. Not just being late- that’s any service worker. You make an appointment, and they never show or call to reschedule.  This is distinctly different than in other parts of the country in my experience. It seems like a simple arrangement- you show up to do a job, I give you money. Don’t you like money?  Apparently, laborers in the South do not. Every now and then you find one who actually shows up, and they get all my business and my friends’ business. Until they also eventually start to not show up.  It’s a weird way to run a business, but this was a huge sign I had of how important it is to show up.

Teaching martial arts for 20 years, I see this constantly.  Who are the black belts? The best students? The most competent, the stellar athletes?  Not at all. The black belts are the students who showed up. They came to class and kept coming to class, slowly learning and progressing.  The most amazingly athletic students- they were aiming to be a +1– they fell off because they actually had to apply themselves to progress rather than rely on their raw talent.  The slow, steady, quietly competent and attentive students were the ones who became terrific martial artists. They showed up.

The best vet student, intern, resident, or faculty isn’t necessarily the smartest.  Smartness helps, as does wisdom, but to be excellent you first need to show up. If you’re a student, be there before anyone else on your team and leave after everyone else on your team.  Offer to take extra on-call responsibilities. Study when you get home. One vet student with whom I worked answered a call to participate in a research project. She was so capable and engaged that she became integral to other projects, and now she has her name on three published research articles.  Those who put the time in, get the rewards.

This goes all the way up.  The most productive faculty aren’t necessarily the smartest or the most ruthless.  I know some faculty members who never come into their office when they are off clinic duty.  They’re fine faculty members, but they won’t ever be amazing until they start showing up.

We’ve talked before about how to avoid being a -1: aim for zero.  Here is where we start to see how you can go from a zero to a +1. Start by being quietly competent. Then show up.  The world is run by those who show up.

How to be Successful: Be Appreciative

The Vetducator - Be a superstar in appreciation of people image.

We were flying home this weekend and saw a guy in first class who wasn’t exactly bad; he just acted entitled.  The steward had to ask him twice to put his computer away. On landing, the steward had to tell him to buckle his seatbelt.  Before takeoff, the steward was asking everyone loudly about a backpack and no one answered; it turned out it was this guy’s pack and he was just ignoring the steward.  He drummed his fingers loudly and hummed, disrupting other passengers. It’s possible he has never flown before and doesn’t know normal air travel etiquette, but I think it’s more likely that he just feels entitled.

I believe a feeling of entitlement is the antithesis of being appreciative.  When we fly, we realize what a goddamn miracle it is. We are hurtling through space at incredible speeds with remarkable comfort and luxury.  We obey all the rules and try not to disturb the attendants at all. We appreciate how amazing the experience is and want to be Low Maintenance.  This sense of appreciation is key to a happy life and personal relationships, but it is also key to being an excellent student/intern/resident/faculty member.

Do you appreciate the technical staff?  I read a letter of recommendation recently where the writer pointed out that the candidate regularly thanked the technicians and the techs loved working with this applicant.  Holy crap, this student appreciated the technical staff to the point where a faculty member noticed? That stands out to me as an evaluator. That tells me this person cares about other people and appreciates them. This will translate into greater success for them in all professional paths, so of course I want to recruit this person!  They will be an awesome resident and great specialist, spreading positivity where they go and enhancing the reputation of our program.

Do you appreciate your mentors?  They spend lots of time helping you, training you, and giving you advice.  Hopefully, you express some thanks for what they give to you.

Do you appreciate your peers?  Your students? Everyone around you in the veterinary world is working together as a team.  All it takes is a quick “thanks”. If someone went out of their way or they did a great job that day, finding them and saying, “Thank you, Sean, for rocking out the cases today!”  It’s genuine, it makes people feel good, it makes you feel good, it builds positive relationships, and it makes people enjoy their work.

If you can be someone who brings positivity, and not negativity, to work, you are bringing excellent value to that program.  If you want to be recognized as a great student, intern, resident, or faculty member, be appreciative. You don’t have to be happy all the time, or bow and scrape to anyone.  But if you give a genuine word of thanks now and again, it will work wonders for your career. Do you remember a time when someone sincerely thanked you? How did that make you feel?  Share in the comments!

How to be Successful: Growth Mindset


The Vetducator - Image of plant growing.

Since vet schools care so much about GPA and GRE scores, you would think that being an amazing vet student, intern, resident, or faculty member is largely about intelligence.  Being smart helps, no doubt about that. But it is only one piece of the puzzle, and an arguably small piece at that. The best veterinary professionals aren’t necessarily the smartest.  They are ones who aim for zero, who show up, and, above all, have a growth mindset.

The fixed mindset vs. growth mindset is a relatively recent concept in psychology.  The essential premise is that people with a fixed mindset believe they have certain natural talents which are just innate and they cannot become an expert without these.  For example, I have an amazing sense of direction and, if I believed I was just born with this, I would have a fixed mindset.

Those with a growth mindset believe that you can learn anything- you just have to put in the time.  This is popularly explained as the “10,000 hour rule”, which suggests if you spend 10,000 hours on a skill you can become an expert.  The real value is probably closer to 50,000 hours, but the premise stands. I believe I have an excellent sense of direction because I studied maps as a kid, regularly navigated my environment in challenging ways, and had the ocean constantly to the west, making navigation more intuitive.  I got good at navigating because I practiced, not because I was born with it.

You would assume every competent veterinary professional has a growth mindset, and you would be partly right.  After all, everyone went through vet school and had to learn how to be a veterinarian- they weren’t born being able to be a vet.  But you would also be partly wrong, because countless students say things like, “I’m just not good at physiology! I’ll never get it!”  That suggests a fixed mindset.

When I am working with a student, intern, or resident, I want to work with one who is enthusiastic and willing to learn.  Being open to new ideas is essential to being a great veterinarian. I had a solid half hour back-and-forth with one of my classes about the uselessness of warming intravenous fluids (I know better now how to have this debate, but we all have to learn somehow).  They just couldn’t believe that this standard of practice everywhere they worked was useless for helping core body temperature.

Having a growth mindset is synonymous with making and learning from mistakes.  At Midwestern University, the faculty had a debate about how to handle students who made a grave medical error.  Although some faculty members wanted to punish the students, most wanted to first ask a question: How did the student feel about it?  Did they recognize the mistake, admit to it, and try to correct it? Or did they bury the mistake, blame someone else, or act unbothered by it?  Being willing to learn from mistakes indicates a growth mindset.

You can change your mind to be more in a growth mindset.  I had been teaching martial arts for 15 years and veterinary medicine for 10 before I first heard my best friend say in an instructor training course, “In any situation, figure out what YOU could have done to make it better.”  He also said, “Name a time when something went wrong that wasn’t your fault, but you could have done something to make it better/not happen.” This revolutionized the way I taught and even approached life. Now when my students don’t understand a concept, I couldn’t shuck responsibility.  I had to see what I could do to make things better, so I had to improve my pedagogical skills.

As I began to learn more about human error, cognitive biases, and medical error, I became more excited about learning how we make mistakes and how to learn from them.  I moved my mind to more of a growth mindset so you can, too. The earlier you start, the easier it will be. You can get better. You can BE better. But only if you believe it and only if you try.