A Voice in the Arena: Momentum Along Paths of Meaning by Dr. Chad Foster

A Voice in the Arena: Momentum Along Paths of Meaning   

by Chad Foster, DDS, MS, editorial director

I was reading a post on a popular online forum where the topic of having an exit strategy was being discussed. There was great information shared and some diverse opinions voiced on the hows and whys of such a strategy. The thread also specifically took the path of discussing burnout—how the stress, competition and overall working conditions of being an orthodontist today is causing some orthodontists in the early or middle stages of their career to seek an exit. The post has stayed on my mind a bit, so I’ll share my thoughts.

First of all, although we’re blessed to have the privilege to get to do what we do, there’s no doubt practicing orthodontics is challenging. Throw on top of that leading a team, managing patients and dealing with all of the burdens that come with ownership, and the potential for burnout is totally understandable. As captains of our ships, we all go through peaks and valleys in our practice that affect our emotional health. As much as I love what I do, there are periods of time—sometimes an afternoon, sometimes a couple of weeks—where I feel burned out and my labor of love seems more like just a labor I just endure. Luckily, the good times outnumber these hard times, but that doesn’t make the thick of the hard times feel any less tough.

Serial self-improvement junkies
At the expense of making a generalization, I believe most orthodontists are self-improvement junkies. I’ve written much about how many of us are uber-driven, goal-setting, book-reading, delayed-gratification-enduring overachievers. that characteristic is powerful in regard to the end goal of achievement, but it also makes us wired to crave constant forward movement along paths of meaning. That feeling of forward movement often feeds our psyche to a greater extent than realizing the end goal. Can you think back on times in your own life where you have worked long and hard to achieve something you placed high value on—something of real substance—only to reach the stage of achieving it and, after the initial fleeting satisfaction, feeling a bit … underwhelmed?

The reality is that for most things in life, it’s not the attaining or achieving that makes you happy but the progression along the path. The process of setting a goal and attempting to attain it provides sustainable positive emotions that accompany us through life. It’s the momentum of progress that provides meaning. I can vouch for that in my own life.

I think that at times in our practices—because of busyness, stress, comparison to others, etc.—we lose sight of the meaningful opportunities, or paths, that are available to us in our craft. There are also, relatively speaking, less meaningful paths to go down, and I’ll discuss one in particular: In my opinion, there is a big push in our profession to be numbers-driven just for the sake of numbers.

Matters beyond metrics
Let me start by saying there’s nothing wrong with wanting to have a large practice (or practices) and working hard to have your highest aim of financial freedom met and then some. I am a big fan of creating financial abundance for my family and indulging in our own preferred flavors of the nicer things in life. But regardless of your profession, defining your primary path as financial by limiting your day-to-day aim and measuring progress by these numbers and metrics seems like a questionable path to true long-term meaning. Money matters, period. But what if money were not the primary path, but rather a corollary that accompanied a more meaningful path?

Those more meaningful paths are available to us as orthodontists. They are why many of us feel we operate within the best profession in the world. It’s also true that when these paths are trodden with hunger and persistence, the financial rewards always follow close behind. In my opinion, many of those available paths involve identifying an area or areas of passion within our specialty and investing in yourself. They involve betting on yourself and committing to your own path of self-improvement.

This could take the form of being the most loving and caring doctor that any patient has ever met, becoming the best clinician in the world, being the most generous and outspoken giver in your community, being the greatest leader and motivator of any team in the world, or constantly innovating and iterating in the specific niche that is most you. The list goes on for the highest aims available.

The path that lasts
Are the aims mentioned above a bit idealistic? Yes. How realistic is it that you’d ever meet the endpoint of achievement in one of these areas? Not likely. How would you quantify that, even if you did? Not necessary. The point is to commit to a higher aim that uniquely resonates with you and to make tangible progress that affects you both personally and professionally. When this is done, I believe two things are true: First, you will find a sustainable source of positive emotions significant enough to more than let you endure the tough times that will come. Second, if your effort on one or more of those paths is resilient and enduring, the financial payoff from achieving a level of greatness in that area will be realized.

If the life path you’re carving through your efforts at your practice is principally measured through practice metrics and numbers, it seems like a plan that for many could be summarized simply: Max out, burn out, get out.

There’s nothing wrong with planning your eventual exit—even an early one!—and that timeline could be very different for different people. However, when the focus becomes improving yourself in an area of passion that has the secondary benefit of financial reward when done well, you now have the ability to carve an enduring path of meaning. Pair your drive in this regard with attention also to self-care and work-life balance (which will always be challenged on your path) and you are likely headed in the right direction.

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