When I first graduated from dental school, I imagined myself working as many days as possible at multiple offices to lead a “successful” and rich lifestyle. The goals were like any other typical goals, pay down student debt, buy a huge house in Southern California, travel the world, buy nice things to fill the house, start a family and raise children, etc. I wasn’t quite as intentional back then with my lifestyle as I am now, as you can probably tell. But I was ready to enter the workforce and “getter done”. After so much schooling, I felt like I was behind everyone else and I needed some catching up to do.
So how did I end up here?
The first person who ever suggested I work part-time was my financial advisor. We had just met and we were delving into what our goals were for the future and what our ideal lifestyle model would be like. When I rushed headlong into my ideas of working 6 days a week at multiple offices, for the rest of my life until I retire at past 65, he stopped me then and there and asked me to consider an alternative. Burnout is a prevalent result in dentistry. Due to the high stresses of the job, a majority of dentists experience burnout at an earlier age than they would like, which causes them to either cut down significantly on the days they work or quit dentistry all-together. My financial advisor, who deals with mostly newly graduated dentists, have seen time and time again, young new grads quitting dentistry a few years out of school. Despite my whole-hearted belief that this could never happen to me, he highly recommended that I limit myself to only four or five days a week. Long-term, he says that that would be most conducive to the lifestyle that me and Mike were trying to live. Off course, with anything anyone says to me, I took it with a grain of salt, but was still slightly stubborn in my ways. I had barely started work at that time, and was really feeling professionally driven. To me, I have watched my parents before me, and my friends around me, work the usual 9-5, Monday to Friday every week, and I (arrogantly, pompously, and ignorantly) assumed that I was more capable than that. I felt like I could take on the whole world at that point in life. We all feel like superheroes when we are young and naive.
And maybe we could, but does it mean that we should? The second person who insisted I work part-time was my boss. A little back story on where I work and my relationship with my boss. I started working at an office five minutes from my house at the age of 19 years old. I was a volunteer at first, but the office manager (who happened to be the wife of the dentist who owned the practice), saw my drive and interest and decided to train me from scratch to be a dental assistant. She paid for my x-ray licensing exams, bought me scrubs, set up one-on-one training sessions with the dental assistants, etc., etc. She basically became my second mother and took me by the hand and showed me the ropes. She held a lot of belief in me and I grew confidence and independence under her wing. She saw my love for writing, and actually had me write the entire website for the office from scratch. Every single written word on that site was mine, and I became so proud of it. She was very trusting, patient, and just all-together generous with her time. Eventually, I started working as a dental assistant on the IV sedation team, which was being run by the owner of the practice. He, too, had the same generosity as his wife, and shared so much knowledge, tips, and advice. I knew I wanted to be a dentist since I was eight years old, but I did not come to love dentistry until I worked with them at this office. These two people became my second parents, and did as fantastic a job as my first (real) parents in raising me to find my self-worth, as well as instilling in me the core need to put others first when it comes to doing dental work. When I graduated dental school, I reached out to them and they made room for me in their two practices to start my journey. Again, they’ve trusted in my abilities, although I do not know what they ever see in me, but I hold a lot of respect and feel a lot of gratitude towards these two people. They are the type to hold the best interests of those around them to heart, and I trust them fully and hold their opinions quite highly.
So when I started working with my boss and he asked me how many days I hoped to work, again I said 6 days a week. He looked at me kind of funny, as if seeing his former, younger self with the same fire in my eyes, shook his head, and then said to me, “You don’t want to work six days a week. It’ll burn you out. You’ll feel too tired to think and then you will make mistakes, and then you will feel less and less confident. Plus it wouldn’t be giving your best standard of care to your patients. In fact, I don’t want you working six days a week.” I was kind of surprised, but at the same time, I recalled my financial advisor saying the same thing and I said, “Okay.”
Initially he gave me three days a week, and then he bumped it up to four days a week, and then five days every other week. But I think he saw that I was looking for more. When one of the doctors at one of the offices left to fulfill her own dental dreams, he had me cover for her until he hired a new doctor, which then had me working six days every other week, and five days every other week. I was so excited for the chance, I jumped at it and went to town. I worked so much, and though I loved my job and went to work every day with a smile on my face (and, more importantly, left work every day with a smile on my face), I started to see what he meant. Burn out is a real thing, and although you may not feel it, it IS reflected in one way or another. Perhaps it is in your work, or the way you treat others. I started to lose that time that I used to take with my patients, and I was practicing more of an in-and-out type dentistry. The Hi- Let’s get to work – Bye! It wasn’t just dentistry either. I started to bring that home with me, relishing the space that I needed for myself, and taking away from the time I should have given to Mike and my family and friends. It only lasted a month or two before we hired a new doctor that fit well with our practice. But I saw what I needed to see, which was this.
You cannot take care of other people if you do not take care of yourself first. My job is built around helping others, whether that’s helping them out of pain, helping them feel confident with their smile, helping them learn about hygiene techniques that will prevent future disease, or just helping them understand more about teeth. I entered dentistry for this aspect of it, and to detract from my ability to help others to a high level of standard is selfish and wrong, especially when the driving force is money. Luckily, I also found a shift in my “needs and wants” in life, and I realized that I don’t need the money as bad as I thought. Sure, I still have bills to pay and loans to be free from. But I also used to spend on things that were simply wasteful. I cut that out and found that I do have the time, and space, to give to myself, before I give unto others.
My brother once asked me why I did not work more if I was so concerned about paying off my student loans really quickly. Fair question, since that’s all I seemingly preach. My answer is this. The reason why I want to pay off student debt quickly is not so I can be rich quicker. It’s so I can be free. If working more days now is required to get rid of the debt quicker, then all I am doing is trading freedom now for freedom later. The result of that trade would be a worn down, energetically deprived me, who would get less out of life in my earlier years than if I were to continue at a more moderate pace. The truth is, I just don’t think the trade is worth it. If freedom is what you seek, then there is no need to get more freedom in exchange for freedom. I think it all comes down to the question, “What do you value?” To be able to answer that question requires a lot of deep soul searching that I am not completely sure is even complete yet. But so far, I’ve come to the conclusion that things I value include aspects of life that cannot be found in the workplace. I value space – for a reset, to be mindful, to be open and to think clearly. I value health, which is prolonged by the avoidance of stressors and physical ailments via static postures. Speaking of stasis, I value trying to avoid stasis in all aspects, by always learning something new. I find that if I was at work all the time, I would not have the space or time to learn new things, which would be a shame, since I also value creativity and self-expression. Lastly, I value taking care of people, and it’s easy to forget that we are people too.
In 2017, I worked an average of 3 days a week. It’s almost laughable, that a young, arguably driven dentist, would work less than half of the year. Even though I worked alternating 4 and 5 day weeks, and a few months of 5 and 6 day weeks, I took multiple long vacations, some as long as 2-3 weeks. I no longer seek to fill my time solely with work. I am more mindful about drawing boundaries and really saying no in order to have the space to increase my own self-worth. I aim to learn new things about the world, and where my place lies in it. The time off has given me a better understanding as to why I do things the way I do and how I could live life in a way that is better for the planet and for the people. More importantly, I am able to implement that change. It’s not just all talk, but I actually get to experiment with different lifestyles and really DO. I spend a majority of my weekends solely with family members and friends, because I have my own weekdays off where I can spend it on myself. I like that I don’t have to detract from other people’s time. Time is like any other resource we have. Like money, if you have an excess amount of time, you are more likely to be liberal in giving it away to others. If you have little time, then you will be more stingy with it, wanting to keep it for yourself. Now I know that time is a better thing to earn than money. Off course, I could go out there and find other offices to work at on my days off, but honestly, I have come to realize the value of working part time. What started as a recommendation by my financial planner and a command by my boss has become an autonomous choice to choose freedom above all else. I wouldn’t trade the peace and happiness that I’ve found for a house, or a new car. Would you?