I was recently talking to a friend from dental school who brought up her (anxiety) of feeling like she’s “not where she’s supposed to be” in her career. She felt behind compared to her colleagues, who were doing more complex procedures and appeared to be living more lavish lifestyles. She questioned her financial standing, her clinical skills, and even shared regrets about “wasting” her time by working in the wrong place.
This brought up a very intriguing question for me: How do you know where you’re supposed to be?
We both recently hit our five year mark of practice, which for so long felt like a milestone we looked forward to. After five years, you’re no longer considered a new grad, are more marketable to employers, and more appealing to patients. Yet there is no real bar setting the standards at this stage. I simply expected to be faster, better, wealthier, and less stressed. There’s this notion that we have to have it all figured out.
But is it true?
When I was in dental school, I took any extra course I could, and went to every conference. During vacations, I would volunteer at the emergency clinic, at CE courses, and in the community. I loved my work, and I lived for it.
Now my outlook on career and success has shifted. Instead of taking on more when I’ve reached my capacity, I take on less. I prioritize what I enjoy doing, and focus on being the best in that. I am completely content with bread and butter dentistry, which is honestly not the path I would have projected for myself back
So I’ve shifted this question from focusing on clinical procedures and income to: How do you feel practicing in the now moment?
Here’s how I answer that question:
I am confident in my ability to treat my patients as a whole person – from concerns with their mouth, to addressing their fears and anxieties. We have such a small window of time to develop a trusting relationship with people, which sets the tone for our treatment moving forward. The patients that feel your compassion and genuine curiosity for their well-being are the ones that request you on their visits, and then follow you if you move to a new office. We create this safe, joyous space for them, and in turn, for ourselves.
Discernment has been key for me in determining how I want to practice. I am now aware that some cases have risks that I’m not willing to take, and some patients are not for me to work with. Despite these factors, I’ve found my practice is also about what I enjoy doing and where my time is best spent. For example, molar root canals. I am proficient in it, but I do not love it. Referring these patients out has eliminated a layer of stress for me, and has opened up more space for a fulfilling work experience.
A big shift over the years for me is how I show up in the office. I am a teammate and a team leader. I’m accommodating for office needs, but firm in my boundaries. Practicing in my integrity and being comfortable in my choices has eliminated a lot of perceived chaos in the office. Yes, chaotic thoughts will create a perception of chaos in an environment that was just busy. Don’t get me wrong, there are challenging days, but every obstacle is an opportunity to develop a creative solution with the right perspective. It’s a chance to practice discernment, to problem solve, and to grow. It’s not comfortable, but I’m grateful for it.
It took me some time, but I’ve accepted that the “I hate dentists” narrative is not personal, and that I can leave work at work. I no longer work six days a week, or ten-hour days. I work to live a comfortable life, and fill my time with things that bring me joy. Sports, down time, trips, and family. That’s my happy place, and I put that first. I’ve let go of society’s definition of success, and have created my own. To me, it’s having comfort, time, joy, and peace.
I honestly love the conversations I have with my colleagues about what they’re doing. I have a continuous group chat about clinical cases where we give each other feedback and support. We share about technologies and techniques we’ve learned, CE we’re doing, and experiences with our bosses and office culture. This is beautiful and beneficial for our growth and wellbeing, as it is an established collaboration rather than sessions of emotional dumping.
However, there are dangers in living in constant comparison to our peers. The simple truth is that we’re all leading very different lives! Everyone has their own individual paths that influence where they are. Some of us have spouses, kids, parents we take care of, varying student loans, injuries, or some unseen hardships. Some of us inherited practices from a parent or have found a key mentor to take us under their wing. We can’t fully know another person’s story, so don’t create one based on what you see on social media. It likely isn’t accurate.
No matter how long we’ve been practicing, we need to focus on what’s important. On a daily basis, are you happy with where you are? Let’s let go of what you thought you’d be before you knew what the workforce was like. And let’s stop competing with each other.
If you aren’t happy, then this is the time to evaluate which aspects of your life need changing, and then change them. If you are completely content, then keep doing you. Remember, you are exactly where you’ve chosen to be.