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A sense of purpose: 10 steps to unlocking your secret superpower
Kelly Cairns, DVM, MS, DACVIM (SAIM), shared her roadmap for developing purpose and conquering burnout.
One of the most prevalent challenges within the veterinary sector is learning how to sustain happiness and well-being. During her keynote address at the Fetch dvm360® conference, Kelly Cairns, DVM, MS, DACVIM (SAIM), vice president of medical excellence and education at Thrive Pet Healthcare, spoke on the value of cultivating purpose and laid out a roadmap that leads to lasting personal and professional satisfaction. “There is growing research that shows a clear sense of purpose is one of the cornerstones of human flourishing,” Cairns imparted.
To drive home the overwhelming need for a focus on well-being in the veterinary industry, Cairns posed a question to the attendees: “How can we be such a passion-driven, purposeful group of people with such a relatively high burnout rate, high suicide rate, substance abuse rate, and physical and mental exhaustion rate?” She said, adding that this passion often comes at the expense of what veterinary professionals need as individuals in terms of self-care, family, and balance.
The solution, Cairns proposed, is to create a personal checklist and systematic plan for sustained happiness. Although there is no one-size-fits-all roadmap to lasting personal and professional fulfillment, she shared the following 10 steps that everyone can take today.
1. Check in with yourself regularly.
Cairns advised carving out quiet time to check in on oneself. Assess what is going well and what is going sideways. Determine if goals are being worked toward or if they need correction. Finally, she said to create a system that comes out of these self-check-ins to hold oneself accountable and work toward fixing problems that may arise.
2. Set achievable goals and realistic expectations.
Cairns said it is important to set oneself up for success. “When I started running, I set a goal to run one mile, not a million,” stated Cairns. “The goal was achievable; the expectation was realistic and reasonable. Setting a goal of one mile at a time allowed me to run my first marathon in 2006, and this applies to more than just running.”
3. Control the controllable.
Cairns recommended focusing on matters that are within one’s control. She explained that people often dwell on conflicts or negative situations, which then cascade into a vicious cycle that results in an enormous expenditure of mental and emotional energy that can then interfere with other projects or situations.
4. Leverage your strengths.
Another key in actively cultivating well-being is to determine one’s skills. Figure out where their skill set can be contributed and consider how to do more things that utilize those talents. She said that, intuitively, people experience more fulfillment by doing things they are good at. Therefore, be sure to set aside time to discover those things and search for a way to do more of them.
5. Know and embrace your shortcomings.
Shortcomings can become strengths if harnessed strategically, in the right amount, at the right time, said Cairns. She told an anecdote about her internship in cardiology. During a review, she was told her talkativeness left the attending physician “exhausted.”
“Let’s just say it’s not a coincidence that I’m up here for almost an hour with a semi-captive audience,” noted Cairns. Look for opportunities in which weaknesses can become positive attributes.
6. Be a lifelong learner.
Cairns revealed another secret to sustaining purpose is to be a lifelong learner but not in the sense of studying and acquiring knowledge. Rather, she advised the audience to always be open and receptive to feedback. Think about what can be taken away from every interaction and how it can be used for self-improvement. “Sometimes the things that are the most frustrating, difficult, or disappointing present an opportunity for you to learn something,” Cairns disclosed.
7. Choose kindness.
Cairns encouraged attendees to opt for kindness at every opportunity and to always have their team’s back. “Choose kindness for yourself as well,” she urged. “Give yourself the latitude to be human. It’s okay to make a mistake. It’s okay to not be perfect. Be kind to you, too.”
8. Celebrate successes.
Wins can be easy to overlook in the chaos of the day. Create a system in which these successes are acknowledged and shout them proudly in whatever way works best for the team. Whether it’s a bulletin board for posting shoutouts and kudos, a special moment in the daily huddle, or a special treat, positivity goes a long way.
9. Have gratitude and show it.
Cairns remarked how impactful it is to simply acknowledge a colleague's efforts. “Many times, the single most impactful thing you can do for someone is just to tell them 'thank you,' and express your gratitude for them,” she added.
10. Do things that bring you joy.
Cairns concluded her final tip with a story about what brings her joy. One day, she decided to bring a bandana into the clinic and gave it to a patient when its parent came for pickup. “She felt like she and her puppy were special, and this filled me with joy,” shared Cairns. From that moment on, she was obsessed with bandanas, pulling her staff in to help make more and track which patients had received them. “With every bandana placed on a patient, I continued to feel joy, a rekindling of a spark that brought me to this amazing profession,” expressed Cairns. “Find your bandana obsession.”