Careers aren’t upward straight lines, they’re waves

Last night, I watched from across Elliot Bay as a sea of colors illuminated the sky. One second past midnight brought a burst of reds and blues and purples and whites, proudly announcing that the New Year has come once again.

Dr. Vaughn

I truly love the holidays, that’s for certain. I think they are so valuable for a lot of reasons, but perhaps my favorite is for reflection. The holidays are the perfect time for reflection. On who we are, how far we’ve come, where we want to go, and ultimately who we want to become.

New Year.

New You.

But what happens when the result of your reflection is not at all what you had hoped for? What if. . . you don’t really like who you are right now or even where you’re headed.

What happens when the thought of a New Year and its new challenges and opportunities doesn’t excite you anymore.

“Is this it?”

“Is this as good as it gets?”

“Am I . . . burning out?”

I wish I could say that this doesn’t happen. I wish I could say that for most of us in this profession, it continues to be the best decision we’ve ever made, with no regrets, happy every day, love, love, love.

But I can’t.

Because the reality that we already know is that our profession is extremely demanding. It’s stressful. Emotionally draining. Not for the faint of heart. But the other, much more troubling reality today is that we aren’t supposed to talk about that part. We’re supposed to be tough. Be professional. Never show your cards.

That, of course,  precipitates into more stress, more anxiety, which ultimately becomes the yellow brick road to a potential career ending tragedy that we call “burnout.”

Well today, I’d like us to challenge that. Because the path to a rewarding, healthy career is lined with openness and honesty about those ups and those downs. We need to talk about them. Bring them to life. Because despite what you may see every day on Instagram, the real truth of our profession is that none of our careers is a healthy happy upward straight line. It’s a wave. A series of them. We go up, we go down, we’re all over the place.

Ask me how I know.

Maybe it was the time that retired anesthesiologist looked me dead in the eye and affirmed that “you may be a technician, but you’re no real doctor.” Maybe it’s my buddy down the street right now drilling out the deep dark distal box of a #15 disaster while his three hygienists stand at the doorway waiting on an exam. Or maybe it was that time my co-resident was told by his office manager to just do what he’s told because ultimately “associates are easily replaceable.”

If you think you’re alone, you’re wrong. You are not alone. And that’s the first step to digging yourself out of a burnout situation. Knowing that you’re not the only one

Look, I get it. We all get it. And we get it because at some point, we’ve all felt the same way. I’ll be the first one to tell you that I’m often haunted by that seemingly oh-so-casual question of “do you enjoy dentistry?” There’s supposed to be a correct answer. And although I can tell you the time, date and place of every moment I was asked that question in the past year, my answer will often change.  And what I’ve really learned this year is that it’s okay that it changes. It’s okay to not enjoy every single day of your career. What’s not okay though, is to pretend like you do and never tell anyone otherwise.

When I was a third year dental student serving on the ASDA Editorial Board, the national President of ASDA took her own life in the middle of her final year of dental school. Her name was Jiwon Lee. The news came as a terrible, heart wrenching shock. It hurts even now to think about how things might have been different if she had an outlet. It hurts to think about how things might have been different if we were more open and honest in this profession about the struggles our peers are likely facing every day.

We have to be better.

We have to be the voice that our profession really needs. Let’s talk about the things that no one thinks is okay to talk about. If you’re out there suffering right now and no one knows it, you need to change that.

There is some good news in all of this. It’s that you can beat it. You can overcome the stress and anxiety and burnout. There’s a never ending list of resources out there, but ultimately you have to first recognize that you’re struggling, and then you have to take action.

Sometimes, that means taking a vacation. Sometimes that means a shorter work week. Sometimes, that means picking up a hobby, a new exercise program, prayer or mindfulness. Sometimes it’s making time in your life for creativity. And sometimes, it can be as simple as a refreshed perspective, seeing your patients and coworkers through a different lens. For me personally, it’s talking it out openly with my wife and my friends. It’s spending time with my family. It’s writing articles just like this one.

The point is, you need to find your outlet. And when you finally climb out of the hole (and you will climb out), it’s just as important to continue participating in those healthy outlets so that your resilience continues to grow stronger, and when the next inevitable wave of stress and burnout rolls along . . . you’ll be ready.

I’ve thought a lot about dentistry this year. The ups and the downs. It has the potential to be the most rewarding career on the planet. But it can just as easily cause enormous detriment on someone’s life. So much so that it can make someone feel completely powerless, like they have no one to talk to and nowhere to go.

Everyone has a place in this profession. But not everyone finds it at the same time or stage in their career.

If you aren’t happy with where you are right now, keep searching for your right place. The worst thing that I can imagine in this world is to spend your entire career dreading the commute to work every morning. That doesn’t have to be you, and it shouldn’t. So today, tomorrow, and every day after that, lean on your support system, use your outlets, and continue the search for your place in the profession. If we look hard enough, someday we’ll all find it.

Editor’s note: This article, republished with permission, originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of The Nugget, a publication of the Sacramento District Dental Society.

Dr. Joe Vaughn is a general dentist who graduated from the University of Alabama and currently practices in Seattle, Washington. He works both as an associate in a private practice as well as in a public health clinic. Dr. Vaughn currently serves in roles with both the Seattle King County Dental Society and the Washington State Dental Association. He is passionate about organized dentistry, writing, and talking with other dentists about the many issues we are facing in our profession today. He welcomes any and all of your questions/comments and can be reached at jkvaughn44@gmail.com.

3 comments

  • Well said, Dr. Joe! You are wise beyond your years. Took me about until age 52 to figure that out. Dentists don’t like to talk about the Dark Side of dentistry, they pretend that everything is great in their offices when they’re struggling to make payroll, short staffed, dealing with threats from patients That are more often than not about money and not treatment, and stressed to take care of everything the office requires well taking care of their families. There are a number of women dentist organizations where honest discussions have been priceless. I think it’s harder for the men to talk about it, but thank you for being a leader and speaking out about the elephant in the room: Dentistry is really hard, and we are all in this together to support each other and take care of our communities.
    Be well! And continue to talk about the problems and challenges, even as you create more joy by pursuing things you love and taking time for yourself, your family, and to reflect.

  • Hi Joe,

    This is a very good post, thank you for writing it. You are right, we don’t often talk about mental health in dental school and after graduation. In fact, I remember specifically when a classmate from dental school asked why we didn’t get to take a ‘mental health’ day when our colleagues in medical school could. It’s especially important to support new dentists and dental students right now- whose expectations of dentistry have completely changed. We are entering a troubling economic market with a potentially high unemployment rate. More than ever- it is important that as a dental society and state association we support each other, address mental health and provide valuable mentorship. Your article is a step in the right direction. Thanks!!

  • well said doc – getting support from someone when you are down and cherishing the success are fuel of our lives… so as a dental community we must respect and support each other…

    hope to see more from you…

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