During my lifetime I have been very fortunate to have many opportunities to travel, volunteer, and work overseas.
These experiences are all the more poignant and cherishable during current Covid times where travel has been hugely restricted and the world as we know it will likely not be the same again for several years to come.
Earlier in my career, when my friends and colleagues were planning marriage, kids, and mortgages, and I was planning my yearly remote foreign adventures, people often told me that I should be focusing on buying a house and having a stable relationship, not cavorting around the world.
But I ignored them and did what I loved, which led to many other adventures and opportunities, both career and travel-wise, that I never would have imagined, including writing articles and speaking on podcasts and at conferences.
Traveling is really an education in itself- and I would recommend it to anyone. In the following, I’m going to highlight some of the main lessons I learned, and talk a bit about why traveling is worth it.
When You Find What You Love- Talk About It
Find what you love and are passionate about and go out and do it and start talking about it. It doesn’t matter if this is different from what others think that you should be doing, as everyone has their own niche in the world.
People are good at what they enjoy, which attracts others into their sphere, and before you know it you have a whole community of like-minded people collaborating away in a team or clinic environment, with shared values and beliefs.
I got my first job in New Zealand mainly because they had a culture of employing young people who traveled, as they thought that this resulted in a broader-minded approach, which is very useful in a multicultural working environment.
This clinic had a very good reputation in NZ for supporting and empowering their young recruits, which greatly facilitated finding a new position when I moved on.
Travelling Helps You Better Understand Others
Traveling, living, and working in different countries, cultures, and environments is very much like, and facilitates being able to work in, a veterinary clinic composed of staff and clients with a diverse range of beliefs, values, and character traits.
Situations involving people and animals can change fast and unpredictably and be able to speedily adapt, empathize and communicate effectively is a crucial requirement of being a vet, especially in rural mixed practice where things frequently go awry.
Often, both during traveling and being a vet, we are put into unexpected unpleasant situations, but having the communication skills to navigate through these is hugely beneficial and sometimes literally life-saving, be it with an angry pet owner or during an African charity village workers mutiny with machetes being waved around.
You Can Do a Lot with Not a Lot
Most third-world countries don’t have access to resources to provide ‘gold standard’ veterinary, or often even human care, but you soon learn that most of the time you can do a decent job with basic tools and equipment.
If you manage people’s expectations, it’ll be fine. Treating a fractured dog’s leg so that the dog can get around an African village again and find its food is hugely different from getting a huntaway back to peak physical condition so it can run 20km per day- but both are equally important to the respective owners.
We’re Tougher Than We Think
In recent years, whilst working back and forth between the UK and New Zealand, I faced some considerable mental and physical health challenges.
My father become terminally ill with dementia and died very traumatically. At a similar time, four of my good vet friends committed suicide.
During this time, I spoke to many counselors, friends, and colleagues, desperately searching for an elusive magic wand to help me feel better and process what had happened, as I had no similar previous experiences in my brain databank to work out how to cope with this.
To help clear my mind and process these events that turned my world upside down, I restarted running, did a couple of half marathons overseas to fundraise for mental health charities, and in late 2019 returned to New Zealand.
During this time, I spoke to several counselors and therapists, expecting them to fix me, and had a victim mentality.
Eventually, I realized that the only person that can fix me was myself.
Other people can give us the tools to enable this to happen but we have to do the brain work. We are in control of our feelings, which determine our actions, not others, so it is up to us to take control of life and turn it into something better.
Once I started confronting my own issues and changed my perceptions, life gradually started to improve. This was by no means easy, but it’s possible.
Similarly, in vet practice, we are in jobs or situations where we feel like we are being treated unfairly, or the management is suboptimal. It is important not to get waylaid by little nitty-gritty things, but focus on what you can control, and assess if this will change the overall situation.
If it is just you being affected, then you may be the source of the ‘problem’. If others are also affected, then it may be a management or system issue and you need to decide if you can change your perceptions or beliefs to alter this situation or if you need to leave it and search for somewhere else that more aligns with your values. This empowers you to make positive choices and take control of your destiny.
Don’t Let Fear Hold You Back
Some Australian colleagues introduced me to the book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, and it’s all small stuff: simple ways to keep the little things from taking over your life, by Richard Carlson, which I highly recommend reading to keep life in perspective. As the well-known book says- if you are unsure if you should do something or go somewhere- feel the fear and do it anyway.
There is never a perfect time, and as the Covid pandemic, multiple international natural disasters, and my brain and body injuries have demonstrated- life can change in the blink of an eye, and opportunities that you thought would be around forever can evaporate, both literally and metaphorically, in a wisp of smoke.
Some of the best travel experiences and humble learnings from people have been when I have been least prepared and spontaneously turned up in a country totally winging it.
The same applies in crazy unexpected veterinary situations- we are continuously learning. We’re stronger than we think we are, and you don’t know until you go forth and try. In the Western world, we currently have the luxury of freedom of choice- and we should all take full advantage of this.
Note from the author: I would like to dedicate this article to two beloved vet friends and colleagues who went out, traveled the world, and made a difference, and who are tragically no longer with us. Siv Aina Jensen, a Norwegian vet who did a Ph.D. in Cameroon and contributed to new findings on HIV in wild chimps. And Tomasz Lewin, a Polish vet, whose mantra was ‘do no harm, Take no shit’- something that we could all learn from.