Tag Archives: success

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

Would you Rather Be Smart or Have a Good Personality?

The Vetducator - Jimmy Stewart in Harvey giving advice about being pleasant over smart.

“In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”

I belong to a private Facebook group for those who graduated in my class in vet school.  When a discussion about grades came up, one of my classmates pointed out many internship programs select people that are easy to get along with over the ones with amazing grades.  My reply was, “Oh man, personality trumps smart every time for me.” Several of my classmates chimed in in agreement. I thought it was worthwhile to talk about.

When I go about selecting residents, I have often said, “I can TEACH them what they need to know.  But if they are difficult to work with, I can’t change that.” I want to be clear: I’m not talking personality like outgoing, bubbly, constantly cheery.  I get along great with quiet, brooding types. I mean personality in the sense that the person is humble, can deal with other human beings, and is willing to work hard.

Grades don’t necessarily indicate your intelligence- they indicate your ability to get good grades in the system we have.  Almost everyone in vet school is smart. Or at least smart ‘enough’. Those who excel have a curious mind, are willing to take feedback, and seek improvement in their lives.

I have known plenty of people who got amazing grades, but were not necessarily successful clinicians, and people who got poor grades who became amazing clinicians.  Success depends on so much more than being smart, or being highly ranked in your class. For some internship and residency programs, yes, they do look at your grades and class rank.  If you’re not near the top, that is fine- those programs wouldn’t be a good fit for you anyways.

Any program that cares that much about class rank is likely to find others who think that is important.  Some of those programs are successful, which is great. I think there are many more programs which understand that there are so many things people bring to the table and need to be good at other than their grades.

We have been talking a lot about ‘soft skills’ in veterinary medicine for the last decade, and it’s because we had been focused so much on grades and test scores up to that point.  What employers want isn’t the person who gets As, they want the person who will manage their cases effectively and keep clients happy. Doing that requires way more than medical knowledge.  It requires communication skills, empathy, and emotional intelligence.

Some of these you can learn and train, like communication skills.  Others may develop over the course of years. But if someone is a Negative Person, or is Arrogant, or some other major personality defect- I can’t fix that with training.  That person needs years of therapy and a strong motivation to change.

I have two major takeaways for you.  1) If you are not at the top of your class, you can excel and be successful nonetheless.  Read all the How to be Successful posts. 2) Improvements to your personality will pay much greater dividends than improvements to your knowledge.  Hiring decisions are based on how you are to work with- NOT how much you know.

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.

The How to be Successful Series

The Vetducator - Rocky Balboa raising fist in the air.

I have two editors for this blog: my wife and one of my best friends.  They have both commented on my lack of advice on how to be a +1. This is because I generally believe if you aim for zero, and are then a reasonably competent person, you will become a +1.  But my wife specifically told me, after the Aim for Zero post, that I should address people’s concerns that they feel they NEED to be a +1 in order to get the position they want.

So, I started writing some posts about how to excel as a student, intern, resident, and faculty member.  They slowly began to morph into a series of posts which, when taken altogether, would lead you on the path to become a +1.  This is an introduction to that series, following my post about Aiming for Zero. The future of this series includes the following topics:

I’m sure more will come up as I think, read, and continue to counsel clients on their career progression.  My initial thought was that being successful was pretty simple but, the more I thought about it, the more I found was important to articulate.  Why?

I shared the Aim for Zero post with some professional friends and it apparently resonated.  The next day, one of them told me, “Oh my god, why don’t people know this? I get ridiculous demands from students all the time and they have no idea how this is affecting their career.”  So, evidently, lots of people don’t do these things. That means it needs to be spelled out, hence this series. I hope you enjoy.

There is No Ideal Applicant

The Vetducator Puzzle Piece Image

Most people who apply to a position want to be the ideal candidate.  Employers want the ideal candidate, so they get a quality employee who will stay for the long term and not cause waves.  Applicants want the ideal position, to progress their career and to maximize happiness.  Sadly, there is no such thing as the ideal candidate or the ideal position.  There’s only a good fit.

This became evident to me with one of my first residents.  Our training program was designed to provide a high degree of autonomy to the residents. They chose how to spend their off-clinic time, what rotations to take, what research to pursue, how to study, etc.  This worked great when I came through the program- I did external rotations at UCD in Ireland and at Royal Perth Hospital in Australia, I got five papers submitted for publication, and I passed the written section of boards the first time.  This also worked great for the resident who came after me. But the next resident did not have a high degree of internal motivation. He needed a more structured program.

He had difficulty with deciding how to spend his time, did not seek out advice, and generally did not efficiently use his time.  Ultimately he ended up not completing the program. I don’t see that as a failing of his or a failing of the program.  It was a bad fit.  Our program worked well with highly internally motivated residents and he needed a program which would tell him what to do and when.  Subsequent residents were highly successful once we identified that we needed to tell residents about this feature of our program. We would tell applicants what our program was like during the interview, and if they needed more structure, there were great programs that could provide that out there.  But ours was not one of them.

There are good programs.  There are good candidates.  But there is no perfect program or perfect candidate.  

You have to be extremely honest with yourself:  

What can you tolerate?  

What kind of person are you?  

How do you like to work?  

Do you want to be the top in your field and climb over the bodies of your fallen enemies or are you happy just doddering along doing your thing and being happy?

How many hours and how hard do you ACTUALLY want to work?  

Do you need the social status attendant with being in a top program?  

Do you want high income, or more free time, lots of students/interns/residents to train, lots of time for research, more contact with students, or more time in the classroom?  

Spend time dwelling on what you actually genuinely want.

This is less critical for internships- they are only a year, and you can tolerate almost anything for that span of time.  When evaluating residencies and faculty positions, though, ask a lot of questions to make sure you would actually be happy where you are applying.  Don’t just accept anything- your life is too short to waste it being miserable. Do you have a tale of a good position not being a good fit or visa versa?

How to be Successful: Aim For Zero

The Vetducator - Chris Hadfield Book Cover

I was doing a locum job in Saskatoon when some of the people at the hospital directed me to a book written by the first Canadian to walk in space, “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth…” by Chris Hadfield.  While generally entertaining, I found the most compelling chapter in the book was about performance. How do you excel in a new position, and how might you extend this to a job search or interview?  If you have a scale from -1, which is being a drain on the system or a bad interviewee, to a 0, where you contribute your fair share to the system or do a competent job, to a +1, which is being a superstar and beloved by all, Hadfield’s advice is to Aim For Zero.  I couldn’t agree more.

I will never forget becoming a new third-year resident and having the new first-year residents start at UGA.  One of the new medicine residents had a case going in radiology under anesthesia. One of my mentors, a full Professor of anesthesia, British not-to-be-messed-with attitude, and all around terrific academic, went to radiology to check on the case.  The new medicine resident told my mentor in a very sharp, dismissing tone, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.” Everyone got very quiet. My mentor barely acknowledged the resident, checked out everything, and then went about her business. She wasn’t angry, just shocked, as was I.  What the hell was the resident thinking? Looking back, the resident was aiming to be a +1, able to handle any situation, trusted and respected by all. Instead, her actions marked her as a clear -1.

In writing a letter of intent, you want to follow the general guidelines we have mapped out before, but you don’t want to try TOO hard.  You may come across in a way you don’t intend. In an interview, you want to be prepared, competent, knowledgeable, and personable. But you don’t want to strive to be amazing.  I had one candidate interview for a faculty position who had done an amazing amount of research. He had committed my recent publications to memory and asked me about all of them.  He knew people in the organization and what their roles and duties were, and he brought them up. It was impressive, but also just a little bit off-putting. Other candidates have been prepared- knowing one or two interesting publications of mine which have come up organically during conversations- and that was fine.  The obsessive focus this candidate had was not fine.

Could you lose out to the actual +1 candidate?  It’s possible. Charismatic, competent people who are amazing at writing and interviews do exist.  But in my experience, they are few and far between. And, are you really going to beat out the top 5% for a position if you are genuinely in the top 15%?  I think it is more likely you will end up hitting -1 if you try to aim to be a +1. Maintain your dignity and trust that the right thing will work out for you. We will cover all the elements needed to become a +1 in a series of posts on How to be Successful.

You need to prepare.  You need to practice. You need to research and talk to others about your application and process.  But don’t aim to be that amazing blow-them-out-of-the-water candidate, because you’re more likely to miss.  Aim for zero- quietly competent.