Freedom: From the Grind

Previously, I had written about why I chose to stay part-time on the blog, wherein I delved into the benefits of working less than forty hours a week. Sometime in between the writing of that post and today, I got carried away by a desire to reach a goal of ours, at a FASTER pace. It was an all-consuming drive, not too far from the push resulting from a desire to own more. Needless to say, I was swallowed whole by this need, and for a while, it did control a part of my life. Yesterday was the day I said ‘Goodbye’ to that lifestyle on the fast track to disaster. I regained my freedom from the grind! I share my story today, because I believe that we can learn from each other’s mistakes. While Instagram, Facebook, and other social media outlets are there to highlight the best moments of our lives in tiny square boxes and endless scrolling pages, there is a sort of disservice that we do to each other by ignoring the realities of every day living. There, you will see the freedom from the grind, but here, you will read the story about how I got there, lost my footing, and then returned, once again.

Related Posts:

The Desire for More

Embedded in our culture is this desire for more. We want more things in order to satisfy our “needs”. We want more friends, in order to feel loved and complete. We want more achievements in order to be seen as “successful”. Having more, culturally, is a positive thing.

Two months ago, I became obsessed with an idea. It’s an idea that has been brooding inside my mind since I was a young child. Socially ingrained, it was a desire for both a physical object and a psychological concept: which was a desire for a home. Additionally, I was very adamant on achieving another dream, which was, to open a coffee shop. Both required adding more. More work, more responsibility, & more loans (ick!). Additionally, it required more means to fund these dreams. So what did I do?

I voluntarily decided to add an extra day at work. Actually, I insisted on an extra day of work, and my boss warned me that I would get burned out, but he was kind enough to let me figure it out on my own. It didn’t take long for the stresses of a five-day and six-day alternating work weeks took a toll on my life.

The funny thing about adding more, is that in reality, you end up with LESS. I had less time for myself, and if you don’t help yourself first, you will have difficulty helping others. I was able to spend less time with people I cared about, which then put stresses on some relationships. I had less to offer to my patients, since my tired brain and body couldn’t perform to the best of their abilities. I found myself being pretty conservative about treatment, which is fine and good, but failing to give them the alternative of doing more for themselves also has its drawbacks. I had less patience, and poor Mikey got the brunt of all of that. I had less inspiration, since I was so brain dead after work. I had less motivation, since my body just craved crawling into bed every night. Most importantly, I felt less like myself. There was a rigidness to my body, a robotic beat to my motives, and a hollowness to my being.

What you see on Instagram are pictures of our adventures, accomplishments, and hobbies. What you don’t see (what we NEVER see) are the difficult moments. The nights of crying on the floor. The burning desire and the anger for anything that falls short. The zombie-like walk through the house. The frustration of having to do chores. The  mindless decisions we have made. The resentment one starts to feel for their work. These are things we never say. And why would we? People will start to think less of us.

After two weeks, I knew it was bad news bears. But I also knew that I had asked for this. So Mike suggested I try it for four weeks more. At three and a half weeks, I talked to my boss. Earlier that week, I had finished a day of work, only to realize at the end of the day that I had not diagnosed anything. “Observe, observe, observe.” It was a sign that I may have subconsciously been telling myself that I can’t add anything more to my plate. The next day at work, I had difficulty doing simple things. Extractions that should have taken ten minutes took thirty. Kids that I usually am able to do well with were crying. Inside, so was I. By Wednesday, I realized that it was really a mess. It dawned on me that I had not paid rent, which was due the day before. I have never missed rent in the entirety of my adult life. On Thursday, I asked for a day less. My boss, all knowingly, said he thought that was better for my health.

Having more is sold to us as something AMAZING! But is it really so?

The Benefits of Less

On the flip side, having less is seen as not so desirable. When I wrote about Intentional Living: Create Empty Space, I touched on our discomfort with emptiness, and our desire to constantly fill that emptiness. We are raised to “not settle for less”. But having less is arguably much more important than having more.

Having less gives you the freedom to pursue things that you want, or need. Having less gives you the space to create the lifestyle you want. Freedom from the grind restored a healthy balance to my life. I gained back so much of myself that I lost to the rigorous hours. I had a weight, that had just as much a physical impact as a mental and emotional one, lifted from my bony shoulders. I restored a healthy relationship with my husband, who I had been turning to every single day to pick up the slack that I had brought into the relationship due to my extra day of work. Most importantly, I feel as if I can breathe again. It’s important to take a step back and ask the question, “Am I working to live, or living to work?”

I asked for the extra day to work in order to live the life I want. Namely, in order to get a home and have a coffee shop. Ironically, the result was me giving up the life I want (namely, a slow, mindful and intentional life style) in order to work.

Restoring Balance

By taking away the extra day of work, I pretty much am re-instating my previous lifestyle. I am also setting aside that dream of opening a coffee shop. I was obsessed with opening a coffee shop by the following year, but I now realize that slow and steady wins the race. The dream of a coffee shop will have to wait for a few years. However, there are also exciting news ahead! We are currently working on securing a live-work loft in our community!! Our ideal place has always been a loft. Even before we got married, while we were still dreaming up our future life on an Ikea bed with bed bugs in a house infested with termites, we both said that a loft was our ideal space. We have been living in our current one for over two years now, and we love this community and this space. We found a neighboring one that is being offered for sale. So we are putting an offer, like, today! It has a business space on the first floor, which you know, is fantastic for any future business endeavors we choose to do. Meanwhile, our beautiful roomie has decided to stay (we want to keep her as long as we possibly can!), and that’ll still continue to be a win-win co-housing relationship. We are so excited for the future ahead. If everything goes through, we will have a loft, a home, a business front, and a beautiful roomie. All of this on top of paying down the massive student debt in ten years! So please, keep your fingers, toes, legs, arms, eyes crossed for us!

Lastly, we couldn’t have achieved any of this without:

Freedom: Why I Choose to Stay Part Time

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?

Freedom: Re-thinking Early Retirement

For my generation and the coming generations, I would like to pose an alternative to the “wonderful” idea of early retirement. This alternative is not new, and it was not discovered by me, but it is embraced by many communities, including minimalists, money mustachians, and financial independents. Whenever I ask people my age where they see themselves in twenty, thirty or forty years, many of them respond with a goal of retiring early. That means that between ages 40 through 60, depending on their current financial situation, or their belief in their ability to get out of financial dependence on their job, or their optimism (you pick), they plan to quit their jobs and have a house already purchased, and plan to spend the rest of their days vacationing on a yacht they may have bought or raising their grandkids. This is what our parents did and our grandparents did, and it sounds like a lovely life, albeit too late to make the most of your prime years. But it isn’t for me, and maybe some of you are scratching your heads and wondering if there is another way.

There’s a theory, which I’d call my life mission or goal. Theoretically, this life mission may work out for me, and possibly for you. When I was first asked the question of where I want to see myself in 30-40 years, it was my financial planner asking. Being a financial meeting, my first answer was that I saw myself out of financial debt, and with financial stability. I also said I saw myself working (still) a few days a week, and pursuing all my hobbies and interests on the days I have off. I saw myself physically fit enough to enjoy life, and continuing to travel the world. I would like to have the time to see my family and friends frequently, and never feel dependent on someone else financially or physically. That sounds a lot like retirement, minus the working part, right?

So he clarified and said, “Do you see yourself retiring early?” I had an answer that flew off my tongue before I could even think. “I do not want to retire until I can no longer physically work.” I think that is a very good answer (and not because I was the one who came up with it). Time itself is not the decision-maker, and neither is age. It is our ability to continue pursuing a passion. Now, we all know that dentistry has a short life span for many, because of physical ailments that result from the profession, usually involving back aches and side aches and neck pain and carpel tunnel, and the list goes on. But notice that I did not say I saw myself practicing dentistry, but rather, I said I saw myself working. I believe that working into our 60’s and 70’s will keep us mentally active, physically fit, and spiritually alive, at a time in our lives when we need it most. But if we are financially stable, or hopefully more than stable by that age, then money will never dictate what we do. And once money does not dictate what you do, work can become whatever passion you want to pursue. I mean, ideally work should be your passion now. Who knows if I will still be passionate about dentistry in 30 years?! Quite possibly, I will be doing part-time dentistry for a very long time. I mean, working one day a week as a dentist is not a bad gig. But hey, I could dream big and think, maybe I will be working as a barista at that time. Or making clay pots to sell at a store. Who knows where life will lead me, or you.

But how is working into the wee years of your elderly life sustainable? Burn- out is something a lot of dentists experience. A few years out of dental school, and many of them already hate their jobs. And they’re going to do this for the rest of their career??! It’s sustainable if you never experience burn out (duh!). This can be accomplished in many ways. For example, you could work less hours than the grueling 5-day work week now. Or if you still very much love your job, invest in delving deeper into the practice. The more you pursue a passion, the less it feels like a weight that you are dragging around. Avoid doing something just to go through the motions. Really love your job in its entirety and it won’t bring you down. Most people experience burn out because their job is physically exhausting, without the mental, emotional, or spiritual reward. In other words, they no longer feel passionate towards what they do. When you do experience burn out, switch to doing the next thing you love. Motivation and inspiration are key to fueling your drive to continue working late into your life time.

You may be asking, “Okay, so when do we get to enjoy our lives?” My answer is simple. How about now? What if, instead of early retirement, you do partial retirement, starting now? You get to enjoy life for the entirety of your life, not just for the last little bit when you’re tired and want to sit on a rocking chair on the porch and stare out all day. Think of all the pros of starting to live now. You’re young enough to invest in your future physical fitness by working out now rather than sitting in a desk all day, which will prolong your health for more years down the road. You get to balance work and play. It can’t be all play like in the other model of retirement. Even playing all the time gets boring for me. I have to feel like there is some direction in my life, like I am getting somewhere. It’s the only way I feel alive. I think retirement could possibly turn me into a sack of flour (metaphorically) and bore me to death. So, you gain balance in your life. You get to travel the world, while you can still hike, or at least walk five miles in the city center. You get to spend real quality time with your family, instead of squeezing in time in the morning, before work, and at night, when you’ve exhausted all your energy into your passion. So many parents miss out on their child’s life, because they have to work in order to provide for that child. Maybe we need to start re-thinking of the word provide. Provide food and shelter, sure, but after that what? Time and love. Seriously. Now some of you may give me the money argument. The “you’re-so-lucky-you’re-a-dentist-and-you-make-bank” argument. I started my dental career later than my peers because of the additional schooling with a debt of over half a million dollars, equivalent to a mortgage loan that many of my friends have already spent four years paying off. If anything, right now, I am at the same place as you, or worse, in terms of net worth. But it’s the way you think about money that will really save you. At the end of the day, money is just money, and things are just things, right? Another blog post to come on re-thinking how we view money. Maybe we should start re-thinking everything.

Now I know we are all different, and yes, some may continue to dream about the glorious days of relaxing for years on end. But I tried that already, when I had the gap after dental school waiting for my license. And it drove me nearly insane. Even travelling for three weeks in a gorgeous country with a lot of planned activities every day made me long for something more. I don’t think I can do the early retirement thing. More importantly, I don’t want to miss out on my life. The present moment is the most valuable to me. And hey, I do all the things my working friends do. I am close with my co-workers, and hang out with them outside of work. I practice my skills and learn something new every day at work. I still have set hours that I clock in and clock out for. I work out before or after work. But I also do everything my retired aunts, uncles, and grandparents do. I travel frequently. I dedicate time to pursue additional hobbies. I can schedule coffee mornings and mid-day lunch dates with my family and friends. This weekend, I plan to sit on lake front property and enjoy fall weather on a boat surrounded by family, which is what you dream of too, except I’m not sacrificing my body to get to that point and I am going to do it now, thirty years before you. Then again, perhaps you’ll decide to do it too. Wouldn’t that be nice?

I must admit. There has to be a sense of simplicity to this lifestyle. You can’t go on imagining that you will become a multi-millionaire this way and swim in pools of cash. That kind of lifestyle probably will require you to work tirelessly during your prime years. But give me the simpler one, and I’ll be a happier person. It’s just an alternative, it’s not the way. There is no ideal way to live life. Just an ideal life for you.