A fear of failure

Fail fast. Fail often. Fail forward.

That’s how you got into veterinary school, right? A series of failures? That’s probably not how you think about it.

You probably had a great GPA, lots of relevant experience to put on your resume, and a fine-tuned essay. Any time you did experience failure, and you did because you are human, you saw it as a blow that might threaten your acceptance to school. You were careening at high speeds in armor made of glass, and every failure was like a chip that threatened to shatter the whole thing.

What really happened, and what is continuing to happen, is that every instance of failure is a potential learning opportunity that helps you to fortify your armor. The catchy advice at the beginning of this post is making its rounds in the business and technology world and influencing how work is done. It allows people to be more innovative, risk taking, and open to learning. It eliminates the concept of perfectionism.

This concept is extremely relevant to veterinary medicine. You typically don’t want to “fail” when it comes to medicine. Failure can mean bad outcomes, up to and including death. But consider CPR. Success rates are abysmal. Only 6% of cats and dogs that receive CPR are discharged from the hospital. You want to train and prepare yourself to give CPR, but if you are going to fail, you want to fail fast. Inaction is actually the best way to fail.

But as stated before, this is not the way most veterinary students think about failure. The idea of failure is anxiety-inducing a. To make things worse, hospital owners and professors often foster an environment where failure is not tolerated. How do you create an environment where you can unlearn this?


Sometimes you just need room to spread your wings.

1. Allow exploration

Google is famous for allowing its employees 20% time, where they can work on their own ideas for 20% of their working time (in reality, it doesn’t work like that, but the idea of allowing room for innovation and creativity exists). In an environment where exploration is allowed, people are allowed to find the best way of doing things, even if it means challenging authority or challenging the status quo, without fearing retribution. It is safe to fail because failure is a part of exploration.

2. Be transparent

Transparency among the leadership of an organization results in three things. First, it allows others to see that failure is part of success. For example, you may have heard about the college professor who recently posted his CV of failures, inverting the document that is meant to paint a picture of lifelong successes. Second, transparency makes everyone feel like they have a stake in a project and that their opinion is valued. Third, it indicates that people in leadership recognize that they are not flawless and are willing to open up their ideas and decisions to criticism from those who might otherwise not have a voice, hopefully resulting in a better course of action.

3. Eliminate hierarchical thinking

These tips are starting to seem like an anarchists’ version of leadership; I hope that is not the case. This list was taken from literature that describes modern trends in leadership. Modern leaders are willing to sacrifice their positions of power and pride for the good of the organization they serve. When one person does not value their opinion above another, and makes it safe to question authority, both morale and results improve.

4. See failure as a learning opportunity

Finally, try to exist in an environment where failure is not punished. Everyone knows “we learn more from failure than success”. Practically, this aphorism is not lived out. Instead, view every struggle as an opportunity for growth. You will learn perseverance, become more mature, and become equipped to deal with struggles in the future, until you are not lacking anything.

When you fail, do it quickly. Do it quickly so you can go on and fail again.

Thought of the Week:
Do you enjoy challenges?

yes, that’s why I’m in veterinary school
no, I am afraid of failing
if I was on Double Dare, I’d take the Physical Challenge. EVERY. TIME.
??? (post in comments)


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