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Why Being Comfortably Uncomfortable is a Good Thing When You’re Learning

Learning when to ask for help, and having the confidence to do so is important. This is especially true for any veterinarian as you navigate a profession rich in specialized skill sets, emotionally charged situations, and a seemingly never-ending demand for your services.  However, equally as important is learning how to step outside of your comfort zone and lean into those feelings of uncertainty during the learning process. This is true anytime in your career, but this is especially the case for recent graduates. 

Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

Let’s face it; learning can be uncomfortable. Nobody likes the potential for failure, or the possibility of looking unprepared in front of colleagues or a client. Yet half the battle of learning something new is to know that these feelings are normal.  If you can train yourself to embrace those little growing pains; if you can establish a support system and nurture your curiosity; you will find that the personal and professional payoff is immense.

Build Your Safety Net

When you’re first starting out, it’s important to ensure that you have support.  This may be structured mentorship from your employer, or a trusted network of senior clinicians.  At some point, either on an ongoing basis or sporadically you will need their support. However, instead of using this support as a crutch, try leaning into the unknown while knowing you have that support as a safety net.  Veterinary school prepares you for a lot of things. But what it doesn’t prepare you for is how to learn new things when the conditions are not exactly perfect. Your first solo dental extraction may be on a healthy fractured canine tooth rather than the slightly mobile and decayed incisor. Your first solo neuter may also end up having an umbilical hernia that needs repair.  Though we learn from textbooks, the reality is that we do not live in a textbook. This can be rightfully disconcerting when you first start out in practice.  Feeling like someone should be supervising you, checking your work, or that you’re not qualified to do something on your own—these are all normal feelings. If you surround yourself with a supportive network, you can embrace those uncomfortable feelings rather than resent them, because you know that you will always have a safe place to land if you need help.

Fostering a Learner’s Mindset

A learner’s mindset is one that fosters your curiosity and allows you to view everything in your world as a potential learning opportunity. In our fast-paced profession, it can be easy to forget to nurture our naturally inquisitive mind.   It’s also easy to forget that our “failures” are actually all learning opportunities.  Instead of wallowing in the disappointment of a difficult case that is not responding to your treatment plan; instead ask yourself, “What interesting anomaly about this case is making it an unexpected challenge to treat?”  Rather than focusing entirely on the technical aspects of diseases and medications, try savouring the mystery and the art of veterinary medicine. Though the common figure of speech tells us that curiosity killed the cat, it’s actually a lack of curiosity that kills the learner’s mindset. And, ultimately, more than one person’s vet career.

Know Your Limits

As important as it is to be comfortably uncomfortable while you’re learning, it is just as important to recognize that we all have limits.  There will be times when you truly need a hands-on approach when it comes to learning a new skill, or navigating your way through a complicated medical case. After all, you can’t know everything! Learning to “know when you don’t know,” and recognizing moments when you need one-on-one guidance, is just as important as knowing how to do that particular “thing” in the first place.  There are firsts for everything.  Some of those firsts require your mentor to be by your side, while other firsts simply require them to be cheering you on from the sidelines.  Some don’t require any support at all. As you become more comfortable with being uncomfortable, these boundaries will become clearer.  It takes time, that’s for sure.  But if you approach the learning process with this in mind, you’re already leaps and bounds ahead.


Have a List of Alternative Avenues to Seek Expert Advice

Every now and again, you may find yourself in a bind in which you really need to rely on your clinical judgement to make a call.  We have all been there. Perhaps you will encounter your first case of immune-mediated haemolytic anemia while you’re on call for a long weekend. Or maybe it’s your first equine colic. Regardless of the specifics, you can expect that this will eventually happen.  Even the most reliable mentors can’t be available every moment of the day.  But the best mentors will have taught you ways to tap into other sources of expertise when they are otherwise unreachable.

There are so many resources available to veterinarians these days that allow for quick access to quality information.  Remember that knowing where to find the information is just as good as knowing the information in the first place.  We graduate from veterinary school with unrealistic expectations of ourselves to know everything by memory.  Our schooling and countless exams have conditioned us to think that unless we have something memorized, we are unworthy of our title as a doctor.  But that is not only untrue, but also completely impractical!  

Instead learn to appreciate resources such as virtual internal medicine consultations, online peer groups and message boards, the teaching hospital staff from your local veterinary college, just to name a few.

As a professional, you are simply going to have to make decisions based on incomplete information or imperfect circumstances. 

When you find yourself in the position of not knowing the answer, don’t be afraid to tell your client with this simple phrase, “ These results are certainly out of the ordinary.  I want to make sure that we can confirm a diagnosis and make your pet feel better as soon as possible, so I am going to reach out to an expert in the field for some advice.” Then set your client’s expectations by telling them how long it will take to hear back, and how you will go about keeping their pet comfortable in the meantime.  Just like that, you have set the stage for success with your client and taken the opportunity to learn something new, all the while being just a little bit comfortably uncomfortable. 

And on some occasions, you are even going to have to decide in the moment what to do because there is no time to ask someone for help. Will you decide right or wrong? I don’t know, but I do know that you’ll again have the opportunity to review your decisions afterward, regardless of outcome. And in doing so, grow a huge amount as a clinician. 

Tying It All Together

Being comfortably uncomfortable is a good thing when you’re learning because it means that you are taking those necessary steps outside of your comfort zone where growth occurs. Such steps may be uncomfortable, but they are the only way to find long term comfort in your carer’s vocation.

Finding a practice that feels safe enough to allow you to be brave should be top of everyone’s job list. A practice that prioritizes your psychological safety and ongoing personal growth is a critical piece of the puzzle when it comes to your longevity as a veterinarian. 

Such a place will help nurture your curiosity while knowing you have a supportive network behind you to raise you up when you need a boost. And you’ll have a team of vocal supporters to cheer you on when you’re doing great.  

Find this, and push courageously through your zone of comfort my friend, and you will be well on the way to enjoying your role as a vet.

If you found this article on how to avoid burnout in veterinary medicine useful, why not check out our 'So You're a Vet... Now What?' course for essential lessons they don't teach in vet school!

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