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A philosophy lesson from Dr Seuss

by
01 October 2015, at 1:00am

Dr DAVID WILLIAMS receives some sage advice from the man behind the Cat in the Hat in light of the Vet Futures survey results, which show almost half of veterinarians are not happy with their lot

I WAS really concerned to read a headline recently that nearly 50% of vets surveyed in a Vet Futures report feel the profession has not come up to their expectations.

Given the chance to wind the clock back and start again, many would have chosen a different career. So at a dinner in college last week for those who graduated 20 years ago, I asked the vets present if that fitted with what they thought.

No, they all agreed, they are glad that they’re vets. But, on the other hand, they could see a number of reasons that might make some wish they had gone in another direction. Work stress, politics within the practice, lack of appreciation from owners all seemed to be issues for them.

But wait a moment. By the time you read this I will have welcomed the new vet students at St John’s; students who are just so excited to be on the first step to a career caring for animals. Am I to tell them that on average half of them a few years down the line will wish they had never started the course? Well actually, no – by no means. I have to tell them what I feel myself, don’t I? And personally I cannot imagine a better career.

I really enjoy helping animals and their owners...and students learning the trade too. In fact talking to an architect at the same college dinner was really illuminating. He too often felt that the firm he was working for didn’t give him the job satisfaction he was aiming for as a student. But a quotation from Dr Seuss kept him going. “Dr Seuss?!” you may ask! What quote from the Cat in a Hat man could be so important?

One of my favourites is “Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!” but does that really fit? Or perhaps “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.” Well I’m not quite sure – both of those are really excellent philosophy, but they aren’t what the architect had in mind.

No – this was his quote: “To the world you may be one person; but to one person you may be the world” – written by Theodor Seuss Geisel, the originator of Dr Seuss, not in a book but to a friend.

That was what kept the architect going. You could go around thinking you were one tiny little cog in a big architectural (or veterinary) machine, just one architect drawing up plans or one vet vaccinating dogs and spaying cats. Or you could see that the care you took over the animal and the time you spent explaining what was going on was everything to that concerned nervous owner.

That is often what keeps me seeing the value in what I do. “Hopelessly idealistic!” you may say. But maybe it’s just the way you look at life. The headline “50% of vets feel profession has not come up to their expectations” is pretty negative. But actually reading the report at http://vetfutures.org. uk/download/surveys-filebase/VetFutures-reportoftheBVAPanelSurveyJune2015.pdf (good grief – what sort of an address is that?!) showed that for 59% of vets replying, the profession had met or exceeded their expectations. Much more positive!

I grant you that this is still not great – the figure was lower for more recently qualified vets it must be said, and only a quarter felt that vet school had prepared them for their current work. But 59% is a glass six-tenths full while 50% is one half-empty! Whichever way it is, are we alone in this negativity among the professions?

A quick Google search showed a 2012 Medscape survey demonstrating that 44% of Stateside doctors regret their career choice. A 2013 Quora post suggested many lawyers in the States were unhappy with their job.

You might say that doctors and lawyers earn a good deal more than vets. Surely being well paid compensates for a stressful job. But it’s not quite that simple. It seems that lots of professions these days are filled with stress and lack of enjoyment.

A survey earlier this year yielded the graph below, showing that while company directors with the highest salaries had a high happiness coefficient (however you measure that!), clergy with a sixth of the earning power had a higher level of happiness.

Vets didn’t seem to feature in the survey unfortunately but suffice it to say that overall there’s not a great correlation between salary and happiness – there are lots of confounding variables.

On average secretaries are as happy or happier than their bosses even though they earn far less. But you don’t have to go to a 2015 online survey to know that there is something more than money that is the most important thing in life.

Socrates, speaking through Plato, assumed that everyone is looking for good and happy lives, but he asked how we are meant to get to this eudemonia, this flourishing.

Live a reflective, self-examined life, was Socrates’ answer. “Modules on managing stress” was the answer in last month’s Veterinary Practice. Murray Corke already offers classes in mindfulness and meditation at Cambridge while for me a read through what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount refocuses my mind on what is important in life.

But many graduates in the Vet Futures survey said they felt veterinary school had not prepared them adequately for their work environment. And to my mind that’s not so much being taught the tests and treatments that are at the heart of our trade, but actually some even more important nuts and bolts, those of understanding what and why we are who we are (you may need to read that again!) that hold us together at work.

Just the sort of thing that Dr Seuss talks about in his books like “Oh the places you’ll go!” or “Did I ever tell you how lucky you are?” But I’m not sure that this sort of attitude, this world view can easily be taught in a vet school, certainly not in a lecture theatre. That surely is the glory of EMS, seeing practice as I remember calling it.

It is in the consulting room or on the farm that students learn not just the external technicalities of veterinary medicine but how to cope with the stress of a full consulting room on a Friday evening, a downer cow that stays down, a euthanasia of an elderly beloved pet. And maybe those times just have to be experienced and then reflected on later rather than read about in a book or talked about in a discussion group.

We should make sure when we have a vet student with us that we open up to them and involve them in the reflections we make on the day’s work, the challenges and the joys.

Perhaps having a student with us can be the opportunity to spend more time than we normally would doing that Socratic self-examination that keeps life flourishing. Just a thought of course!