A redefinition of retirement can fully encompass the present as well as our plans for the future.
Like most fantasies, the reality often fails to live up to the thought of it. So it goes with retirement. I have spoken with many fellow dentists who regale in their high expectations of the enjoyment they will have during their golden years. Once in the retirement mode, some thrive while others struggle. How often have we heard stories of men who have retired and died almost immediately after leaving their work? Likewise, I have known dentists who have “retired,” only to regret the decision, and ultimately return to the work that had so much meaning for them.
As a baby boomer, I have certainly toyed with the idea of “hanging it up.” But something continues to claw at me, preventing the departure from my pediatric dental practice. I know it’s not the money, since I have carefully planned my economic future and find myself in a secure situation. It’s not the day in and day out management of the practice. As with many of my peers, I often find management to be the most trying aspect of my professional life. I’d like to think it’s not an ego thing. I have enough “other” things going on to hold my own sense of self in good stead. What is it, then, that keeps me filling baby teeth? I believe work brings me value that is much greater than money. After 30 years of providing care for children, the satisfaction of seeing patients better, both dentally as well as mentally, satisfies me in a way that my CPA will never be able to quantify. In short, I still love what I do.
On the other hand, I am now 56 years old. I still have lots of living ahead of me, or at least I’m planning my time that way. I have put one child through college, have another in his third year, and still have a 12-year-old at home. One might look at that lineup and think, “Well, he has a few more years at the old grindstone!” Fortunately, this is not the case for me. I actually don’t “have to be” at work anymore. But, ever increasingly, I am aware of my mortality, and want to create a balance in my life with many other nondental interests. I have now dedicated 34 of my 56 years to the study and practice of dentistry. Currently, I enjoy an excellent state of health, but I still consider the inevitability of the end of my days. This is not a dark or gloomy prospect, but rather one that inspires some introspection. I want my “second life,” as I like to consider it, to be as meaningful to me as my first one. I don’t feel that I need to repeat (or continue) my “first life” until the day I die - quite the contrary. I look forward with eager anticipation, planning how to spend fruitfully the balance of my years.
Are lives really divided into two distinct time categories - work and fun? It seems the mindset of many dentists I know is that these two categories cannot overlap. First you work and then, once you stop working, you can have fun. Hence, the dream of retirement grows out of the expectation that, at the end of your gainfully employed days, life will present a myriad of possibilities for fun, fun, and more fun. I do not believe this is how it actually works.
How does one reconcile the enjoyment of work with the limitless future that could include anything, ranging from writing to travel, daily rounds of golf, teaching, music, bicycling, learning a foreign language, or any other activity that holds one’s interest and stimulates one’s passion? I believe it involves a redefinition of retirement - one that fully encompasses our present and future. In other words, if one considers that “the future” is not really years away, but rather is emerging in successive moments of our lives, planning for the future is an activity of the current moment. If you aren’t skiing, doing martial arts, or writing a book right now, what makes you think you will be doing any of those things when you are 55, 62, or any other age you believe will be your “golden years”? Have we not all had the experience of saying we can start something “later,” only to discover that a convenient “later” never seems to arrive?
My recommendation is to start your retirement immediately and don’t quit doing what you love - your work! To many Americans, retirement means the end of working for a living. For many men, this also may signify the end of his worth or meaning in life. Could it not mean something entirely different, such as beginning the rest of your life? I believe it not only can be that, it should be. Greg Stanley of Whitehall Management has long proposed “retiring in practice” instead of retiring out of practice. His premise is that if you need more time to do what you want to do, then take that time by working less. This might entail finding an associate, or simply taking a day off your schedule each week or every other week. Perhaps you could hire a locum tenens to cover your practice occasionally, providing that extra time you would like to have. Still another choice would be to become a locum tenens yourself. Twelve years ago, I brought in a partner so that we could share my solo practice. My goal at that time was to create more time for my nondental interests. The plan has exceeded my expectations and goals. Each of us now work alternating weeks. Usually when I mention this in lectures, note-taking ceases and faces look up with either quizzical or amazed expressions. I cannot discount this marvelous schedule as one of the many reasons I continue to love my work. Twenty-six weeks of vacation per year can help you forget those irritations at work. More importantly, though, is the fact that the schedule has allowed me to move into new areas of work (and play) that have both broadened and brought enormous value to my life. I have developed new careers as a speaker on the dental continuing education circuit, and a consultant for private practices. In addition, I have found the time to pursue interests in several nondental activities, such as developing a couples retreat (to promote healthy personal relationships). My wife and I facilitate these retreats. My current working arrangement also has provided the opportunity for extensive travel, including a five-month sabbatical from my practice while my family and I lived in Salzburg, Austria. All of these are things I had previously thought only possible once I had retired from my practice. When I wrote that people tend to separate their lives into two categories of work and fun, I was not exempt from that thinking. Although I sometimes joke about it, I consider myself to be “semi-retired.” With the free time I have created, I can now sit on the Council of Trustees of my church, volunteer my time as a math club coach at my son’s school, have time for my wife, stay in touch with my dear friends, begin anew my practice of the violin (this time with my son), and remain healthy and fit. All of this, plus I remain active in my private practice - by choice. It’s a plan that has worked for me and can work for anyone committed to making it happen now instead of waiting for some nebulous future date.
Several new books and many articles are now available on the idea of a meaningful future, no doubt spurred on by the baby boomers’ entrance into their 50s and 60s. Two books that I have found particularly helpful are “The New Retirement” by Mitch Anthony and “Claiming Your Place at the Fire” by Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro. I strongly suggest both to anyone who is facing a similar thought process about the future. In addition to the philosophy of “retiring now,” the books delve in depth into attitude adjustments that will not only ease the transition but enhance it. As we move into the time in our lives when our bodies will become more fragile and less flexible, it becomes the realm of our minds to assume the role of being more flexible and less fragile. When I read ideas, such as being influential rather than powerful, I immediately grasped the possibility of being a useful “elder,” rather than a weakening and useless discard of society. When I read about the importance of nurturing, as opposed to “maintaining” lifelong friendships, I picked up the phone and reconnected with influential people in my life - people who still care for me as I do for them. When I read about determining who I genuinely am (based on my life, not on my dreams), and which future environment will fit me best (based on my values, contacts, and needs as opposed to sun, safety, and tee times), I began to formulate a vision of how and where my future will be. As I considered the chapter on volunteerism, I saw the opportunity to serve in ways that few people can. It came as no surprise that continuing within my practice (even if at a decreased level) is a part of that future. Other parts include making time to be with lifelong friends, pursuing delayed interests, and volunteering my time within my dental specialty. I feel that many people can sort and stack cans at a food bank, but not everyone can restore the teeth of children in a caring way. My volunteer plans will serve others at the highest level of which I am capable, plus maintain a passion in my life by staying connected with my profession.
Whether you are planning your future or not, it is unfolding before you as you read this article. How you choose to shape that future is entirely in your hands. If you begin to live the future now, it will not come as a big surprise when you choose to slow down or transition out of your dental practice. Consider what interests have the potential for truly being sustainable and genuinely of interest to you. Perhaps you have always dreamed about trying repairing cars, or doing pottery so that you can continue working with your hands - just not in patients’ mouths. Another possibility might be to respond to the crucial need that dental schools have for experienced instructors. Again, this would enable you to stay in touch with the professional aspect of your life without having to maintain a practice. You might seize the moment and learn tennis, piano, French, or even ballroom dancing with your wife. In conversations with fellow dentists, many have related that their dreams of playing golf every day failed to fulfill the expectations they had held. Once an activity becomes a daily routine, it assumes the role of “new job.” Reports from wives are not always so encouraging either. They often tell stories of their husbands “just sitting around the house all day long.” It might come as a surprise that keeping your fingers wet in some innovative or modified form will do much to keep your future bright. Whether your practice is a part of your future or not, moving ahead immediately into new areas of interest that have been forestalled by your commitment to dentistry will give you the chance to try on your plan for size to see if it really fits you, or if your dream of daily rounds of golf will sustain you. No matter what plan you have for your future, I suggest you begin your retirement now, and if you are still passionate about your profession, don’t quit doing this important work.
Dr. Greg Psaltis is in private pediatric dental practice in Olympia, Wash. He is widely published, and lectures nationally and internationally. In addition, he consults with private practitioners on team building, office systems, and communication. His principal interest is in the area of quality of life. He and his wife, Mary Ellen, also sponsor and facilitate a couples retreat to enhance personal relationships. Dr. Psaltis can be reached at the couple’s Web site at www.psaltis.info, by e-mail at email@example.com, or by phone at (360) 413-5760.