I love rock climbing. In fact, my climbing partners know I’m addicted to it. There’s something about the mix of adrenaline, fear, physical and mental challenge that I can’t get enough of. The sport has also taught me five critical lessons that I have been able to incorporate into my life and my veterinary career.
Lesson #1: Change is uncomfortable, but you can make it less uncomfortable with practice.
There probably isn’t a person alive today who truly loves change. It’s uncomfortable and scary, which goes against most people’s human nature to remain comfortable at all costs. This is true whether we initiated the change ourselves, such as moving to a new home or deciding to start a family, or the change was forced upon us, such as when a loved one dies.
But we can, to some degree, make change less difficult and inoculate ourselves against stress by placing ourselves in scary, exasperating situations and ensuring a positive outcome. In this way, we desensitize our brains to our predetermined opinion that change is always upsetting. Change is different, but different isn’t always bad.
Let me give you an example. When I first started rock-climbing, my heart would pound, my palms would sweat, and my mind became full of chatter. What if I bang my knee/head/chin/teeth on the wall and break something? What if I can’t do this? What if I look foolish? What if I’m not good enough? Stressful thoughts threatened to paralyze me in fear. With time and experience, I’ve been able to move past those thoughts, consider the route in front of me, and breathe deeply. It has paid off in spades. Now, if the thought “What if I can’t do this?” enters my head, my answer is, “So what? At least you tried.”
You probably encounter several major changes each year at your veterinary clinic that send you into a cold sweat, too: Hiring and firing staff, implementing new practice management software, expansion of services, or building a new facility. What I’ve found is that facing my fears of trying a new rock wall several times a week translates well to new projects and challenges at work. I have less reluctance to take risks, and I’m more resilient if things don’t go as planned.
Unfortunately, I’m still a little scared. This brings me to my second point.
Lesson #2: Being scared in a predictable way forces you to learn to think under pressure.
When I’m on a wall and can’t find where to go next, my first thought is, “Hurry up! You can’t hold on here forever; you’ve got to MOVE!” Thus begins my inner dialog, the next part of which is “Back off! I’m doing the best I can!” Once I’ve stilled the Nervous Nelly voice, a more supportive voice arrives. This voice actually speaks out loud. “You can do this, Heidi. Just keep pushing forward.” Thanks to my supportive voice, that’s exactly what I do. I’m not advocating that you do something so dangerous that it petrifies you just to think about it. However, routinely doing something that scares and challenges you will help you learn to think through the fear and come out ready on the other side.
How will this benefit you in your practice? Challenging conversations with support staff, aggressive veterinarians, and certainly disgruntled clients can all send your central nervous system into overdrive. Calming yourself, thinking on your feet, and finding your voice are invaluable skills for any veterinary manager.
Lesson #3: You will never be prouder of yourself than when you feel the fear and do it anyway.
Facing your fears doesn’t mean you have to take up extreme sports. For some people, this would actually be preferable to confronting relatives who mistreat them or letting their guard down in a relationship. What makes your heart skip a few beats or causes you to catch your breath is worth diving into headfirst. The feeling you get when you meet those fears head-on is nearly indescribable. The best part is that being courageous doesn’t relegate itself to any one part of your life. For me, climbing a challenging route and making it to the top is an amazing feeling. There’s no reason I have to compartmentalize my life and leave that feeling at the climbing wall, so I don’t. I take it with me wherever I go.
Lesson #4: Taking risks means you might get hurt. Be sure to make your risks measured ones and surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing.
When I rock climb, I don’t take mine or anyone else’s safety lightly. Fortunately, I’ve never broken any bones, but I have had some pretty bad bruising. You can see that in the picture of my leg. I have seen people fall, and I’ve seen one person taken away in an ambulance. For all of these reasons, I am focused in the climbing gym. When I climb outside and the risks are greater, I’m even more focused.
Because I’m new to climbing, I don’t pretend to know everything about it. Surrounding myself with the vast knowledge of the climbing community and the people who’ve been doing it for decades means that I’m always learning, always improving, and always mitigating the risks I’m taking.
As a practice manager, you can’t know everything you need to know to do your job. It requires so many areas of expertise: HR, marketing, IT, finance, and skillful communication. It takes strength and courage to admit that you don’t know everything and to ask others for help. When others teach you what they know, their confidence grows and they feel valued. Everyone benefits from the shared pool of knowledge and derives greater job satisfaction as a result.
Lesson #5: Navigating off the plan, even if only for a while, can reap untold results.
I’m very comfortable making and sticking with a plan. I like to know what’s coming, how I’m going to deal with it, and what kind of results I can expect. My plan for climbing was to climb with a top rope for about a year, then move on to lead climbing. This involves clipping a rope into carabiners on the wall as you climb. It was a solid plan considering that lead climbing is quite a bit more dangerous than top roping, often requires more skill, and was just something I wanted to work into gradually.
Then I met a climbing teacher at the gym who likes to push me. “Take the lead climbing class,” he said. “It’ll be fine.” Other than the aforementioned bruises, he was right. I’m now lead climbing a year before my original plan. I’m doing fine and having more fun than I thought possible, all because I was flexible enough to regard the plan as a guideline rather than a directive.
Maybe you’re a planner like me. That’s a huge benefit to you in management, but it’s also helpful to take an occasional departure from your plans to see if something better might happen as a result. In your hospital, it might mean adding a service earlier than you anticipated or eliminating one that has been unproductive for too long. Perhaps you could benefit from taking a more experimental attitude about marketing efforts and trying something new and different. Maybe your long-term goal is to become a certified veterinary practice manager, and you decide to go for it sooner rather than later. My guess is that if you look hard enough, you too have a plan that could use some shaking up.
Forcing yourself to try something that you’ve never done before can definitely be scary. I would encourage you to think of ten things that have always intrigued and frightened you and give at least one of them a try. Who knows? You might end up loving it even more than you ever thought possible.
Author: Heidi Brenegan, MBA, CVPM