On Making Change, Getting Off the Beaten Path, and Taking a Career Break
One of the great perks about blogging about my dental career is that I have met some amazing people along the way. Not only are they inspiring, interesting people, but they are also people who have decided they want something different out of life. They are people who have decided to take risks to bring more joy into their lives. They are people who have decided not to settle for their existing conditions because it’s easier to stay put than to change. I’m thrilled that one of those amazing people is now my latest guest blogger! Her name is Ritu, and if you are stuck in your career, she will inspire you with her story. Ritu and I went to dental school together, but we never even met! Oddly enough, we met years later through this great blogging community. I love her writing, and I also love that today she gets to tell you her story of how she was able to make the leap out of dentistry, something I know many of you are anxiously awaiting in your own lives.
While Ritu’s motivations to leave may have been different from mine, we did share the feeling that there was something else for us. We all share a few common things in career change; and you’ll see from her story that it takes time, there is never the perfect time to make the move, and the key to creating change is to start somewhere– finding other things you like to do to open the door to your future. By the way, she has written two amazing books with techniques that helped her change! Check out her bio at the end for the scoop.
About three months ago, I did what I thought was inconceivable – I sold my practice.
For a long time, it was a vague thought I couldn’t even articulate. Then came the realization that this was what I wanted to do, followed by years of back-and-forth between I can’t and I shouldn’t. But when you decide, however begrudgingly, to start being honest with yourself and living as true to yourself as you can, you open a door that cannot be closed. As you walk in, you go from thinking I can’t to how do I make this happen.
In a sense I’ve known for a long time I wanted to do things other than practicing dentistry. But when I hit the 5-year mark of practice ownership (8 years of practicing total), my restlessness grew and I hit a low point. Like any good professional who was staring at frustration, burnout or whatever that empty sensation you feel, you decide the answer is to work harder.
I’ve always been a firm believer that change starts on the inside, so I began with taking small steps. I started running. I started writing, for fun. I made more effort to reconnect with friends. I also increased focus on my practice, improving systems, taking CE, and doing fun projects. The thought of selling seemed impossible and scary, so I did the best I could to improve things and ignored the voice inside that was saying this isn’t for me. Start where you are, right? Who knew, things could turn around.
And turn around they did. In the next few years, I joined a running club and made new friends. I turned from couch potato to ultra-marathoner. I started a couple of blogs, because writing was a great outlet and I discovered I liked it. I had a fee-for-service practice, I worked 3-3.5 days, had a stable, reliable team who helped me build great relationships with patients and provide great dental care. Just like any other job, there were good days and bad, but we sailed along. All was well.
Or so I thought. I just couldn’t get that voice in my head to stop talking. Instead of ignoring it, I decided I should accept what it was saying, and keep moving forward in spite of it. This was, at times, frustrating, and at others, totally defeating. But I kept working on it. I journaled, I made lists, I sought advice from those who were older and wiser, I read books, whatever I could think of to feel more at peace. And at times I did. But it was getting clearer that I had to make a change. Did I hate dentistry? No. Did I like owning a practice? Sometimes. Did I know what else I wanted to do? Not yet. I just knew I had to change where I was now.
Now…what? That was a question I kept asking and “sell the practice” still seemed illogical and financially irresponsible. So I kept going, every day trying to focus on how good I had it, how grateful I should be. I even started to meditate, just a few minutes every day, in hopes of feeling more calm. Around the same time, I was getting burnt out with running, so I decided I needed something totally new, something I could get excited about and get out of the rut in which I was stuck. I needed a fresh start. And so, because I’d been toying with the idea for a while anyway, I published a book.
Here I was, back at square one, diving into a new industry with no background, experience or connections. And then there was the writing, and making time for writing with two young kids and my practice. But within a year, I did it. It was an amazing feeling of accomplishment.
The following year, something else happened. I paid off my practice loan. I hit 40. Three people I had known, either patients or mutual friends, died unexpectedly at a young(er) age. I read Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, as well as a tall stack of books that all seemed to telling me the same thing: life is short, and if I want things to change, I would have to be the one to do it.
The bells were ringing loud and clear. Something shifted. I started talking about selling the practice more often with my husband. While he had always been supportive, the potential financial fallout was too intimidating for us both. But now, he sensed I was ready. I dragged my feet for a few more months, saving furiously yet wondering and doubting. Doing my best at work while having all of this in the background drained me each and every day. I was writing my second book at the time, and my progress practically stalled. I’d go days without writing, my moods were up and down, and I constantly felt a black cloud over me. I was waiting for the perfect time, a time when I would be sure that this was the right step.
Then one day, I realized there would be no perfect time, because it didn’t exist. Just like there was no perfect time when I bought my practice, when I had kids, ran my first marathon or wrote my first book. So I wrote an email that eventually started the sale process. Three months later, and after almost 10 years of ownership, I sold my practice.
A few weeks after the sale and my contracted transition period, I went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat. No phones, talking, reading or music, and ten hours of meditation every day. After the last few intense months, I thought this would be a fitting way to decompress and reflect on life, and I did. But alas, there were no epiphanies, no divine reassurance. It was, however, one of the best experiences of my life.
Over the next few weeks, it felt weird not to be at the office, doing what I had done for so long, but I don’t miss it. And I’ve given myself permission not to think about what’s next for a little while. This is challenging for someone like me, who’s always planned or had a plan. Meditation reminds one to get comfortable in the face of uncertainty and to stay present, but my practical, planner side wants the security of knowing what my next career move is, because for certain, I am not done.
This is the line I walk across every day as I take my “career break”, but I know two things: one, I have no regrets; and two, to focus on the present and do the best I can, today.
Ritu Rao is a dentist and writer. Whether running an ultramarathon or her own business, she condenses others’ wisdom and her own to spread her message: small steps are the key to personal change. She is also the author of The Light Shift: 21 Simple Ways to Make Your Days Interesting, Get Unstuck and Beat the Daily Grind. and just released The Energy Shift: Increase Your Energy and Do More of What You Want Every Day. Visit her website Riturao.com to find out more about her and how to shift your life. She lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband and two children.