Who are you, if not a dentist?

Personal advice for dentists in their prime or twilight years of practice

Personal advice for dentists in their prime or twilight years of practice

Alan Goldstein, DMD

On September 4, 2001, attendants wheeled me into the operating room at Lenox Hill Hospital to undergo quadruple bypass surgery-a serious procedure to be sure, but hardly out of the ordinary. I had full expectations of a complete recovery. Some hours later, feeling very groggy, I woke with a very strange sensation in my right hand. It was numb!

Before losing consciousness in the operating room, I remember telling the anesthetist that I was a right-hand-dominant dentist and to use my left arm for the IV. Apparently, he didn't listen. Folks assured me the feeling would return. It did, five harrowing months later-five months of torture when I sat and wrote in my journal each morning, trying to answer the same question: Who am I, if not a dentist?

That is a heavy question, whether it is raised by sudden health issues or, as we will discuss here, by choice. In either case, you are forced to ask deep questions about whether your essential identity lies in your profession, your title, your degree, or your inclinations and preferences. Or does it quite simply lie how you have been directed by life, family, friends and, sometimes, just by luck?

You might be in your forties and clinical practice just isn't doing it for you, or perhaps you still love clinical practice but staff management and the business of dentistry is leaving you cold. Maybe you are in your fifties or sixties, and health concerns or personal relationship problems are piling up, forcing you to adjust your commitment to your practice. You're not as mentally sharp as you once were; your physical dexterity isn't what it used to be. You're not ready for Boot Hill, but the challenging economic environment is putting pressure on your old ideas of retirement. How do you change? You've heard the old adage All change is good change, but you don't really believe that. You wonder, "What lies on the other side of these good changes?" Your life up to now has been good and predictable. Just thinking about change can keep you up at night. Your spouse and family are looking forward to using up all the time-shares you have amassed in Aruba and all the shopping trips you'll be able to join them on. Is that all there is?

The good news is that it doesn't really matter what you think about change. There is no booth review on life. There are no do-overs. Change is going to happen, whether we plan it or not. But we are not powerless, not by a long shot. What matters is that we examine and reassess what we thought our life goals were. Do you want a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park, or just enough money to get by comfortably? Do you want to learn a new language or write a novel? Do you dream of climbing the seven great peaks of the world or planting the perfect garden? As we age (and change), we can either accept the goals we set in our twenties and deny that anything is different, or examine that list with mindfulness. We can dig deeper and ask what we are really after-what it was about those old, extravagant goals that fed our souls.

We can ask probing, purposeful questions at any age. But for many of us, life takes over and propels us forward at breathtaking speed. We feel like unconscious passengers on a professional and psychological bullet train. Family, friends, and professional obligations take over and their demands don't leave a lot of room for deeper considerations of real value. That is why the later part of our lives is a real gift, an opportunity to slow down, really slow down, and think about our place in the world-not only what we have done but what we will do. When we assess our purpose, the world will begin to look different and clearer. We will look different to ourselves and others, too.

So what is your purpose? What do you intend to do that betters the lot of the world? It's a big question, I know, and it's tough to confront a mystery. But it's a great way to think about the next phase of our lives. The challenge is how to marry our purpose (a big-picture question) with concrete goals. The goal language can get a little dreamy but can become manageable if we parse it by categories. Here is one way of doing that:

• Personal goals

− Relationships

− Family

− Financial stability

− Learning and educational aspirations

These are just a few personal categories, but not a bad place to start. Please feel free to add to, delete, or totally rework the categories. Learning is an essential component of any purposeful activity. "What is your learning edge?" is not a bad question to pose. Standing in front of a mirror with shoulders back and chest out, answer this question for yourself. Hearing your voice adds clarity and power to your purpose. We are never too old to be who we are, or who we are meant to be. We must not confuse feeling with potential. Potential is always there, just as a beautiful sculpture lies somewhere inside a rough hunk of granite. It's our job to define it and fulfill it. We know there's no certainty in human life, so why not figure out how to enjoy the years ahead?


Alan Goldstein, DMD, is a 1968 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, as well as a certified professional coach and a member of the International Coaches Federation and the Dental Coaches Association. He maintains a general dental practice and a coaching practice in New York City. He can be contacted at www.llaama1@mindspring.com or www.coachingpractice.com.

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