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Veterinarians tend to be tidy, structured thinkers. That’s not to say we are all compulsive neat freaks. But our chosen profession demands that we master the art of pattern recognition. "Know your normal" becomes the mantra of every lecture and the aspiration of every new grad. So we gain expertise in "normal" and work hard to maintain it—in our patients and in our lives.
The pandemic slammed us with a reality that was anything but "normal." Overnight, we had to launch curbside care, novel workflows, new modes of communication, and otherwise upend our historically stable profession. However, we should remember that hotels and taxi companies were awash in “normal” right before Airbnb and Uber forever disrupted their industries. Consumer desire for choice and convenience is clearly king. In this moment of inertia, in which the veterinary profession is no longer the object at rest, but the object in motion, let us stay in motion.
What am I talking about here? Call it a fundamental change in thinking, a new value to uphold, a mental model that embraces stressors and unpredictability as a catalyst toward improvement instead of decline.
I am talking about becoming Antifragile.
This term, coined by risk analyst Nassim Taleb, has been applied to systems as varied as bacterial resistance and book banning. To understand it, we must first look at the other end of the spectrum.
Fragile systems are brittle. They have very little margin for error because they maximize efficiency to achieve optimal outcomes. Modern society has steadily pushed us toward this ideal. We benefit from inexpensive food, medical advances, and technological gadgets that rely on exceedingly tight tolerances of supply, shipping, and manufacturing. Even small stressors can break this system, like a porcelain plate that shatters when dropped.
Resilient systems have built-in redundancies to survive stress. They are the plastic food containers that bounce on the floor. The system survives in its original form despite unpredictable events, but even resilient systems will reach a failure point. NASA’s Space Shuttle Program learned that the hard way. Twice.
Antifragile systems get better with stress and volatility. They are the Hydra of Greek mythology. Lop off one head, two grow in its place. Expose a population of staphylococcus to methicillin, and soon you will have a thriving infection of superbugs. Likewise, the saying, "What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger," describes the mechanism by which we ourselves become antifragile. When we succeed in the face of overwhelming odds, we often achieve greater feats the next time around. The opposite viewpoint—"Avoid all risk at all cost"—in turn makes for a brittle population that fears unpredictability because it doesn’t know what it can overcome.
Veterinary Medicine did not resist change, but grew through it. We are not done. We can continue to establish a new and better normal if we provide our clients the care they want, while reclaiming work-life balance for ourselves.
Some practical ways to do this include:
In these ways, you can maximize patient care, strengthen client bonding, monetize your time, and boost job satisfaction. Plus, you will ensure that veterinarians—not third-party players with far less training—remain at the forefront of animal healthcare far into the future.
The goal is not to demand success on the first try, but to keep moving, dreaming, tinkering, and aspiring. Treat life as an adventure instead of a race to perfection, and don’t panic when you don’t recognize the pattern ahead. That which you fear can very well be a game-changing opportunity.
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House, 2012.
Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. New York: Penguin, 2018.