This dentist was caught off guard when some of his fellow professionals became cranky in their middle age. Why, he asks? They're in a great profession that allows them many of life's luxuries. Here are his theories.
Yet they are cranky. They are irate about politics. They are frustrated with taxes. They find fault with the system in which they work. They say the word “economy” and expect to be met with understanding, sympathetic nods. They’re walking through life with slumped shoulders, feeling sorry for themselves because of their tax bracket or whomever is serving as president.
This has been a point of pride with me ever since I became a dentist. I always considered dentistry to be the numero uno profession out there. We have great hours that are under our control. We make a generous living where all of life’s comforts are entirely available. We often get to be our own bosses and in control over who we surround ourselves with every day. Even without much effort, we naturally become reputable members of the community in which we practice. I felt confident that crankiness would not infiltrate the members of our profession. It is just too great a gig to inspire the “woe is me” mentality.
THE TURNING POINT
My confidence was destroyed when I began touring the country and sharing advice about acquiring new patients and creating more team unity. Dentists with tired eyes and an obvious lack of a spark approached me and highlighted their “unique” need to “make things better” in their offices. For them, their problems in life had much to do with “not enough new patients,” “poor case acceptance,” “insurance plans that have lowered their fees,” or, “they don’t yet have a CT.”
These are people who have very genuine stress and very real problems. They’re pushing through life with unease and frustration. They have a true fear of any disruption to their systems because their entire houses (figuratively) were built on very thin foundations. I have a strong desire to help them. I also have a nagging feeling that if I can deliver them “more new patients,” perhaps their problems will not go away.
They have not. While certain problems have gone away, other problems have become amplified.
At the same time, other dentists who seem to have so many more issues are completely content, even hilariously self-deprecating. The more that I study different offices and different scenarios, the more I realize that “problems” are consistent among all offices. No one is perfect, and no one has it completely together. Every office, (including mine, for sure), has its share of problems. However, it seems as though each individual has very different attitudes toward their profession and their life.
The cranky ones have two consistent characteristics: 1) debt, and 2) an obsession toward things out of their control.
Let’s talk about debt. After completing a professional education that often requires significant student debt, many have found it OK to borrow money for a house, car, practice, building for that practice, CEREC, CT, and several 12-month same-as-cash pieces of furniture for the house. Every single one of these have been repeatedly marketed to us as “good debt.” Whether it is or not does not really matter. Many dentists, and high-income professionals in general, possess quite a collection of debt, and therefore, a collection of monthly fixed financial obligations.
All of this is fine when all is well, but they begin to cause stress when, well, frankly, life happens—several slow months at the office, an emergency repair, or an unexpected health crisis. It is simply too common to see dentists with substantial income fall into states of despair and anxiety when these life hurdles occur. Their monthly financial commitments are too great and offer very little wiggle room during times of crisis. If you’re already in a lot of debt, spend a couple of years living like you did in college. Pack a lunch, exercise in your home, avoid Target and Starbucks, and pay off stuff. Spend just a little time with a loan repayment calculator online to see how small increases in your monthly debt payments could drastically reduce the number of years in the term of that loan.
Now let’s talk about the way they fixate on the uncontrollable. This is a very natural part of many people’s psyches. I believe this is because, when we fixate on the economy, politics, or the insurance PPO, we immediately pardon ourselves of any blame. In contrast, the happiest people I know are fixated on the many aspects of life that are directly in their control. If their kids do not behave, they could blame the TV or video games, but instead, these happy people look at the amount and quality of time they spend with their kids. If they repeatedly hire “duds” to work the front desk, they don’t blame “how hard it is to find good help nowadays,” but instead devote time to becoming stronger interviewers or finding better ways to market a good job opportunity. Cranky people devote their mental energy toward things they can’t control, while happy people devote it to things they can control.
That’s it. Two things. Debt, and attention to what we can and can’t control. It might be a good time to ask yourself where you fall in the spectrum between cranky and happy, and then if necessary, challenge yourself to move into a better position on that spectrum.