Sunday, November 26, 2017

Work Life Balance

Looking back on the past year I am gratified, proud and honestly, a bit exhausted.  2017 was a banner year full of trials, new experiences and learning and growing.  Before the year is mostly a blur I wanted to try to put it all into perspective while it’s still fresh in my mind.  I also wanted to speak to both my colleagues in the veterinary profession as well as my fellow busy horsemen struggling to find the time to chase their horsemanship dreams.

As a full time mobile veterinarian who is half of a busy rural practice, my life is already pretty full.  There is little down time when you are a veterinarian and as I often tell young, perspective veterinarians, being a vet isn’t what you do, it’s very much who you are.  Our profession is recognizing more and more that finding the balance between life and work is increasingly important as our colleagues struggle to run a busy practice while still having a family and hobbies outside of saving animal’s lives.  At the recent AAEP convention in San Antonio, Texas I was pleased to see on the list of lectures a series addressing work life balance and burnout.  Our key note speaker, kicking off our event this year, was Nigel Marsh.  Nigel is a well-known author and speaker on the topic of work life balance.  He has a popular TED talk titled, “How to Make Work Life Balance Work” and is the author of “Fat, Forty and Fired” and “Overworked and Underlaid”.   Unfortunately, veterinarians are traditionally perceived as being work-a-holics because of our inability to stop caring when we walk out the door at night.  Our clients can be demanding, especially in times of crisis, becoming accusatory when we are not available.  Because we care, we give more and more of ourselves, time and time again until there is nothing left.  This combination of a population of work-a-holics that cannot turn off the compassion when the day is over and a clientele that has an often fierce loyalty and ownership of their family veterinarian has created an environment in which we see one of the highest professional suicide rates.  The struggle is very much real and something that needs to be addressed openly and honestly.  It was very gratifying to see these lectures well attended by the veterinarians at the AAEP convention this year.  One thing that we can thank the generation known as the millennials for is the popularity of work life balance and the realization that it is okay, and quite desirable to not work 15 hour days 6 days a week.  And even better, those kinds of hours are not the sign of a successful practitioner but one that has poor time management skills.  It’s a big shift in the way we think as a profession. 

Semen Testing at the V-X ranch.  Photo Credit Amy Peterson

When Cowboy Dressage entered my life I was walking that fine line between successful practice and burn out.  The off-hand remarks about “while you were off on vacation . . .” as if me taking time off was the cause of the owner’s calamity can cut to the core.  Taking time off can become more stressful than just continuing to work and there were numerous weekends that I abandoned plans because it was just easier to keep working than it was to try and prepare everything to go out of town. But, I really wanted to be a part of Cowboy Dressage and my partner is forever encouraging me to chase my dreams and have a life outside of the practice.  So, this year I consciously decided to chase my Cowboy Dressage dreams in every bit of my spare time away from work.  I wasn’t sure how this was going to work.  Not only did I have a full teaching schedule, I was also working on writing a book and attempting to advance to the next level up in the Cowboy Dressage Professional’s Association.  With only 2 weekends off/month it wasn’t easy planning my clinics and shows in pursuit of this goal.  By the middle of January I had every weekend between February 1 and October 30 scheduled and booked.  It wasn’t easy, but with excellent support at home from my amazing husband and with my partner and assistant on my team I was able to keep all the plates spinning at once.  

I think it’s important to note here, especially since I am talking about work life balance, that adding more to your schedule isn’t always the way to address the balance between work and life.  Certainly, there is stress involved in always being on the go.  But, when you make the conscious choice to chase your dreams, rather than being forced through circumstances to fill your schedule the difference is quite extraordinary.  Plus, this path of craziness had a beginning and an end in sight.  I wasn’t signing on to go like a bat out of hell for the rest of my life, just for the majority of the year.  The rewards of filling my life with Cowboy Dressage made up for the sacrifices I was going to have to make in free time, trail riding and spending time with my family for this year. 

One of the points that Nigel Marsh made that I really agreed with is that work life balance cannot be measured on a daily basis.  On the days that I am a rock star veterinarian I am a lousy wife, horse owner and family member.  On the days that I am a loving devoted wife I am a lousy veterinarian.  On the days I am a perfect teacher and horseman I am a lousy wife and vet.  If we are to take the measure of our lives using only the imaginary scores we give ourselves at the end of the day we will likely be failures every single day.  So, when I was working, I was working.  When I was teaching I was teaching.  When I was riding, I was riding (mostly, more on that later) and when I was writing I was writing.  Though my schedule was packed to the breaking point, I was able to focus on what was most important to me on that day and give myself over to it completely.  This is in stark comparison to all the days I used to try to squeeze my life in between emergency calls. (I still have to do this, sometimes, but I used to do this EVERYDAY).  When you are trying to live your life and work and enjoy your friends it becomes very difficult to do any of those things well.  You become bitter when the phone rings and interrupts your riding.  You become anxious and resentful to friends and family because you cannot bear to let them down by leaving the reunion to go to another emergency.  You can’t concentrate at work because all you can think about is trying to get home before the sun sets so you can squeeze some time on the Cowboy Dressage court before you have to ride in front of a judge this weekend.  It is impossible to try to balance a busy life daily. 

So, while I made the conscious choice to chase my dreams this year I was nervous about what that would mean for my business.  I was relatively confident that my family and non-horse friends would forgive me my abscesses for one year (though to be honest I am still working on making that up to them!)  What I was most worried about is that because of a busy travel schedule I was taking more time off work during the year than I ever had in the past 3 or 4 years combined.  Also, the supplemental income that I make from teaching Cowboy Dressage which funds our attendance at Gatherings and clinics would take a hit because I just didn’t have as many weekends to teach.  But, here is what happened as a result of chasing my dreams full steam ahead for 10 months. 
Teaching a clinic at Lucky Duck Ranch.  Photo Credit Nora Knight

I was able to share my passion and knowledge about Cowboy Dressage with folks across the Northwest helping to build and grow Cowboy Dressage in areas that had never experienced it before.  I managed to achieve the required test scores to rise up not one but two levels in our Professionals Association despite spending about 1/3 of the time in training my own horse that I usually do in a year.  I finished my first book in collaboration with Eitan learning more along the way than I ever thought possible.  The deeper understanding that I built through long conversations about footfall, aids, horses and life are memories that I will forever cherish.   And, the biggest surprise for me, my business has never flourished more.  By the end of October we had surpassed our financial goals for the year. 

Doing "exams" on some young goats.  Photo Credit Carolyn Frank
I was expecting to see a decline in my income this year because of working less days out of the year.  What happened instead is that I worked harder and longer on the days I worked so that I could then take a few more days for a clinic or spend a few extra days in Grass Valley with Eitan.  Because I was so fulfilled and happy with my days focusing on Cowboy Dressage, I was a better veterinarian as well.  Instead of being bitter about working yet another weekend, I could buckle down and work hard knowing I would have the next weekend to spend at a clinic sharing Cowboy Dressage or at a Gathering attempting to garner the test scores I needed to advance.  My time spent with Cowboy Dressage has absolutely made me a better veterinarian.  I am kinder, can relate better with my clients and patients and am happier in my work than I have been in the past 15 years.  For my veterinary colleagues, especially the solo practitioners, yes, I did lose a few clients.  You know those clients that begrudge you the time off and refuse to see your partner (our practice is never without emergency coverage and one of us is always on call).  I also lost a few that assumed that because I was pursuing another “job” I was going to quit being a vet so they quit me before I could quit them.  I even had a few of them spread rumors that I wasn’t working anymore.  This is the stigma that our profession must rise above.  There will always be clients that are fickle and demand that their needs come before yours.  Because we care it is so difficult not to feel guilt and let those clients get to you.  When I was building my practice those clients were the ones that most contributed to my feelings of burn out.  I don’t miss them. 

For my fellow horsemen, let me tell you about my time with my horses this past summer.  I did more traveling without my horse for teaching than I generally do.  Because of the time spent on the book I didn’t get the time in the saddle I typically do.  When I was home I was always on call, so my saddle time was often short or interrupted unless I was attending a clinic.  This meant that when I did work my horses, short sessions were all I could manage.  Short concentrated training periods became the norm for me this past summer and long leisurely trail rides or playdays in the arena didn’t happen at all.  I was initially worried that this would mean less progress for my horses, but they made more progress this summer than ever before.  Granted, I didn’t get my 3 year old going but that had more to do with breaking my hand in July (oh yeah, I worked and rode and taught in a cast for 8 weeks this summer as well).  I used to not even bother to attempt to ride my horse if I didn’t have the entire afternoon available.  Now I realize that even 30 minutes is enough time to refresh some concepts, refine some cues and build fitness in your horse.  Thanks to Eitan for instilling in me, that very important life lesson.  It’s not the time in the saddle, it’s the quality of that time.

Riding in the Spokane Gathering.  Photo Credit Margret Fabion

A strange thing happens when you stop making excuses and start making things happen.  Life will never stand still and tell you with open arms, “now is the time to chase your dreams”.  It will never be easy to change your life, take chances or go out on a limb.  I used to tell myself that it wasn’t possible for me to do this or that due to my career, or being on call, or the expense of taking time off (the plight of the self-employed; there are no paid vacations).  Taking time off just wasn’t an option and I would have to wait until things slowed down a little bit.  Well, if you are doing it right, life isn’t going to ever slow down.  You must decide what is important to you and then just do it.  Nike has that one right. 

Chasing my dreams in this way hasn’t been without sacrifices, of course.  My parents had a big move this year and because of my schedule I wasn’t able to be there to help the rest of the family with the daunting task of readying them for the move.  That was tough.  My stepson and daughter also had a brand new baby this year that I have yet to meet.  Friends and family were supportive and understanding of this crazy year but I am looking forward to some down time to catch up with them all this winter between my busy practice season and busy riding season.  2018 promises to be just as busy as 2017.  Life isn’t going to slow down for us for a while.  I am okay with that.  Hopefully all the people I love are okay with that too.