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. Scientific findings will come along which challenge and change your clinical practice- if you aren’t receptive to it, you’ll not continue to be a good veterinarian.
Having a growth mindset is synonymous with making and learning from mistakes. At one university where I worked, 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 can’t disavow 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 and 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 start trying NOW.