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Managing your own expectations

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I wonder if American students possess an educative and lifestyle advantage in that not only do they possess a degree before entering veterinary school but also many will have worked in a variety of jobs, some in suboptimal working conditions.

I recollect clearly that my dairy work experience was not a ‘textbook’ job. But on reflection, the short-term educative losses gave me long-term benefits. On the first week I ground barley, placed it into 40 to 50 kg bags and then manhandled these bags to feed barley beef. A wheelbarrow was provided as a concession. This confirmed to me that work did have a physical element, which was later relevant to farm work and the long hours spent in a consulting room.

In the second week of my work experience placement, the farmer ploughed through a 50 hectare grass ley full of docks. He then handed me a wad of plastic fertiliser bags and told me to systematically go through the field and pick up the shredded dock leaves, stems and roots. From time to time he would come by with a tractor and trailer and pick up the full bags. Thus, I learnt to accept the occasional thoughtlessness of people, whether clients or colleagues.

Soon after, he asked me to drive a vehicle. I immediately drove it into the nearest wall, breaking off the front bumper with a loud bang. He berated me, so I explained that I had applied the foot brake. He responded that to stop the vehicle I should put my foot on the clutch, move the gear stick into neutral and then apply the footbrake. So I learnt the importance of good communication and instruction before commencing an operation, that unfortunate events occur at unexpected times, and that a machine can choose a bad moment to fail you (as invariably does the odd piece of veterinary dental equipment). He then showed me that team work is essential, immediately welding on the bumper and saying no one else would know.

This is not an excuse for suboptimal working conditions, but my own experience over many years is that, provided one takes a positive approach and works hard, ‘things can only get better’. And on this farm they did, so much so that by the end I was handling a lot of cattle. However, I suspect for many, when things are not to their liking, the rate of progress of improvement is considered too slow and so dissatisfaction creeps in. But perhaps they could consider the converse. In the near perfect clinical surroundings found in many veterinary schools, ‘things can only get worse’.

You cannot be perfect forever. This is true particularly when one moves from a veterinary school into general practice. It is the management to one's own personal satisfaction of suboptimal and optimal conditions that is key. Paradoxically, the best working environments can be the hardest to maintain, bringing with them significant stresses. But they do carry the great satisfaction of work performed to the highest technical standards. The suboptimal, meanwhile, give an opportunity for improvements to be made and satisfaction in achieving them with many interesting stories garnered on the way.

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