It’s been a long time since I made my decision to become a dentist. I can’t even remember how I made it. I know that I was under some pressure to decide, mostly from my parents and their friends. I also know the reason I told others about why I chose dentistry…because I had spent so much time in dental offices growing up. Yeah…I had dental problems. But really I didn’t know that much about how I would spend the next fifty years of my life.
There were peaks and valleys in the early years… mostly valleys.
From where I stand right now, I believe that seventeen is just too young to decide what you want to do with the rest of your life. It was for me at least. But…as my father would tell me…“That’s life.” And I know it will not change for the younger readers out there, but what could change is the way dental education prepares students for what to expect. Dentistry is a complex field that requires students to become proficient in multiple skills and many micro-skills.
I wish someone would have sat me down and gave me some real world career advice…like I did for my kids as they were growing up, to avoid some of the mistakes I made. I would begin with Stephen Covey’s Habit #2—Begin With the End in Mind. I would ask students what outcomes they would like from their career in dentistry…and I would disqualify money as an answer. That’s the dummy answer.
Because money buys what people really want.
The great Warren Buffett tells a story from his youth in his biography, The Snowball, about how he always wanted to make money…it was most important to him. The story is about how at the New York Stock Exchange he observed that the really wealthy employed valets to roll their cigars. He thought it was “pure frippery to roll cigars – handmade, custom made cigars – for the member’s own particular pleasure.” When he observed that, he claimed that on that day the vision of his future was planted.
“He wanted money.” Because…
“It could make me independent. Then I could do what I wanted to do with my life. And the biggest thing I wanted to do was work for myself. I didn’t want other people directing me. The idea of doing what I wanted to do every day was important to me.”
I believe that there is a lot of universality in that thought. Yet we are all unique in our own lives…but ultimately it is up to each of us to determine and design our ultimate game plan.
Buffett wasn’t seeking money as much as he was seeking the things we all want in our lives. If only we could understand what those things are at age seventeen, then we could design our careers to meet those needs.
Adam Grant in his amazing book Think Again questions that very unreasonable inquiry that all kids are asked: What do you want to be when you grow up? In his book he uses his cousin Ryan as an example of someone who chose medicine…because the medical profession (dentistry included) is what every parent wants their child to become…my son the doctor. Once Ryan made his decision he spent years staying on track.
I’m sure many students can identify…staying on track no matter what…even when in the throws of burnout. Then, there is no turning back. And then there is the debt and all of the other sunk costs…physical, financial, mental and emotional. But we continually tell ourselves that when we hit a certain milestone like owning our own practice then we will be happy and have all the things we want…but as the positive psychologists will confirm, that is a poor prescription for happiness.
Once we realize we are in over our heads, instead of rethinking and pivoting as Grant recommends, we double down. We work harder and harder and take more and more courses looking for the answers to our disappointments. Grant calls that an escalation to commitment. We dig in.
Many of us suffer from a form of tunnel vision. We foreclose on our identity to become the doctor that our parents wanted us to become despite our dissatisfactions. In other words Grant suggests we need to look at careers as actions and tasks rather than the identity it gives us. The tasks involved in a successful dental career are multitudinous and complex. There are many micro-skills and tasks that are necessary but never discussed in dental school.
If you are a dental student reading this post and you are having second thoughts about the profession, I highly recommend that you read Grant’s advice on having a career checkup in his book Think Again.
If you follow my blog posts or have read my new book, The Porch, you know I am a big fan of knowing the ultimate game you are playing. That game according to the ancient philosophers and the modern psychologists is to become your best self…and that will result in happiness…or what Marty Seligman calls flourishing. Choosing a career that fits well with your best self will result in a flourishing career.
Isn’t that what we all want? To flourish.
There is an expression that claims if you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life. So the question is to create or design a life that enables us to love what we do. Psychologists tell us that passion is developed not discovered. We develop our passions through mastery. But mastery is not as simplistic as it sounds. Mastery includes a love of learning, curiosity, the growing concomitant passion, purpose and meaning, autonomy and competence.
As I suffered through my own burnout phase I realized more and more about the role of meaning and purpose and the real contribution I could make for my patients and team. Grant says the more meaning and purpose are important for our happiness, the older we get. I surmise that if happiness is our goal, the only way to achieve it is to understand the various pathways to happiness rather than looking for happiness itself.
Grant quotes the philosopher John Stuart Mill: “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.” There isn’t just one path to happiness (money?)
If we begin with the end in mind…happiness, and define what happiness means, we will see clearly the diverse pathways that lead to our intended destination. By understanding the role we play and the contributions we make we will see that the road to happiness includes mastery, freedom, autonomy, positive relations, engaging work, and accomplishment.
Knowing this anyone can design a work life that will be rewarding and fulfilling.
My new book, The Porch, discuses the ultimate game —how to achieve the fruits of your work, in story form. Order now and receive a copy of my bestselling book The Art of Case Presentation absolutely free.