How to be Successful: Listen

Photo by kyle smith on Unsplash

I was on a friend’s video chat yesterday with people I generally enjoy speaking with, but are also a little bit much.  They tend to talk over each other and everyone is accustomed to being the star of the show.  This doesn’t bother me , as I am quiet by nature.  But it could be better.  They could spend more time listening.

It reminds me of a friend of mine in college who was impressively successful in his dating life.  One of his girlfriends said, “Andy is amazing because, when you’re talking, it’s like there’s nothing else in the world more important than you.”  You may remember the line in Fight Club that people who are dying really listen instead of just waiting for their chance to speak.  People want to be listened to.  Listening is a skill.  You can cultivate it.  Why would you want to be better at listening?  I think there are myriad reasons being a good listener would improve your life.  

First, you can learn some things.  You know how drugs periodically become unavailable or expensive?  I learned why talking to a friend of an acquaintance one afternoon.  They explained the supply chain mechanics which led to such scarcity.  It was fascinating and something I have retained ever since.

Second, people LOVE being listened to.  As evidenced by my little anecdote and Fight Club, people often don’t have the opportunity to have others really LISTEN.  I think people appreciate someone who is focused on what they are saying.  And, really, why are you talking to them if you don’t want to hear what they have to say?  This is not a gambit, this is you genuinely listening and hearing what they are telling you.  I think this will endear you to other people, and they will want you to be around them more.

Finally, communication is the key to so many human endeavors.  I see medical errors happen all the time because people aren’t listening.  I see students fail to understand something because they were browsing Facebook instead of listening.  If you don’t listen, you won’t understand.  Listening will make sure you participate fully in the human experience.

So, listening is good and valuable and I think you should be a good listener.  What are elements of being a good listener, and how do you develop them?

First, don’t interrupt.  This can be VERY HARD for some people.  Maybe they are thinking that the thing they have to say is utterly critical to the conversation.  Maybe they feel they won’t have an opportunity to contribute if they don’t interrupt.  I have told several students that they tend to interrupt, and I’m not sure anyone has ever said that to them before.  So I think it’s hard to recognize in one’s self.  Maybe ask some friends or family members.  If you’re interrupting, you’re not listening.

Second, be patient.  You will have your chance to contribute.  Maybe.  If the people you are with are VERY chatty, you may not be able to contribute.  Oh well, they clearly aren’t interested in what you have to say.  Good conversationalism is actually a skill all on its own.  It involves listening as well as asking interesting questions.  I find few people are good at conversation.  When I find them, I like to hang on to them.  If the people you’re around aren’t asking you questions or engaging you, maybe they’re not really your friends.  Your friends will appreciate your patient, attentive listening.

Third, accept that you may not get to get your word in.  Maybe you had the perfect response to something, but that time has passed.  Oh well, that’s fine, be patient and maybe you will have an opportunity to contribute in the future.  Maybe the opportunity is long gone and you’ll never get that great contribution or question in.  In the friend’s video chat I mentioned earlier, I wanted to ask about how he manages kid wrangling.  But the others on the call kept on talking over each other, so I didn’t have a chance.  Oh well, maybe if I have the chance to chat with him again it will come up.  It’s not the end of the world if you don’t get to contribute.  You are fulfilling an important role in the ecology of human interaction by being present and listening.

Fourth, ask reflective questions.  If someone says something and you immediately take off on the thing you wanted to say, OK fine.  That’s obviously the right choice sometimes.  But, if someone asks you a question, answer it and then ask THEM that same question.  It’s obviously on their mind.  This starts to broach into conversational dynamics, but listening and responding appropriately go hand-in-hand.  Once you listen to what they say, ask questions to follow up.  Hot take: people LOVE talking about themselves.

Finally, orient yourself to the person.  When someone is talking, they may not make eye contact.  But listeners establish eye contact.  You turn towards them.  You may open your body language (e.g. no crossed arms).  Smile.  Think about ways that you can demonstrate that you are interested and engaged with the person.  A large part of communication is nonverbal, so think about what your nonverbal behaviors are demonstrating.

I think listening is a valuable life skill, and I always appreciate people who spend more time listening than talking.  If you are an extrovert, this may be more challenging than for an introvert.  Regardless, consider how you can become more of a listener to improve your personal and professional interactions.

Book Review: A Doctor’s Guide to Personal Finance

I have been religiously reading the White Coat Investor (WCI) blog for a few years now.  The information I have learned there has guided a huge number of my personal and professional decisions.  I now teach personal finance to the house officers and students who take an elective practice management rotation and have gotten positive feedback on those classes.  I figured it was finally time to buy the book he wrote and recommends.

The book is short- just 150 pages, and I finished it in a few days of light reading between cases.  It was written just 3 years after starting the blog, so you can tell he hadn’t had as much experience as he has now.  Although I find the WCI blogs engagingly written, the book was slightly more sophomoric.  It read like a self-help self-published book, which I suppose is what it is.  The opening reads almost like a “get rich quick” scheme, which is unfortunate because that’s exactly the opposite message throughout the book.  Let’s look at each chapter.

Chapter 1 – The Big Squeeze.  Although veterinarians may find some relevance here- mostly in the relatively high debt:income ratio we face on graduation, a lot of this is specific to human medicine.  Worth a read for curiosity, but not much specifically for us.

Chapter 2 – Millionaire by 40.  This gives a brief description of how you accumulate wealth.  The best part is a series of short narratives given by those who DID reach millionaire by 40.  It took my wife and I until I was 43 and my wife was 38, so we were pretty close.  You, too, can earn and save and become relatively wealthy.

Chapter 3 – If I Had a Million Dollars.  He lays out the foundation for spending in retirement, how much you need, and why some people don’t reach their goals.  Good stuff.

Chapter 4 – Medical School and Your Wealth.  I wish this were required reading for everyone who wants to go to vet school.  This chapter alone is worth the cost of admission.  It sets out perfectly why an expensive school is so destructive to your future wealth and happiness.  “Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to three different schools!  How do you choose between them?  That’s easy.  Go to the cheapest one.”  I see pre-vet students all the time asking “which program has a better equine program” or “where should I go if I like exotics?”  It doesn’t bloody matter.  Get your DVM as inexpensively as possible.

Chapter 5 – Residency and Your Wealth.  This has virtually nothing for veterinarians.  As veterinary residents make ~$25-35k, much below what human medical residents make, a lot of it isn’t relevant.  Like, what veterinary resident buys a house?  None that I can think of.  Nonetheless, there are some foundational concepts every vet should learn here.

Chapter 6 – The Secret to Becoming a Rich Doctor.  Unfortunately, his advice “live like a resident” isn’t helpful since few veterinarians do residencies.  For those that do, this is great advice.  For those that don’t, I say “live like a student”.  This lays out the steps you need to take to pay off loans and start accumulating wealth.

Chapter 7 – The Retirement Number You Control.  This is all about calculating how much money you need in retirement.  Useful for anyone.

Chapter 8 – The Motorway to Dublin – This provides the basics of investing in stocks and bonds.  It’s fairly good information, but it definitely assumes the reader has some information, like why a 401k is advantageous and what an HSA is and how it benefits your finances.  Important information for anyone.

Chapter 9 – Getting Off the Motorway – These are other investment options, which are good to be aware of.  Not much detail here, but that’s good for the novice.

Chapter 10 – Paying the Help – This covers financial advisors.  I rant as often as possible about vet students, veterinarians, or my friends who just have a “money guy”.  This chapter explains why that’s terrible, and what to do if you need help with your finances.  Terrific stuff.

Chapter 11 – The Basics of Asset Protection – Not much a veterinarian needs here.  We are rarely sued and, when we are, it’s usually not for more than the value of the animal.  Still interesting things to know, as there’s always some liability in life.

Chapter 12 – Estate Planning Made Simple – Get a will.  Maybe do a living trust.  This information is important and he presents the key points you need to know.

Chapter 13 – Income Taxes and the Physician – This is the first topic I cover when I teach vet students about finances.  Although he tries to explain marginal tax rates, I think he assumes some basal level of knowledge which I find veterinary professionals just don’t have.  A nice summary of 13 ways to reduce your taxes.  I guessed 8 of them correctly, and the 5 I missed were because they are not relevant to me (e.g. having children).

Chapter 14 – Choosing a Business Structure – The basics of being your own boss.  Good if you’re interested in buying a practice or doing contact work.

Chapter 15 – Enjoying the Good Life – This is basically a summary chapter.  If you follow his steps, you get to enjoy the good life and we agree.

Chapter 16 – The Mission of the White Coat Investor – What it says on the box.

Overall, I thought this book was pretty good, particularly considering the price.  I do think it should be updated- I’m sure Dr. Dahle has learned a lot since he wrote it.  I also think it would benefit from some professional editorial work to make it sound less “home-made” and more professional.  If I could just take out Chapter 4 and give it to every high school student who wants to be a veterinarian, the world would be a better place.  If you haven’t been taught about personal finances, I strongly recommend this book.

How and Why to Do a Proper Handshake

Interacting with other humans is hard.  As a culture, we have a terrible time determining if someone is telling the truth or lying.  The handshake originated as a way to determine that the other person doesn’t have a weapon they could use against you.  In veterinary medicine, we will often shake hands when meeting someone and, sometimes, when parting.  For better or worse, some evaluators will judge your handshake skills as an indicator of how genuine, honest, competent, or otherwise “good” you are. 

The pandemic briefly interrupted normal handshake culture, but I have observed in the past few months that people have returned to pre-pandemic handshake rituals. So, learning how to do a proper handshake may help your career.

The most common problem I experience with a handshake is a very soft or limp-wristed handshake.  So the first step is to have a firm- but not crushing- handshake.  This is true regardless of your gender.  Grasp their hand and exert a fair amount of pressure, but don’t SQUEEZE.

Look the person in the eye while you shake their hand.  Again, the handshake is intended to establish trust.  In our culture, we believe that direct eye contact establishes a greater degree of trust.  Practice this repeatedly with friends and family. Shake hand, look in eye.

As you are probably aware, we have a decent number of “cowboys” in veterinary medicine.  These are generally men who typically practice large animal medicine who believe in CRUSHING your hand during a handshake.  You could try to meet force with force, but I don’t recommend it.  I imagine these guys go home to use their eagle claw strengthening devices. You probably can’t out-crushing-handshake them.

Instead, there’s a simple solution to this.  When you identify one of these individuals (they’re usually easy to spot on visual assessment), when you shake their hand, extend your index and middle finger.  It may decrease my grip strength 10-20%, but the extended fingers prevent your hand from being crushed while also transmitting a decent grip from their point of view. I learned this from a self-defense class and it is remarkably effective.

I think you should cultivate a good handshake because some people will use it to gauge your integrity and competence.  I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but it’s how the world works.  Practicing and delivering a good handshake may mean the difference between getting your next position and not.  It’s not hard to do, so go ahead and get cracking on making a good first impression.  Decent grip strength, look them in the eye.

Podcast #14: Dr. Bobbi Conner

Dr. Bobbi Conner and I had a great discussion about candidates interested in emergency and critical care veterinary medicine. Her advice to be a well-rounded “whole” person I think pertains to ANYONE interested in veterinary medicine!

Dr. Conner also interviewed me for HER podcast! You can find that here!

Three Year Anniversary!

Some pretty good improvement in the past year! It looks like the search engines are sending people this way when they look for advice on applications, which is terrific.

Three years ago, March 2019, I launched The Vetducator blog. A lot of blogs fold within a year or two, but I’m still writing and enthusiastic to support and expand the blog!

I love statistics. Numbers are so wonderfully illuminating. When I am running statistical analyses, I am in my ‘flow’ state and time just drifts by. So, the numbers first!

Visitors: 51,600 (compared with last year’s 17,622)

Visits: 132,568 (compare last year’s 51,857)

Posts: 251

Comments: 72

Podcast Episodes: 13

Definitely some growth, particularly in number of posts, even though I scaled back from my twice-a-week posting I did in the first year. That first year I definitely felt like I had a lot of content to get Out There which no one had written about. I still have plenty of topics- I’ve got 110 ideas in my inspiration file- but most of the absolutely core essential information I have already published.

It looks like the most popular posts are about the VIRMP. My Circle of Control post is #6 in popularity, which is great! I wish I had gotten that advice when growing up- it would have made life so much simpler.

I’m not going to commit to posting a certain amount this year, but I would like to do at least 1-2 posts a month. I would love to do more podcast interviews, I just need guests! I’ll continue to be active in the APVMA Facebook group and reach out to students that I know. Hopefully the word of mouth will continue to grow and intern and resident and faculty applicants will find their way here, too! Thank you for reading and I hope you have learned something by visiting.

Top 14 Reasons Academia is Awesome

I am obviously biased, but I think working in veterinary academia is the best thing since sliced bread.  I gather other areas of academia are a dumpster fire, so if you have a PhD in English or Philosophy, I am sorry.  But I feel clinical veterinary academia is a great place to be.  I’ve been there my whole professional life- except for a private practice internship- so let me tell you why.

1) By my personal definition, I work 6 months a year.  Most tenure-track faculty do 50% clinic time, so they are on clinics 6 months a year.  The rest of the time, we are teaching and doing research.  Now, I can’t lay around at home during my off-clinic time, but I can spend my time more-or-less how I like.  I don’t consider teaching and research “work” since it’s legitimately fun for me to do that.

2) The salary is plenty generous.  Most specialty faculty earn a six-figure salary. They don’t make as much as private practice vets, but I think it’s still a pretty strong salary, given the median salary in the United States is ~$60,000. Also, the “as much” is relative. If you can make $140k in academia and $160k in private practice, is it really THAT different? I expect the benefits MORE than make up for the difference.

3) The environment is intellectually stimulating.  You’re always teaching students and residents (who are challenging your knowledge), you’re working with other clever specialists in a cooperative fashion, and you have access to the latest toys and innovation.

4) The benefits are incredible.  Usually very good health insurance, good retirement options (including pensions at many institutions), and minor-but-nice benefits like free tuition for you and family and having a human medical clinic on campus to which you can go for inexpensive routine care. Not a lot of jobs offer pensions these days- it’s money FOR LIFE once you retire. A very good pillar of retirement planning.

5) Different tasks.  There’s always something new and different and interesting in my days.  If I get burned out on clinics, I have some off-clinic time to do some reading.  If I get sick of reading, I can do some research.  If I get sick of research, I can get into my teaching.  There’s always something new and different to try.  It’s not the same grind day after day.

6) Down time.  Academia encourages you to spend time just… thinking.  I sometimes stare off into space or go for walks and just Think About Things.  This time has led to dozens of research projects and different teaching approaches.  If it was go-go-go all the time, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to try out different new ideas.

7) Encourages experimentation.  I’ve always felt like I’ve had a high degree of academic freedom.  I could teach how I want to teach and pursue the research I want to pursue.  If I worked for industry, I would have to research what THEY want me to research.  In academia, I get to try out a lot of different things.  Some work and I keep them, some don’t and get discarded.

8) Rank-ordered system.  I have always been attracted to rank-ordered systems.  Martial arts and boy scouts both fit this model, with clear advancement paths, and were highly formative for me growing up.  It’s nice to have something to work towards.  First internship, then residency, then Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor, then full Professor.  It makes for a very tidy, clear professional path.

9) Young people.  Maybe having a revolving door of veterinary assistants or vet-school aspirants could achieve this in private practice, but being in a college town around young people is invigorating.  You get to stay at least a little more in touch with the zeitgeist and there’s always new enthusiastic people who lend a certain energy to a place.

10) Public Service Loan Forgiveness.  If you have a debt:income ratio greater than 2:1, paying that off will be nearly impossible.  But if you work for an academic institution, you can enter PSLF, which forgives ALL your federal student loan debt after 10 years AND you don’t have to pay taxes on that benefit.  If you went to a private school, this should be near the top of your list for strategies to effectively manage your debt.

11) Low cost-of-living area.  Not only are the salaries reasonable, but most vet schools are in rural areas with a relatively low cost of living.  There are some exceptions (Davis, Madison, Philadelphia, and Fort Collins come to mind) but, for the most part, you can live somewhere without paying an arm and a leg for a house or having to sell your car to pay for a pint of good beer.  Good luck finding that in San Diego, Chicago, or most cities with large referral hospitals which employ veterinary specialists.

12) Cultural opportunities.  Even though most vet schools are in rural areas, they are large state institutions with an energetic student body.  There are often great (and inexpensive) cultural opportunities, ranging from the student theatre company to traveling Broadway shows.  College towns are often a great combination of low cost-of-living but good exposure to culture.

13) More sources of fulfillment.  In private practice, you are probably appreciated by your clients and, possibly, your staff.  In academia, your students (which become alumni) and research colleagues also often express appreciation.  It’s great to meet a student several years after graduation who tells you how much you helped them become the vet they are today.

14) Less flash.  It’s understood that academics earn less than those in private practice, so I think there’s more acceptance of a more simple (some might say grungy) lifestyle.  I remember being over at a fellow academic’s house and noticing he had holes in his socks, too!  I think those in private practice feel more compelled to Keep up with the Joneses.  I feel most academics are more basic in their material needs, so get to focus on what matters in life.

Not everyone in academia has my experience or shares my perspective.  Some of us work very hard, with long days and thankless administration.  Private practice has its good parts, too.  But I often feel that people neglect all the great things that working in academia can bring.

White Coat Investor Podcast Spot

All my professional life, I have ended up with more money at the end of the year than I started with. I didn’t really know why or what to do with this until I found Mr. Money Mustache. I have since become passionate about personal finance, and teach the vet students and house officers at my university whenever I can. The White Coat Investor was started by human emergency physician Dr. Jim Dahle, and the resources there grew my knowledge and competency in finance tremendously. I have read all of his blog posts twice (including the comments!) and was fortunate enough to be accepted as a guest on his podcast. I encourage you all to have a listen- I think there are some valuable tips here for anyone interested in veterinary medicine. This link takes you to the podcast!

In one place I did misspeak: I said the applicant:seat ratio for veterinary medicine was 1.2:1. In actuality, it is closer to 1.6:1. Sorry about that! I didn’t research it ahead of time like I should have.

My Biggest Professional Mistake

It was the summer of 2016.  My wife had gotten a faculty job 3 hours away from our home.  After a couple of months of just seeing each other on the weekends, we decided we didn’t want to live apart, so we started looking for other jobs.  At this time, I told my department chair what was happening and asked that they talk to the Dean about the potential for doing a spousal hire for my wife.  The college had recently done a spousal hire for another faculty, so I knew it was a possibility.  I also knew it would be better if I had an alternate offer in hand.  So off I went onto the job market.

I applied primarily for anesthesiologist jobs overseas.  I didn’t realize at the time that overseas universities don’t do spousal hiring.  But I got a lot of experience with video interviews!  I applied for a variety of non-veterinary faculty positions around Columbia, SC and got nowhere.  I applied for department chair jobs in the U.S., of which there were only a few.  I got an interview and eventually an offer at another university.

This all happened when I was away on locum.  I emailed my department chair the offer I had from the other institution and my wife’s CV.  The other institution only gave me 2 weeks to make a decision, which was a small red flag I wish I had paid closer attention to.  They also did not offer a spousal hire for my wife.  Where I had been working for 15 years apparently made no progress on a spousal hire for my wife, so I took the job at the other institution.

Why did my home university not put together a retention offer for me?  I’m still not sure.  It may be because I wasn’t talking directly with the Dean and my chair wasn’t able to make them understand my situation.  Maybe they thought I was bluffing, which I never do.  Maybe I wasn’t as valuable to the institution as I thought.  Maybe the Dean was already on the way out and didn’t want to saddle the next Dean with a spousal hire.  I’m still not sure, but here’s what I would do differently now:

1) Talk directly to the Dean.  I should have met with the Dean as soon as I started looking elsewhere so they knew my situation.

2) Push back against the hiring institution for a 2-week timeline for a decision.  It’s possible they had another choice after me, but I suspect this was just a high-pressure tactic to minimize the chance of my home institution giving me a retention offer.

3) Hold out for a spousal hire offer.  I should have never taken the job at the new university ‘hoping’ they would find something for my wife.  This was another red flag I should have picked up on.  Their spousal hiring policy (that is, no spouses ever hired at that institution) is disastrous and actively makes it hard to recruit faculty there.  I should have continued to apply for positions and waited until I got an offer from somewhere that would also give my wife a job.  This is the strategy I employed when searching for a new job in 2018 and it worked out very successfully.

I hope you can learn from my mistakes and avoid making the same ones yourself.  The biggest thing in life is to keep learning and getting better- no one is perfect!

You Can Do Anything You Want

…But you can’t do EVERYTHING you want.  I first heard this principle applied to high-income professionals with respect to their personal finances and I love it.  I use it when I teach the senior vet students about personal finances.  If you want, you can: 1) Live in LA, 2) Buy a new BMW, 3) Send your kids to private school, OR 4) Retire early.  But you CANNOT: live in LA AND buy a new BMW AND send your kids to private school AND retire early.  You won’t make enough.  This isn’t a money problem- there are physicians earning $400k who can’t do this.  There just isn’t enough money there.  This is a spending problem.  How does this apply to your professional progression?

You can: 1) Fail organic chem, 2) Only get 1 letter of recommendation from a veterinarian, 3) Spend your free time with friends instead of getting leadership positions in clubs, 4) Have little experience in a vet clinic, OR 5) get into your state school.  But you CANNOT: fail organic chem, only get 1 letter of recommendation from a veterinarian, have no leadership roles, have little clinic experience, and get into your state school.  This isn’t an “organic chem is hard” problem.  This is an “I’m not able or willing to put the effort in” problem.

Am I saying there’s NO ONE in the world that’s ever achieved this?  Of course not.  Am I saying that it’s just this side of impossible, and you shouldn’t plan your life as if you’re going to win the lottery?  Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.

So what’s the point of this?  The point is that you CAN make mistakes.  You CAN mess up your application.  You CAN vomit during your interview.  Try not to worry about it if you have a single flaw on your application.  But you can’t slack off.  You can’t be bad at science and not make that deficit up elsewhere on your application.  If you want to get a highly competitive position, you have to BE highly competitive.  There are dozens or hundreds of other applicants for the position you want.  You can’t slack off on all aspects of your application.

If you find you don’t like science, don’t like leadership, don’t like working with people, and don’t want to put in the hours…. Maybe being a veterinarian isn’t for you.  There are plenty of other careers where you get to work with animals.  Choose something that is more in line with what you are good at.

Some people are unable to put the work in.  Maybe they get migraines after being in bright light for more than 4 hours.  Maybe their parents didn’t give them books to read when they were young so it’s hard for them to process new information.  Maybe they have an addiction problem.  There are plenty of reasons why people can’t be veterinarians.  It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t WANT it badly enough.  We always tell people you can have it if you want it badly enough.  But you know what?  For some people, just wanting it isn’t going to cut it.  Some people can’t be veterinarians.

You can make a misstep or two in your life and still get to vet school, or an internship, or a competitive residency.  But you cannot make a series of missteps.  There are plenty of other people out there who don’t have ANY missteps.  Which applicant do you think evaluators would prefer? You can do ANYthing you want, but not EVERYthing you want.