Tag Archives: success

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?

Preparing for an Interview is Not Cheating

I was on a hike with a friend who is getting ready for a high-stakes interview for grad school.  We were talking about various questions which may be asked during the interview. After a few of these back-and-forth, they said, “I’m not sure we should be doing this.  I mean, shouldn’t I just go to the interview and answer naturally what comes to mind?” I imagine some of you may have similar thoughts, so I want to talk about the assumptions and misperceptions that contribute to this idea.

Assumption one: Prepared answers cannot be genuine and honest.  You may believe that interviewers want spontaneous answers because they are more genuine, but this is not necessarily so.  You can prepare good answers to questions which are 100% genuine and honest. In fact, your answers SHOULD be 100% genuine.  It doesn’t happen often, but twice now I have encountered interviewees whom I felt were giving the answer they thought I wanted, not their actual genuine answer.  Whatever answer you prepare, make sure it is true to you.

Assumption two: Interviewers want spontaneous answers.  Most people do not have much experience with interviews.  As a consequence, spontaneous answers are unlikely to be particularly GOOD answers.  When I ask a question in an interview, I want the most representative answer the interviewee can produce.  It is unlikely, in that small window, in that high-pressure context, that an interviewee can come up with a great example to answer a question.  I want interviewees to have good, genuine, substantive answers. I don’t want it highly practiced and polished, but if the interviewee has at least considered the question before, they can give a good answer.

Assumption three: I don’t need to prepare.  You do realize that others applying for these positions WILL be preparing, don’t you?  My question to you is: do you want the position or don’t you? Some of the others who are interviewing ARE preparing, and their interview will be better as a consequence.   If you want the position, you should prepare.

Assumption four: Preparation warps the whole idea of the interview.  The interview, like the application, is intended to distinguish those applicants who get a position and those who do not.  Do you think that an applicant who puts effort into the process will be viewed more or less favorably? The application and interview indicates how hard and well the person will work in the position.  Someone who puts more effort into the process, who does a better job, will be more likely to be chosen. This is a feature of the interview, not a bug: we WANT to identify those who put more work into the process, because that indicates they are more likely to have what it takes to be successful in the position for which they are interviewing.

Preparing for an interview is an important, integral aspect of the process.  It’s simple: those who prepare will do a better interview and are more likely to get a position.  If you want to be successful, you must prepare and practice. After all, you wouldn’t take an exam without studying, would you? Preparing for an interview is no more cheating than studying for an exam would be.

How to do Proper Interview Preparation

Preparation is always the key to a successful endeavour. Photo by Melissa Gogo.

Regardless of the position to which you apply, if there is an interview, you need to prepare.  Well, you don’t NEED to prepare. But others who are interviewing WILL prepare. Do you want to be competitive with those who are preparing?  Then you need to prepare, as well. Failing to prep is prepping to fail. So let’s assume you actually want the position for which you are interviewing and let’s discuss what you need to do to prepare.

First, you have to know about the position to which you are applying.  If it is a job, get the job description down cold. If it is for vet school, talk to every veterinarian you can about what it is like.  If it is for an internship or residency, read the position description and talk to your mentors about the position in detail. I advised an anesthesia residency applicant this year by giving them a 2-3 sentence assessment of each program in which they were interested. If possible, talk to people currently in the program to get an insider’s look.

The website for the institution to which you are applying may be incredibly detailed and helpful or not so much.  You should at least know their mission statement, what the program is like based on the official materials, and any other data you can find (e.g. applicant numbers or expectations).  This should take at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours, depending on how much data they have online. Mine that data. You won’t actually know what the position entails until you have done it, but you should know as much as possible so you can interact intelligently with the interviewers.

Second, you need to practice.  You wouldn’t walk into an ice skating competition and expect to do well without practice, would you?  Unless you have been going on interviews every week for the past few months, there is no life experience that has prepared you for an interview.  So, practice. Get friends to ask you questions in a simulated setting. Studies have shown visualization activates similar pathways to actual practice, so run through questions and scenarios in your mind.  The more you practice the specific skill of interviewing, the better.

Third, you need to study.  Watch TED videos about effective interviews and discussion skills (the body language talk is revolutionary).  Read forum posts about interviews. Read this blog from beginning to end, taking notes all along.  Research potential interview questions and write down possible responses. You would study for months for the NAVLE, wouldn’t you?  How is an interview dictating the next step of your professional life any less important?

I cannot impress this upon you enough: just waltzing into an interview isn’t going to impress anyone, and it will significantly harm your chances of a positive outcome.  You’re a veterinary professional, for god’s sake; you’ve spent countless hours studying for classes and applying to programs and everything else involved in this demanding field!  Don’t tell me for one second you can’t do interview prep. If every applicant did good interview prep, I would be over-the-moon happy. Please help make that happen.

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.

How to be Successful: Self-Reflection and Self-Honesty

One of my friends has told me she is interested in pursuing a residency because she wants to be respected by the community and be a Person of Importance.  In our study of senior students interested in internships, many of them expressed an interest in being The Expert. I applaud both of these sentiments because they come from a place of self-reflection and self-honesty.  They may not be motivations on par with “I want to help sick animals” or “I want to train better vets”, but that’s OK, because they are genuine. They are also not contradictory of such noble motivations; you can help sick animals by being a respected and important surgeon.  Having thoughtful self-reflection and being honest with yourself is essential to being a successful professional.

My friend who wants to be a specialist because of the social capital can make better decisions because of that knowledge.  Maybe she can get the same acknowledgement from being important in organized veterinary medicine (like sitting on the state board or being an AVMA delegate).  Maybe she can get it from doing a PhD in physiology and being a basic scientist. Or maybe she realizes that what she actually wants is the regard from pet owners and veterinary academics, which will funnel her more towards the path to a residency.  In any event, knowing exactly what is motivating her will make her career choices and decisions dramatically simpler.

Those students who acknowledge they want to be considered The Expert can use that self-knowledge in powerful ways.  Hopefully, they will realize that most Experts don’t put a big flashing sign saying “EXPERT” above their head; this knowledge will allow the students to Aim for Zero.  If they don’t get a residency, they may decide to find an area of clinical focus and drill down on that- maybe being the ultrasound ‘expert’ in their clinic. This insight will help them find professional fulfillment regardless of their career path.

And that’s the real key: what would you be happy doing and why?  I see countless people saying, “I HAVE to be a vet! It’s all I’ve ever wanted!” or “I HAVE to be a surgeon!  It’s the only thing I can imagine doing!” But… is it really? Why? “I want to help animals.” You can do that VERY effectively as a vet tech, wildlife biologist, or working in animal control for the county.  “I want to make lots of money.” Sure, then you should be an entrepreneur.  “I want to talk to clients all day.”  OK, a receptionist does that and is a key part of the veterinary team.

“I want the regard of my parents, who both have graduate degrees and expect me to excel in academics.”  Ah ha, good, now we’re getting somewhere. “I am scared of trying to make my way in the real world and need more time in school to shelter me and discover who I am.”  Excellent, excellent. “I want people to like me because my mother never hugged me.” Yes, yes! Once we get to this level of self-reflection and self-honesty, we can actually make some helpful, meaningful decisions about our life. Try not to be judgmental of yourself or fear others’ judgment of these motivations. You have a right to decide what to do with your own life; full honesty will help you get there.

I want you to be reflective and honest because I want you to make the best career decisions you can.  And you can only make the best decisions if you are able to decide exactly what you want and, importantly, WHY you want it.  You need to go deeper than superficial motivations. What VALUES of yours does this career path satisfy?

The easiest way to get to this is called a ‘laddering technique’.  We used it in the study cited above and it can work for you. Just keep asking “why?” until you get to a core, bedrock value which cannot be reduced.  I personally adhere to the Self-Determination Theory of core values, but you can adhere to other theories and get the same outcome. The point is that you need to know what MOVES you from a fundamental core belief level.

For myself, I wanted intense intellectual challenge, because that is a source of enjoyment for me, a decent salary, because financial insecurity was a source of anxiety growing up, a flexible schedule, because I am an iconoclast and don’t like being told what to do, and the opportunity to be in some clear leadership role, because I enjoy the regard of those whom I am in charge of as long as I do a good job.  This led me on the path to academia, but there are MANY MANY other people in academia with very very different motivations. I don’t care what motivates you, but you need to know the core values which motivate you.

How to be Successful: Kaizen

The Vetducator - Kaizen kanji.

I spent a tremendous amount of time preparing for my interview for a department chair position.  My talk was about the psychology of motivation, as I believe that is a core principle to understand when leading people. I focused on Self-Determination Theory, which states that people are internally motivated by autonomy, competence, and relatedness with others.  When discussing the competence domain, I wanted to try and express a concept I had been living my whole life, manifested most obviously in my martial arts training.

When you begin training in martial arts, regardless of your age or athleticism, you begin as a white belt.  No matter what talents you bring to martial arts, you start at the beginning because you don’t know about about this specific skill.  As you learn, you progress through clearly delineated ranks. Do this skill correctly, then earn this rank. It makes skill progression visible and tangible.

I have been training in martial arts since I was 12, so this process was largely invisible to me- it was just a way of life.  OBVIOUSLY, if you practice more, you get better at the skill. That is what a growth mindset gets you. But, to get really good, you need to not only train.  You need to identify what you need to improve, work on improving it, then evaluate your performance and improvement. This can be conceptualized in the plan-do-act-check cycle, which is a component of Kaizen.

Kaizen means “good improvement” and describes a cycle of continuous improvement.  The Toyota Corporation was an early adopter of Kaizen, and the principle became more widespread and accepted in the past few decades.  Although originally used in industrial processes, the principle can be applied to any human pursuit. Applying Kaizen speaks to the competence domain of Self-Determination: you get better at something, which increases your competence, which makes you want to do it more.

What can you do to continue to improve in life?  Here are some suggestions:

1) Learn a skill.  “I’m already learning a skill, Vetducator- how to be a vet! (or a better vet)”  Yes, but you can learn other skills, too. I prefer movement-related ones like dancing and martial arts, but maybe you like learning coding, or home repair/maintenance, or cat training.  This is valuable because you never know when learning something new will help you in another area, it keeps your mind sharp, and it keeps you in the HABIT of learning new things.  Find something FUN to learn.

2) Read a book.  “I am reading so many books already for school, Vetducator!”  Yes, but you need to develop non-veterinary skills and knowledge, too.  I prefer non-fiction books for this development, but fiction books can expand your vocabulary and provide other improvements.  I have been on a recent kick reading books about teaching, so I get to expand my knowledge of teaching.

3) Practice social skills.  If you’re already an adroit, socially-competent person, you can skip this.  For the other 99% of us, you can ALWAYS practice interacting better with other humans.  And I don’t mean acting more extroverted, bouncy, and outgoing. Maybe your focus is you need to listen more, maybe you need to think about treating people with more respect, maybe you want to smile more.  I think everyone can improve on this.

4) Diet and exercise.  This is a common trope today, but it is nonetheless useful.  Don’t know how to cook a vegetarian meal? Practice. Not good at making bread?  Practice. Can only do one pull up? Practice. Keep getting better, even if it is incremental.

This principle applies to being a better student/intern/resident/faculty member because you want to be the best one of those you can be.  The ‘best’ will look different depending on the individual, but the principle is to be constantly improving. You don’t need to push yourself every single day (unless you enjoy that!).  But you should always be looking at how you can improve. Don’t just tread water. If you want to be successful, if you want to be a +1, you need continuous improvement.

If you want to get better, it’s not enough to just want it and hope it comes to you.  You need to make efforts and you will achieve. Don’t stop.

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: Answer Emails

The Vetducator - Reply to emails image.

A while ago, I posted this question on my Facebook wall: “Is answering emails promptly a requirement for white collar work?”  My professional friends responded with a resounding YES. “It is, and those who don’t make everything harder for everyone else.” In your endless quest to aim for zero, this is an easy one.  Not answering email makes you a clear -1 in professional realms, including veterinary medicine.

Getting an email and not answering it is almost exactly like being late to a meeting where your presence is required.  What you are saying, loudly and clearly, is this: “My time is more valuable than your time.” You may not INTEND to say that.  But that’s what you are actually saying with your actions. I don’t know why and, you know what, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter why. The end result is me feeling about this small.

The Vetducator - Feeling small when no one replies to your emails.
I feel like the small figure when I don’t get a reply.

I understand there can be an overwhelming flood of emails coming in, all needing attention.  There are a variety of systems for handling them. Ignoring them is not an option if you want to be seen as a professional.  Here’s how I handle them, but YMMV.

First, when I get an email, I decide whether it needs to be deleted.  I get a lot of these that aren’t spam per se, just not relevant to me right then.  If I don’t care about it and don’t imagine needing it, it gets deleted. (This baffles my best friend, who insists I should just archive it, but if I can’t imagine ever needing it, wouldn’t it be better to remove that data from my storage?  I think so.)

Next, is it an email which can be answered quickly and in a sentence or two?  Scheduling events are like that for me. These can be quickly bounced back to the sender with my availability.  Others are quick replies like “Thanks” and the like. These are my favorite types of emails. Requests for working with me from this blog also fall under this heading.  They get dealt with within the hour or, if I am busy on clinics, that day.

Third, if it’s not an email which can be answered quickly, how much cognitive energy is it going to take to handle?  Is it a request to run statistics on a paper with which I have passing familiarity? That will be an entire afternoon project.  I generally divide these into two categories: do in under a week or put off until close to deadline. If under a week, I tend to do the more cognitively simple tasks sooner.  In either event, I always reply to the email promptly (unless it was automated, as with a journal decision on a submitted manuscript).

Replying to email is just one aspect of being reliable.  And hoo boy, if you can get a reputation for being reliable vs. being unreliable, go for reliable.  You will get better recommendations, people will want to work with you more, and your career will progress more positively.  You must respond to emails in a timely fashion to be considered a professional.

So now I am genuinely curious: why don’t you respond to emails promptly?

Special Announcement: Podcast a Vet Interview!

Dr. John Arnold, the host of Podcast a Vet, did an interview with me last week and already has it up! You can find it at the link below. We talk about all sorts of topics I think would be helpful for you on your path through veterinary medicine. Check it out!

https://podcastavet.com/podcast/erik-hofmeister-reasonable-human-being