When I was just a small boy, growing up in a quiet suburb of Queens, in New York City, I used take the bus to school every day. Back then we had to walk a mile just to get to the bus stop. I don’t want to sound like Abe Lincoln, but we got used to it…rain or snow. Everyday. Walking along with us…but really all by himself, alone, was one of my neighbors...Louie.
Louie wasn’t going to school. He was starting his long commute into Manhattan which he repeated five days per week. Sometimes I would see him reversing his route later in the day. It was a long time ago and I can’t recall how old Louie was at the time. My only reference now is that he had two daughters who were some years younger than I was, and they went to a closer public school.
Louie, otherwise, was a pleasant chap, but my memory of him and his circumstances at the time was one of pity…like that old comic strip character, Sad Sack. Every day he would move along slowly, head down, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, slumped over and plodding along, there was never a smile on his face. I vowed, as a young kid…never become Louie.
I did my best to avoid that fate.
I followed a straighter path that would lead to a much happier place…I went to school and became a dentist. The phrase, “master of my own destiny” became words I tried to live by. I was fairly successful. I chose dentistry (at least I thought I made an active choice at the time), because it was a profession, and like medicine, law and accounting it would give me the opportunity to be the commander-in-chief of my own fate. At least that is what I believed.
I had no reason to suspect otherwise. I was raised by parents who taught me the meaning of self-direction and freedom. Everything I had learned was confirmed by my own experiences…except the riddle of Louie. So I followed the well worn path of college and then professional school.
After school I went into the U.S. Army Dental Corps for some much needed practice and experience. Then I jumped right into private practice. Things were different in those days…it was an easy transition. I never had to get a job, I made a living right away. But…about five years into practice, things took a turn, not financially but emotionally.
I had become Louie.
I wasn’t happy, and I blamed everyone else for my unhappiness…family, patients (oh, those damn patients), staff, the supply guy, even the waitress at my favorite luncheonette. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I sought outside help but the courses I took just taught me that doing better dentistry was the answer. I would make more money and that would make me happier. NOT!
So, probably unlike Louie and so many others, I took the ball in my own hands. I started to read books on self-development and philosophy. I came across a quote which has become my mantra: “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” This became my anti-Louie strategy. It wasn’t an easy fix…but persistence and resilience pays off.
In life there is no such thing as instant pudding.
After a few years I learned about a dentist in Florida…Dr. L.D. Pankey. I went to the Pankey Institute and for the first time I met people who spoke my language. I was introduced to a book which L.D. used as a resource for his philosophy: What Men Live By, by Richard Cabot. This wasn’t a book that a kid from the streets of Queens, who drove a cab to get through dental school, would naturally gravitate toward.
Early in the book (not a page turner), I came across a word that resonated with me...drudgery. Right then I began to have visions of Louie. I knew that whatever Louie had fought and lost, Dr. Pankey had fought and won. I knew that I had found the answer.
I also realized that drudgery wasn’t about dentistry and that it was common in the world of work. Early in my journey for answers I realized that blaming my feelings on dentistry was not the way…soon enough I learned the opposite, that dentistry was a great profession, but only if I crafted the way I worked.
“If it’s to be, it’s up to me.”
And so my journey began. I read books, I studied, I reflected, I found wonderful mentors. I failed, I fell down…got back up and persisted. I felt like quitting…but I kept going.
Today, I am retired. After close to fifty years I can look back and say it was worth it. I avoided becoming Louie…or anyone else who dreads going into work everyday.
If you identify with with Louie…there is hope. There is a brighter future…there are known pathways and everyone is capable of finding a way.
Meaningful work is very different than drudgery.
Mike Rowe’s show “Dirty Jobs,” on the Discovery Channel, was his attempt to “tell better stories of men and women who master a trade.” He demonstrated that meaningful work is very different than drudgery…and meaningful work comes in all shapes and sizes.
A doctorate does not guarantee happiness. There was a point in my life when I thought that I could have continued driving a taxi and been happier. I could have found more passion for interacting with people in my cab than I did in my dental operatory. But with so much invested in becoming a dentist, I just couldn’t give up. Thank God I found my meaningful purpose and began making meaningful strides on “the road to mastery.”
Any trade, even dentistry, can be dull and dreary, or it can be pursued on this amazing road, becoming joyful. It’s on the road to mastery that we find our passion and purpose, but first we need to recognize what is most meaningful to us and apply energy in pursuit of it. It’s not only about “doing better dentistry.”
These days I have a passion for telling stories to improve lives.
That’s why I continue writing for and about dentists. Creating a life of personal purpose and wellness in dentistry is the “better” story that I aimed to tell in my latest book THE PORCH, which is fresh off the press and available now in print and digital form on Amazon.com.
THE PORCH is the story of a dentist… I think of it as a fable. Others may think of it as a fairy tale. My co-author, Deb Bush, thinks of it as an allegory for 21st century dentists. But every reader of the preliminary manuscript found it compelling. It resonated with their own experience in dental school and dental practice.