They say that money doesn’t buy happiness, but if you are stuck behind the chair with constant back and neck pain, you may be counting the days until you can escape the day-to-day grind and be financially independent. Whether you're waiting to withdraw your hard-earned 401(k) savings from Wall Street’s roller coaster or have alternative investments, the goal for most is to reach a point of financial independence, where you're no longer required to trade your time for money. The traditional path (401(k)s or other retirement plans) typically set that goal as a distant “someday” in the future, but even for more astute practitioners who are able to create freedom much sooner, the question remains …
What happens next?
After working with hundreds of dentists for decades, I have observed a common phenomenon. In the first part of their working career, dentists’ main purpose is usually to provide for their families. Then, most work diligently to grow their practice, provide excellent patient care, and live the lifestyle they’ve aspired to since first starting dental school.
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Over a period of many years, this grind becomes all encompassing. This new normal isn’t good or fulfilling, but at least it’s familiar. The possibility of financial freedom may seem enticing, but in reality, it challenges a practitioner’s identity. When they can finally retire and explore other areas of interest, they find that they have no idea who they are outside of their dental practice or what their purpose should be.
Their professional identity has become their personal identity.
When boundaries are blurry and individuals lose their identity, psychologists refer to this as “enmeshment.” “Enmeshment prevents the development of a stable, independent sense of self,” per Harvard Business Review.1 “While identifying closely with your career isn’t necessarily bad, it makes you vulnerable to a painful identity crisis if you burn out, get laid off, or retire. Individuals in these situations frequently suffer anxiety, depression, and despair.”1
The road to enmeshment
Mentally, we are programmed for the “next” thing. As soon as we achieve something, we move on to our next goal. We worry about financial security now and in the future, so we work long hours and spend many restless nights wondering if it’s enough.
Like many of you, I worked extensive hours to provide a good life for my family. But at the same time, I was missing valuable experiences I could never get back. You only have 18 summers with your children before they become adults, and it took my daughter Jenna’s fight with leukemia to give me the wakeup call I needed. She was only 12 years old at the time, and as I sat next to her hospital bed, I realized that I needed to be with her as much as possible. Something had to change, and I knew there had to be another way.
I wracked my brain for answers and finally realized that the income from my rental properties would cover my expenses. I could stop practicing dentistry, sell my practice, and spend the time I needed with Jenna (she recovered and has grown into a wonderful young woman). Although this was an extremely challenging experience to go through, it changed my life for the better.
Are you following the status quo?
Once they spend years training, practicing, and making sacrifices, many dentists believe that they must live the traditional “lifestyle” of a dentist or doctor. They are driven to have the identity of a successful medical professional who typically owns a big house and luxury cars, sends their children to the “best” schools, vacations in the right places … and also acquires a lot of debt.
Have you ever asked yourself what would happen if you stopped chasing the elusive next target or goal and broke away from the path everyone else follows?
It seems like we are continually told that to do more, we have to be more. What exactly does that mean? In societal terms, being “more” usually means hitting higher financial or material targets, including more revenue, employees, locations, extensive cases, and transactions.
However, this drive is potentially dangerous as we move the goalpost as soon as we hit the last mark. It’s not only possible to lose our identity to our profession, but we also trade our time (our most precious commodity) for dollars, rarely experiencing more financial freedom in the process.
In fact, do you know what Australian nurse Bronnie Ware discovered after many years of working in palliative care? The top two regrets of the dying were wishing that they “had the courage to live a life true to themselves and not the life others expected of them,” and “had not worked so hard.”2
Refocus on purpose
My Five Freedoms model for life is built on the freedom of economics, time, relationships, health, and purpose.3 Here, the pinnacle is measured not by money, but by meaning, significance, and impact. It’s all about how you serve others.
We each have an internal need for contribution, our purpose. And while I have met many professionals who have focused on purpose from their first day in medical school to the present, it is so easy to be swayed by society. So many people seem happy from their social media activity, presentations, activities, and outward appearances. In truth, they may be happy briefly, but they are compelled to do more in a way that’s better than others (impostor syndrome) to sustain this feeling. They will not experience happiness and peace from external accomplishments such as fame, money, respect, and other attributes associated with “success.” Having enough is an inside game that derives from understanding yourself, your work, and the truth that more of the same is not the answer to happiness.
Once you grasp this realization, you’ll experience more prosperity than you ever thought possible. You may do less, but you’ll have much more joy. Sound good?
There is no need to do more or to have more
If you want to take back your life and start controlling your time, stop and reevaluate every aspect of your practice. What can you do to support, facilitate, and elevate your freedom of time?
Liberate yourself from society’s obligations, the naysayers, and the traditional path to financial freedom. There are alternatives available, especially to create cash flow income from tangible investment assets. But it’s up to you to learn more and commit to redefining your life and responsibilities to serve you and your unique identity (not what you think others want and need).
Retirement is not a “someday” event or set goal. It’s a journey that begins now. Are you ready to stop the relentless wanting of more and have inner peace without social confirmation?
Editor's note: This article appeared in the May 2023 print edition of Dental Economics magazine. Dentists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.
- Koretz J. What happens when your career becomes your whole identity. Harvard Business Review. December 26, 2019. https://hbr.org/2019/12/what-happens-when-your-career-becomes-your-whole-identity
- Ware B. The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. Hay House; 2019.
- Phelps D. Retiring on your terms. Dental Economics. March 26, 2023. https://www.dentaleconomics.com/money/retirement/article/14289071/retiring-on-your-terms-break-from-the-majority-and-take-charge-of-your-money