#SheWearThePants: Melissa Teply on the Tricky Idea of Confidence and Positive Chaos

#SheWearThePants explores the themes of ambition, motivation, and productivity as experienced by high-performing women.

Melissa Teply – Palliative Care Physician, Assistant Professor of General Internal Medicine at UNMC (University of Nebraska Medical Center)

What are some of the most important things to know about you?

I value relationships. There is so much discussion about burnout these days, especially in the practice of medicine. I would be lost without my relationships–to my patients, colleagues, and family and friends. At the end of the day, human connection holds the most meaning and motivation for me.

Why do you do what you do?

The bulk of my career involves caring for patients in the outpatient general medicine setting (adult primary care) as well as outpatient palliative care. Palliative care is a relatively new medical specialty that focuses on specialized care for people with serious illness including symptom management and providing added support to the person and their family for issues related to coping with illness (physically, spiritually, and emotionally). I am also involved in medical education with a goal of expanding the knowledge of and skills that health professionals use to incorporate palliative care skills into everyday care of patients and families.

I am driven by those moments when you see that a patient’s day is immediately better–even if just for that moment–because of some small connection or recommendation that helped him or her to feel better.

What does ambition personally mean to you - what place does it have in your life?

“Ambition” is an exciting word to me. The first scenario that comes to mind is when someone tries or succeeds in doing something great. I love when I spontaneously think, “that’s ambitious.” It means someone set a goal and stuck to it–whatever the outcome.

Do you think our culture perceives “ambition” to be a dirty word for women? Why or why not?

    I have such a difficult time with trying to gauge what everyone else perceives (part of my job is to never assume what another person is thinking). I am also biased in that I love reading the perspectives of women who I admire and believe to be ambitious. I especially find "ambitious" to be an empowering word when I read these stories because the traits and skills the women have inspire my own career path.

    What does ‘having confidence’ mean to you - what place does it have in your life? How do you work on it?

    In medicine, confidence is a tricky idea. It is impossible to know everything, so confidence, in part, involves being confident about what you know and being confident about what you don’t know and how to ask for help. For me, the key to being truly confident is knowing what my goal is, being able to ask for help, and in working collaboratively to find an answer. I fill the knowledge gap with my new experience and carry that forward to figure out the next thing I don’t know.

    Please share one of your current, important goals (can be personal or work-related). Why is this a goal and how did you realize it was something that you wanted to work on?

    This year has been one of positive chaos. I recently finished medical training, moved halfway across the country, started a new job, and am pregnant with my second child. Right now, I am struggling with an absence of a clear goal other than keeping my head above water. So the goal for this next year is to determine my next career goal (my most recent one was leaving my prior general medicine practice to pursue hospice and palliative medicine training).

    What’s your plan for achieving it?

    Firstly, I am meeting the key people I will frequently work with in the future and am figuring out how things work at this institution. I am absorbing the work culture and learning what skills I can add to this organization in order to frame my next goal.

    My second step is to find guides. I am fortunate that there is a structured mentoring program. Participation is the starting point for framing new goals over the next few years.

    My third step is to work on establishing short and long term goals and create realistic timelines.

    What do you do if you are having a hard time defining goals?

    If I am having a difficult time defining a goal, I go back to the reason I set that goal. I ask myself "How important is this goal to me?"

    I am much more motivated by a personal, internally-motivated goal than one that I feel external pressure to achieve. If I really can’t define a goal, I ask myself if I am in the right position or the right environment that allows for professional growth.

    How do you stay motivated to fulfill your goals and sense of ambition, and what do you do when you get stuck?

    By the end of the day, I don’t have the mental energy to work on big picture things that are non-urgent but very important toward achieving bigger career goals. I need to work on accomplishing non-urgent but important tasks that support my goals during the early part of the day when my mind is fresh. I otherwise like to think of myself as a productive procrastinator. If I am not actively producing “work,” I am doing another task like cleaning or running errands. This allows for time later in the day or week to relax and recharge.

    What is one tool/trick/lifehack/resource/service do you use to stay productive?

      When I make it a priority, exercise. I felt the absolute best when training for a half-marathon. I went to bed early and woke up to train before work. I felt energized during the day from better sleep and endorphins from the morning run. Additionally, it was a relief to avoid guilt for not exercising when I came home from a busy day of work.

      What activities do you do outside of your full-time gig? How do you find time to do it? How does it make you more successful in your full-time gig?

      Outside of work, I spend a lot of time with my family. I am married and have a 2 year old son, and he is the best part of my day. Waking up to his voice in the morning, playing and reading to him–these are my favorite activities.

      Spending time with family helps me put things in perspective. I enjoy work and the positive impact I make on patients. But, at the end of the day, at the end of my career–my family and friends will be the one constant and most important thing to me.

      Another thing I pursue outside of work is my love of stories, so I read books when I can, but in order to avoid staying up until 4 in the morning, I usually absorb narratives in the form of movies, TV shows, and podcasts like "The Moth." 

      What would you do with an extra 15 minutes a day?

      Ideally, I would spend that 15 minutes outside, quietly, thinking about various people and things I can be grateful about. Realistically, I would probably spend it cleaning more or watching more TV.