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Falling Versus Failing

Posted in Management @ Apr 13th 2022 - By Dr Emma McConnell, Director, Platinum CPD
Falling Versus Failing

As veterinary professionals, no one wants to fail - but what if we re-defined failing to falling?

The concept of “Falling versus Failing” is undoubtedly an intriguing one, perhaps even a slightly intimidating one; but as veterinary professionals, this concept is something we probably should be familiarising ourselves with – for the sake of our professional development, for our personal growth and for our own career satisfaction.

Nobody wants to fail

Like inspirational speaker Simon Sinek says, when it comes to choosing falling over failing, the first thing we need to do is change the language we use. Nobody wants to fail. No one sets out to fail. And certainly no one likes to fail. In fact, just the word “fail” triggers a sense of foreboding and anxiety. The term “failing” has a plethora of negative connotations; it sounds like something we should be fearful of, and without a doubt, it is something that we should try to avoid at all costs. But the thing to remember is, the word “failure” has such broad meaning. It’s a bit like the term “lame” – it covers a wide spectrum, from something that is absolutely catastrophic, which in our line of work could be the loss of a patient, to just a minor little hiccup, a near miss, a situation in which an error was made, but was caught before it actually reached a patient. Regardless of where the “failure” occurs along that spectrum, it is still referred to as “failure”. This really highlights just how important language is, and it is possible that changing the terms we use may help us to change our mindset around failing … or rather, falling. 

Falling is natural...and most of the time you can quickly get up

Falling is something that happens naturally. It usually happens quickly, and unless you are badly hurt by the fall, you also tend to get up quickly. Therein lies the key.

By adopting a falling over failing mindset, you give yourself permission to try something, to not get it completely right the first time, or even the second time, but you don’t quit. You get up and you try it again.

Falling is something we want to embrace, or in actual fact we probably need to embrace, in order to grow and develop our skills and our confidence in that particular skill. It requires trying, it requires effort, taking risks and pushing the boundaries – and absolutely, sometimes that can be quite nerve-wracking, but the ultimate result is definitely worth it. 

Babies have to learn to walk

Take for example, a baby learning to walk. If they didn’t have that inherent desire to reach the end goal, which is obviously walking and having the independence to go wherever they choose; and instead declared failure after their first tumble, then what a strange world we would live in. Surrounded by children and adults just crawling around the floor, seems pretty ridiculous don’t you think? So why is it that when that little baby is learning to walk, they just don't give up? Why is it that they keep on trying?

Maybe it’s because, when they do fall, one yells at them one attacks them one criticises them by saying “oh my word, what have you done”?

No, instead we tell them it’s ok, we encourage them, we give them our hand for support, and we walk with them.  

The fear of failure is real

Because of the extremely high stakes (and it’s absolutely understandable), for many veterinary professionals the fear of failure is real … and it’s incredibly limiting.

So, the question is, as potentially more experienced or senior team members, as practice owners and managers, as leaders, what can we do to help our new or recent graduates?

Start by defining what 'failure' is

Perhaps one of the key things we can do is start by defining precisely what failure is. Although it is potentially going to be different from practice to practice, it’s likely going to be those worst-case scenarios. Those semi-permanent or permanent problems; the loss of a patient  as a result of human error, the loss of a client, severe breakdown in client relations or damage to the practice’s reputation.

By clearly defining what would be considered a “true failure”, hopefully we will empower our new colleagues to be confident in the knowledge that they can fall. And they have permission to fall. It’s safe, and their job isn’t at risk if they do fall. Because we never want to get into the situation where they are too afraid to try something. 

It's not just about students either

Although we talk a lot about providing a safe learning environment for our students and recent graduates, I really don’t think the concept of falling versus failing is unique to them; and it always makes me wonder, as more experienced veterinary professionals, why don’t we ever give ourselves the same courtesy or the same opportunities?

Don’t we also have the right to fall once in a while?

Because that’s really the only way we are going to continue to develop or progress. Like Master Shifu says in Kung Fu Panda, “If you only do what you can do, you will never be more than you are now. “

NOT trying could also be seen as a form of failure

If we don’t let ourselves fall, if we never practice outside our comfort zones, if we never push ourselves to the point where we do fall, if we play it safe the whole time, then you could argue, in a way, we are kind of failing. Failing ourselves, selling ourselves short and not fulfilling our potential.

To play devil’s advocate though, given our line of work and the fact that there could be patients’ lives at stake, is playing it safe problematic? Is there such a thing as playing it too safe? In the true sense of the word no, but staying within that comfort zone leaves little to no room for development. Where is the progress? Where does the career satisfaction come in? It’s certainly not to say we need to be cavalier or careless about things, we fall in as controlled an environment as possible; with the caveat being that we do actually learn something from the experience. 

If we continue to fall but never learn anything from those experiences, so we keep doing things the same way, never improving or progressing, then in some ways, that too is failing. 

Practicing the habit of reflection is essential 

With that said, maybe we can consider falling as a minor setback that provides feedback on how to do it better next time; but in order to succeed, you do need to get back up and try again, whilst acknowledging the fact that yes, you might actually fall again. Is this where the habit of reflection could come in very useful? 

Reflective practice is a process of critical evaluation and self-assessment that requires careful examination of a situation or event in order to learn something from the experience.

In many cases, whatever it is that is learnt, leads to a change in perception or behaviour that is almost always positive. There is no getting around the fact that this process can be really uncomfortable, as we do need to be open to, and honest about, the fact that maybe we did make a mistake, maybe we could have made a better decision. But again, as long as we can learn from these cases, then we are continuing to develop as veterinary professionals, and bettering ourselves and our abilities.

Engaging in self-reflection gives us power. It allows us to identify our strengths and our weaknesses (and maybe in reality these are actually different to what you think), and it helps to highlight the areas where we might need more training or education. It might also help us to identify whether or not our current practice policies and systems are still valid. Are there protocols that need updating?

Schedule a period of reflection every day

Is there a way you can schedule yourself 15-30 minutes at the end of the day to reflect on the cases of the day? Is it possible to integrate a weekly or fortnightly team meeting to debrief on certain cases or situations? Is this something your practice leadership team is open to? It’s certainly worth a discussion, don’t you think?

In my experience, another arm to reflective practice, is to consider those things that you really worry about in your job, those things that truly do cause anxiety. Recently I was chatting with one of our senior residents about the types of emergency cases I am most worried about coming through the door. Whilst having this conversation, it became increasingly clear that there is an element of fear. There is a fear of failing. There’s fear that the patient will not survive because of my actions and my decision making. There is fear of not knowing what to do in that very instance, fear that I won’t be able to act quickly enough. So, this conversation actually became a really neat exercise, as we talked through exactly what we would do in that situation. We put ourselves in the scenario and discussed the exact steps we would take. 

Are you ready to embrace falling?

How can you create an environment within your practice which facilitates or even encourages falling? Are you going to give yourself permission to try something and not get it right? But then you will try it again?

I challenge you to a shift in mindset; push the boundaries, get out of your comfort zone, fall fast but get up quickly – you won’t regret it! 

Send us an email or DM us on socials and let us know how you went. How did allowing yourself to fall (not fail) make you feel? Did it bring some satisfaction? Did it bring some happiness? Some joy? We would absolutely love to know! 

About Emma

Emma graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 2006. Following two years in small animal and mixed practice, she undertook a 12-month internship in equine medicine and surgery at the Royal Veterinary College, London. Having developed a passion for equine medicine and critical care, Emma moved to South Africa to take up a position as Resident in Equine Internal Medicine at Onderstepoort Veterinary Academic Hospital, University of Pretoria. 

Emma has a Masters degree in Veterinary Medicine, and is a Registered Specialist in Equine Medicine and a Diplomate of the European College of Equine Internal Medicine. She currently works as Senior Lecturer in an equine academic referral hospital, where she takes great pride in providing an exceptional clinical service to her patients (foals and ponies especially). As the Co-founder and Director of Platinum CPD, Emma is a firm believer in making a commitment to lifelong learning; and takes great pride in the fact her company is able to provide veterinarians and veterinary nurses with excellent quality, boutique, continuing education, delivered in a variety of ways to facilitate the most positive and inspirational learning experience. 

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