Forming Your Professional Identity With Dr. Dan Mickool

by Ryan Goulart

How do we help people become their best selves? This question goes beyond technical aptitude and subject-matter knowledge, as important as they are. Success also depends on how people self-identify as professionals..

When forming our professional identity, we benefit from support and guidance to overcome barriers like self-doubt and imposter syndrome, says Dr. Dan Mickool. He’s an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice at Husson University and an adjunct appointment at Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine.

“That’s what the crux of professional identity formation is all about: How do we help people to that self-actualization, that they can be the very best in their profession and own that internally?” he says. “So it’s not just a matter of knowing facts about your profession, but it’s how you internalize those very concepts.”

On this episode of Making the Ideal Real, we’re speaking with Dan about self-love’s role in professional identity formation, why empathy is essential for guiding people through transitions, and much more.

What Keeps Us From Forming a Professional Identity?

The idea of professional identity is based in medicine, where years of intense learning occur before having to enter the workforce, interact with patients and witness how experienced professionals operate. When Dan teaches, he’s helping young professionals make this leap from intense clinical learning to doing the real-life work

“It starts to become the awareness of how a physician or a pharmacist will then interact with their patients,” Dan says. “That continuous lifelong learning event begins the journey of self-identification: ‘I identify as a pharmacist, I identify with this community of learners’ — this co-participation, if you will, of highly skilled, highly educated people.”

These early-career professionals witness seasoned veterans perform the work at a high level, which can be informative but also intimidating. Imposter syndrome and self-doubt are common consequences of this process, especially when people haven’t fully formed their professional identities. 

“I feel like I’m now the imposter: ‘I don’t belong with all these smart people. They’re way smarter than me. They’ve got all these credentials already,’” Dan says. 

Why Self-Love Is Essential to Professional Identity

To overcome this doubt, we have to be honest with ourselves about our feelings and how those are stopping us, Dan says. He highlights the importance of self-love — embracing who you are and where you stand. “I have to love myself for who I am, I have to accept myself on my own journey of where I am and my identity and my personhood,” Dan says. 

This is especially important for medical professionals, financial advisors or any other field where the goal is to serve others. “When you can see the good in people and the good in yourself, you can now start to move past those feelings of doubt,” Dan says. Instead of spiraling because a small task or interaction doesn’t go well, remind yourself of “the 30,000-foot view and start to see, ‘I’m on a journey for something amazing.’”

This cycle of self-doubt can repeat throughout your career, especially if you take on a new role or larger responsibilities. By building an internal love and respect for yourself, you can resonate outwardly with what your people need from you. 

“I can truly lead a team, I can transform a team, but it has to begin with that inward journey, where you are maturing and you’re on that pathway towards self-growth, self-mastery, self-discipline,” Dan says. “That’s infectious. People want to know about that, they’re attracted to that. That’s true leadership. That’s true charisma.”

How to Mentor and Lead People in the Best Way for Them

Leaders must recognize that there’s no singular way to develop people, build up their confidence or help them form their professional identity, Dan says. If someone is struggling, they need empathy, rapport, connection. They need to feel supported as they begin the journey of reflection that ultimately results in behavior change. They need to feel like someone believes in them.

“I would say to anybody that’s in a leadership position, you should always see the good in people, see what their potential was, even if they’re not currently reaching that potential,” Dan says. “Even if they mess up, it’s OK — look at the big picture and look at the human potential.”

Mentorship is a powerful element of helping people develop their professional identity at the beginning of their careers. It also matters as people near retirement, where they must let go of who they have been. That shift can be daunting unless they can reframe it as a new beginning.

“You’ve got somebody who’s coaching and mentoring, maybe that’s the adviser, who needs to practice good motivational interviewing, empathic skills, reflective talk, self-efficacy, and then build a relationship,” Dan says. “Kierkegaard talked about the idea of a leap of faith — they are taking a leap of faith, and that’s a big deal to make a life change.”

People in This Episode

Dr. Dan Mickool: LinkedIn

Transcript

Dr. Dan Mickool:

One thing that I think is just underappreciated is self-love. You’ve got to love yourself. I have to love other people and I have to love myself for who I am. I have to accept myself on my own journey of where I am and my identity and my personhood, and that I’ve embarked on a profession that is meaningful not only to myself, but to my community and to others.

Ryan Goulart:

That’s Dr. Dan Mickool, Associate Professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice at Husson University and Adjunct Appointment at Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine. Today, we’re talking about professional identity formation. I’m Ryan Goulart, and you are Making the Ideal Real. I have with me today Dr. Dan Mickool. Dan, welcome to Making the Ideal Real.

Dr. Dan Mickool:

Hey, Ryan, thanks so much for having me on today. It’s a pleasure. How are you today?

Ryan Goulart:

I’m doing great. I’m excited to talk about this topic. Identity is something that anyone who’s a human encounters at some point in their life. And before we go into that topic, what does making the ideal real mean to you?

Dr. Dan Mickool:

I love the question, first of all, and I think I’m an eternal optimist. So when I think about making something ideal and real, those two things to me are: How do I become my very best self, and, as a teacher, educator and researcher, I want to help other people realize their very best self. So the ideal real to me is being able to accomplish that on two separate fronts.

Ryan Goulart:

Love it. One of the things that is so fascinating in just how you just answered that question, is that it plays directly into our topic of today, which is professional identity. Because oftentimes, we might see ourselves in a very different light. Tell us a little bit about your work on professional identity formation.

Dr. Dan Mickool:

Well, first of all, the topic is big and broad, and it’s been really identified well in the medical model since maybe 2006. And honestly, it has spilled over into so many professions besides medicine. It’s in dentistry, it’s in pharmacy, it’s in business, it’s in financial planning, it’s in the legal system. Lots of professions have grabbed onto this concept of how do we nurture the next generation of leaders and how do we help people become their very best self, whatever it is that they’re doing? So we don’t, without using the cliche, eat our own. We want them to be their very best in their profession. 

That’s what the crux of professional identity formation is all about is, how do we help people to that self-actualization, that they can be the very best in their profession and own that internally. So it’s not just a matter of knowing facts about your profession, but it’s how you internalize those very concepts.

Ryan Goulart:

It’s such a fascinating idea and I think that especially in the medical field, I would imagine that it’s so difficult to start to internalize that type of value because you get so much thrown at you throughout your schooling. Tell us a little bit about, specifically with doctors, how they begin to form their identity and some drawbacks that might occur through that formation.

Dr. Dan Mickool:

I teach various medical learners. I have pharmacy students, I have medical students, physician residents. Occasionally, I have physician assistant residents, occasionally have nursing students on the graduate level. Most of my students are already graduate students, so they’re not college students, they’re already somewhat into their profession. And the trajectory largely, I think you were hinting toward it, they get a lot of information thrown at them. They’ve got very intense didactic years where they’re learning an intense amount of information, but at the same time, they’re out in clinical rotations, they’re seeing physicians in practice.

They start to take those first steps towards seeing how professionals identify with patients, how they interact with them, what are those professional behaviors? So it becomes a little bit more than just the knowledge piece in the didactics, but it starts to become the awareness of how a physician or a pharmacist will then interact with their patients. That continuous lifelong learning event begins the journey of self-identification. I identify as a pharmacist, I identify with this community of learners, this co-participation, if you will, of highly skilled, highly educated people.

Ryan Goulart:

I would imagine that most people will see something that someone else is doing, attempt to replicate it and then realize that this doesn’t feel like me, even though they might identify with it, which you and I have talked a little bit about, is that imposter syndrome. Yet it’s a part of the journey when it comes to growth. So how does one start to understand the habits that are related to imposter syndrome and where do they start to go from there to start to be their true, authentic self?

Dr. Dan Mickool:

Imposter syndrome is a universe of study just in and of itself, but let’s break it down into maybe some parts. It’s one of the barriers that all professionals encounter, it’s a universal human experience. Everybody has some level of self-doubt. And let’s just say you’re a medical student or you’re a student. You’ve invested a lot of money to get to the place of your graduate education and you wonder when all this stuff is getting thrown at you, “Do I have what it takes to persevere?” Let’s just say I’ve always been a high achiever, and by the way, imposter syndrome plagues people who are high achievers the most. Think about this, just from the medical field alone, we’ve got a group, very smart people, very achievement-oriented folks. The same phenomenon occurs in the business world, occurs in law school for students who are studying the law. We see it across multiple professions, dentistry and others.

These barriers come along the way where you start to experience self doubt and you wonder, “Am I good enough?” Because you’re around a lot of smart people. For example, maybe in high school, you’re the valedictorian, you’re at the top of your game. Now you go on to college, and you’re still a really good student. You’re a high achiever, you’ve managed to get good grades, do a lot of good things. Now you get into graduate school, and everybody’s smart, everybody’s doing great things. And, “Oh my gosh, my colleague’s already got three publications to their name, and I’m just starting my first year of graduate school.” Those things start to look very intimidating and you start to doubt yourself.

That’s just a human feeling, and it’s an imposter syndrome where I feel like I’m now the imposter: “I don’t belong with all these smart people. They’re way smarter than me. They’ve got all these credentials already, they’ve got maybe even a past career. So they’ve got life experience behind them. And I just went through college and now I’m in grad school. I just transitioned right from my undergraduate studies, right into this graduate program. All I have for street cred is I’ve been a student. I don’t have any worldly experience to bring, I’m not a world traveler. I haven’t published anything.”

Ryan Goulart:

And it’s definitely part of the human condition, for sure. I mean, there’s so many different examples. I’m sure our listeners are even thinking about when they hear that of imposter syndrome, like, “Oh yeah, I felt that, I felt that.” What are some actions or insights that you’ve seen help break down that barrier so that they can get through and open themselves up for more learning?

Dr. Dan Mickool:

To overcome the barrier, the American Psychological Association gives us some tools in the toolbox, but first we got to realize that we’ve come to us and we start to identify. We have to be open and honest. I think as we practice reflection, either personal discipline of meditation or journaling, we start to write out how our feelings now relate to our experience. Once we start to see that, we can really identify it, then there are some tools in the toolbox. One thing that I think is just underappreciated is self-love. You got to love yourself. I have to love other people and I have to love myself for who I am. I have to accept myself on my own journey of where I am and my identity and my personhood, and that I’ve embarked on a profession that is meaningful, not only to myself, but to my community and to others.

I selected my profession so I could serve others. And that’s, I believe, a noble calling. So whether you’re in the financial world or if you’re in the medical field, the legal field, if your motivation is to serve others, then you’ve already got a fantastic framework for life and for living, and you have to appreciate that. That begins with self-love. And when you can see the good in people and the good in yourself, you can now start to move past those feelings of doubt. “OK, I’m on a journey. Oops, I didn’t make the grade on that particular thing or that event. That’s not important.”

Where do we stand? When you look at the big picture of a 30,000-foot view and start to see, “I’m on a journey for something amazing and I have the ability not only to transform my life, but hundreds or maybe even thousands of people if I continue on this journey.” That sets myself up for positive emotion, for feeling really good. The literature really identifies positivity with success, it links it with personal well-being. And the outward effect of loving yourself, internalizing those values, once you internalize them, it really changes your thought pattern and how you interact with others and it spills out. It inwardly transforms you, and it outwardly changes your behavior. So now you’re interacting completely differently with others, you have a positive mindset to change the world.

Ryan Goulart:

I love that. I mean, it’s definitely something that even I’m hearing you talk through this and starting to even reflect on my own journey, one of the things that came to mind as I hear you talk about imposter syndrome — and then even just the actions we can take to be able to do it — one of the things that came to mind is, and this is true for most leaders that step into leadership, they have a realization of, “I have to work through people to be able to get my stuff done. No longer am I an individual contributor and seeing value in the output that I provide.”

And so they have to detach away from the output and more towards people, which is, in and of itself, an identity transformation because the focus is on teaching and coaching and leading others versus, “How fast can I get this particular financial model run?” And so as I hear you talk about it, there’s that step into the unknown and the failure that can come with it. “Can I really do this? Do they know that I don’t know what I’m doing right now?” And so acknowledging the fact that you might be feeling this way and you’re trained for this, you’ve been through schooling. As you think about how to put those recommendations into practice, to kind of think about it from that point of view of reflecting on some of the successes. Is that an example of self-love?

Dr. Dan Mickool:

It is an example of self-love. As you start to see these successes come, and by the way, this is not just for newly minted professionals that are in the financial world or in the medical field. This continues to apply every time you get a promotion or you’re given additional responsibilities. If you’ve been given a large amount of responsibility for a new task or leading a new team, or taking on a large project, for example, in project management, you can start to feel those same things all over again. You may have all the steps of what it takes to be a servant leader, you may have studied it. You’ve looked at various models of leadership, servant leader, other types of transactional, transformational-type leadership.

Until you have that internal motivation, that internal self-love where, “I love myself, I see myself on a journey, I have something to give now to my team. Now I’m being my authentic self. I can truly lead a team, I can transform a team.” But it has to begin with that inward journey where you’re enduring and you’re on that pathway towards self-growth, self-mastery, self-discipline. That’s infectious, people want to know about that. They’re attracted to that. That’s true leadership, that’s true charisma when you have that internal — I’m going to call it a power, almost. “I can love myself, I love the journey that I’m on and I’ve got something to give and share with you.” I think it’s attractive.

Ryan Goulart:

Hey, listeners, Ryan here. Globally through our values exercise, we know that the top three values are family, health and happiness. But how do you design a workplace that can best support these? Learn how at our annual Evolve conference, October 29 and 30, in Minneapolis. Go to www.think2perform.com to learn more. 

Ryan Goulart:

One of the things that comes to mind with that, too, is even again, focusing on the population that you serve, pharmaceutical students, medical students that are trying to get into a very competitive field.

And they have been told their whole life that they are successful, and then they realize that there are other successful people, too. How have you seen that transformation when people are faking it until they’ll make it? I mean, there’s that saying. How have you seen their own transformation when they step into the unknown, they feel the self-doubt, they experience these things? How frequently do people come out of it in a successful manner?

Dr. Dan Mickool:

Well, look, it’s not a one-size-fits-all, like “here’s the cookbook recipe.” We all learn in different sorts of ways, we all hear things the way we communicate in a different style. I can receive something in a manner from somebody who delivers it with kindness and respect. I don’t do well receiving feedback from somebody who mentors me from a very high-handed viewpoint as very transactional in their leadership style. Now, I’ve worked with those kind of people. I’ve been a hospital administrator and in a prior life, being in academia, I’ve worked with all kinds of personality types. I’ve worked with servant leaders, I’ve worked with narcissists. I’ve worked with people who are completely transactional in the way they deliver their leadership.

For me, the person who has taken the time to nurture me, I think they’re the more effective leader because they not only see my potential, but they see the potential of the projects getting completed in a more efficient manner, so they’re looking at two different ends of the spectrum. Let’s apply this back to your first premise. How do I see when I see a pharmacy student or a medical student or one of my physician residents that’s really struggling? I see it all the time, so I try to work with them on a one-on-one basis because they’re individual humans, they’re on a different part of their pathway towards self-maturation, and they’re going to get there if you give them the right tools. Some people just need a little bit of encouragement to take them aside. They don’t need to have the authoritarian, high-handed viewpoint of, “Hey, you’ve screwed that up. Here’s how you can fix it.”

I think one of the things we talk about in motivational interviewing is human behavior change, and we know that by using reflective statements and asking permission, we’re building rapport and relationship as we’re trying to affect some outward change. If I see someone doing something that’s wrong and they’re getting frustrated by it, I want to take the opportunity to sort of mentor them, but from a relational standpoint. So I acknowledge what’s been going on, I use reflective statements and I’ll say, “Hey, I’ve got some feedback for you. Is it OK if I share it with you?”

So I ask permission to start to use motivational interviewing techniques with them. And I get them to a place where they’re doing the self-talk thing. They’re actually hearing themselves, maybe even rehearsing back of how this could have gone better or how they could have delivered that hard message to a patient. Or maybe it’s a client on the financial front, using the example in the business world how they use it. When we’re talking about human behavior change, you’ve got to approach it with, again, self-love, using motivational interviewing to build that relationship with your patient, your mentee, whoever it is on the other side of that conversation. You’ve got to plan it super-well.

Ryan Goulart:

I love how you’re intentional about the points in which you interact with a student or a practitioner in their journey. Is it helpful because you know where they’re trying to go, that you’re able to provide that type of targeted advice because they’re assuming an identity that you’ve once had or have had or continue to have? Is that helpful in your ability to provide that type of advice and be like, “Hey, Ryan, it’s going to be OK. You could have delivered that message in a different way.” You know how to guide because of the experience and wisdom that you have. I would imagine that’s super-helpful for someone in a particular career path as they are stepping into the unknown.

Dr. Dan Mickool:

I would say to anybody that’s in a leadership position, “You should always see the good in people. See what their potential is, even if they’re not currently reaching that potential. Even if they mess up, it’s OK. Look at the big picture, and look at the human potential.” One of the reasons that I switched from private sector medicine and healthcare into an academic setting is because I have the opportunity to reach and touch literally thousands of people, whereas when I was leading a team under my administrative assignment, I had 75 employees in my department. OK, I was making a difference. But now, year after year, I’m engaging with several hundred students who are then going to go on to clinical practice. They’re going to reach thousands of patients, so I see the good in what they’re doing, and I want them to reach their very best.

Ryan Goulart:

Yeah. And it gets back to another point that you mentioned, too — just the optimistic viewpoint, the positive viewpoint as a barrier, of something that can help break down the imposter syndrome component of one’s identity. This person has it. How do I nurture this to kind of guide them down that path? You’re a pharmacology guy, you’re kind of giving them some medicine, almost.

Dr. Dan Mickool:

The very best medicine to dispense, I think. Seeing the good in all people is a great principle overall. I think we’d have a lot less problems in the world if we’d just give everybody the benefit of the doubt, see the good in all people and what they could potentially accomplish in their lifetime is just a beautiful thing.

Ryan Goulart:

And I like how you’re meeting the individuals where they’re at, too. Like you said, it’s not that heavy hand of, “You need to do better.” It’s coaching, it’s guiding, it’s advising, it’s teaching. All those operative words that provide nurturing advice to someone who’s looking to grow. There is that component, and you might’ve experienced this when you moved from private sector to teaching. The role of identity in who you once were and who you are becoming, there’s sometimes a disconnect.

We see it a lot in financial services where an individual, an advisor who owns a practice is deciding to step out of that role. Or even a client who’s worked their whole life and now is stepping into retirement, they need to let go of who they once were. Which is still identity formation, it just might not be in the same role. So how does one prepare themselves to make a transition to something else and let go of who they once were?

Dr. Dan Mickool:

Let’s try to break those down. The self-love becomes super-important anytime we’re making a big transition. I think it’s also really important to surround yourself with people who can mentor you that have wisdom. So when I’m talking to young people about finding somebody to mentor them, don’t pick somebody else who’s 23 years old to mentor you. And no disparagement against being young, there’s great things about it. But with age and experience comes some wisdom, and I think young people can learn a lot from someone who is older or has been in the profession that we’re talking about for a fair bit of time. I think that when you’re on the coaching side and you use the example of, “I’m retiring, I’m talking to my financial planner about next steps and I’m going to basically change my identity,” the person who’s on the other side of the desk, who is that financial advisor, so to speak, they need to practice empathy.

They’ve got to have that skill set right in their wheelhouse so they can use those reflective statements right back with their client. “I hear you saying these things,” repeating back the same thing so that they’re visualizing it. That’s building relationship, believe it or not, in that 30 seconds or two minutes or five minutes, however much time we’re going to spend with that person opposite side of the desk. Work in some empathy and help them to love where they’re at so that they can take that next step into this journey of, we call it retirement, whatever that is, whatever they are going to journey into next, so that they can have that self-love about where they’re heading toward.

That’s a two-pronged relationship. You’ve got somebody who’s coaching and mentoring, maybe that’s the advisor, who needs to practice good motivational interviewing, empathic skills, reflective talk, self-efficacy and then build relationship, and then talk about self-love and make that step with them. Kierkegaard talked about the idea of a leap of faith. They are taking a leap of faith. I mean, that’s a big deal to make a life change. And so helping someone with empathic skills is so positive from going from, “I was this, I turned 67, I’ve reached my goals. Now when I turn 67 one day, I’m going to change my whole identity.” They can make that transition with a little bit of grace.

Ryan Goulart:

Yeah, it’s fascinating to me, just that. Because again, when someone has to let go of who they once were and they have committed so much value and energy into becoming that person and then stepping into something else, it is a leap of faith. It absolutely is.

Dr. Dan Mickool:

It is. And with the right framework, it’s not a death, it’s a new birth. It’s a new beginning, and it’s how you frame that transition. So again, harping on the same sorts of principles, self-love, positive talk, reinforcement of those things that gets you to that place of making that transition with grace.

Ryan Goulart:

That’s great. Well, thank you so much, Dan, for coming on.

Dr. Dan Mickool:

Thanks, Ryan, so much for having me on today.

Ryan Goulart:

As we wrap this episode, we’re committed to helping you make the ideal real. If you found this program helpful, share it and help someone else make their ideal real, too. Until next time, I’m Ryan Goulart. Take care.

More Episodes

Prescribing A Meaningful Life (Just For The Health Of It)

Join Ruth Tongen, an RN and HR professional, and host Ryan Goulart as they discuss the often-overlooked...
Listen Now

Curating Your Authentic Self

In this episode, Ryan speaks with Kris Petersen, SVP of Think2Perform, on living an authentic life. While...
Listen Now

Cultivate Purpose As A Mindset

On this episode of Making the Ideal Real, host Ryan Goulart is joined by Richard Leider, who...
Listen Now