A student on his rotation at our pharmacy recently asked me, "What is the biggest challenge you have ever faced in your career as a pharmacist?"

I thought this was a fantastic question, and reminded me that questions like this really make being a preceptor worthwhile.

This question came from a student working with me on an elective rotation in pharmacy management. Tommy is a bright, friendly, hard-working young man, and I have high hopes for him. But this question really stumped me. It caused me to think back and reflect on nearly 25 years of practice as a pharmacist.

At first I thought about my first "real" job as a licensed pharmacist in which I assumed the pharmacy manager position right out of school for a busy chain pharmacy. That was challenging. I was a young buck, still wet behind the ears, trying to fulfill a role typically reserved for a more mature pharmacist.

I learned a lot. I'm reminded of the quote by Ben Franklin in which he said, "Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other." This fool learned quickly! And the business did well thanks to a great team and supportive leadership. I managed through a major remodel and an acquisition of another local pharmacy.

But that wasn't my biggest challenge.

My next pharmacy job involved managing a new pharmacy for a different chain. I was there from day one, getting the pharmacy built and licensed. I was there on opening day when we literally filled three prescriptions the entire 10-hour shift. I still remember that first prescription: a liquid amoxicillin order for a child.

I was also in charge of the entire OTC department and learned merchandising, inventory management and a host of other things about marketing and growing a business. I knocked on doors and built a veterinary compounding business to help boost sales. I spoke at local senior centers about medication management, Medicare Part D and other topics.

It was fun to watch that business grow to be one of the top performers in the state, but that still wasn't my biggest challenge.

As I stood there talking to my pharmacy student, I recounted a few other big hurdles I had to overcome in my career.

I had to learn the business side of pharmacy. My pharmacy school was great — one of the best but we simply didn’t have room for many classes on the practical aspects of managing pharmacies as businesses.

I had to learn people management. That is a skill I'm still trying to learn and presents one of the biggest challenges I have ever encountered. I'm an introvert by nature, and as such I tend to shy away from blunt confrontation, a skill often necessary for being a good people manager. Thankfully, I have learned by experience that dealing with people directly and honestly, with an emphasis on how to help them improve, pays the biggest dividends in the long run.

But none of these things was my biggest challenge either.

Then it dawned on me. The light bulb, as it were, turned on.

"The biggest challenge I have faced in my career as a pharmacist has been figuring out exactly who I am and what I'm best at," I said.

In other words, my biggest challenge was me. It has been learning and becoming comfortable with my role in this profession.

I'm a manager, and I love being a leader and manager. Yes, it often means long hours and dealing with problems and teaching and motivating and networking and learning new skills. It means looking at the small print of a profit-and-loss statement while also looking into the small face of child getting her first antibiotic prescription.

It took me a long time to figure this out I'm a slow learner I guess. Ralph Waldo Emerson was right when he said, "The years teach much which the days never know." My hope for other pharmacists is that they too would figure out, maybe sooner than I did, exactly what it is they were meant to do in this profession and then go for it!