When he heard himself say, “I only have to do it for eight more years, til the kids are gone …” and thought he might throw up at that thought, Mark realized he HAD to do something differently. But, what finally shocked him into action was overhearing his young son’s answer to a stranger’s innocent question about what the boy wanted to be when he grew up. Mark watched his son’s usual enthusiasm drain and his lively spirit deflate, as he kicked at the grass and said:
Mark had been practicing dentistry for almost 23 years when I first met him. He said to me, “It’s alright, I mean, I make a good living at it, so I probably shouldn’t complain. But is this IT? Really, is this what the rest of my life is going to be like?”
He had fallen into a malaise, every patient seemed annoying, every day was the same. Frankly, he was sick of it. He was thinking about selling his practice and doing something else. The problem was, he couldn’t think of what else he would like to do. Certainly not something else that would pay him the wages he had become accustomed to and supported the lifestyle he and his family were living. But, he and his wife agreed, he couldn’t keep going on like this anymore. It had become a source of constant friction between them and his friends were sick of hearing him complain about his job. One of them said to him, “Listen, Mark, you’ve got to make a change, you can’t live like this anymore.” In fact, he overheard his son say one day when a stranger asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I don’t know but I sure don’t want to be like my dad. He’s miserable and, if that’s what work is like, I’d rather do anything else!”
The truth was that Mark didn’t hate his work, he was burned out and it had lost all its meaning for him. And, he could see his miserable attitude was taking a toll on his staff, too. He was grumbling a lot, he had started to think of his patients as problems. He no longer saw them as people he was serving. He even asked me, “What difference does any of this make? If I look into one more mouth, I might just punch someone.” He noticed his attitude was wearing off on his staff. A patient complained to him that the receptionist didn’t seem to care anymore, it was like she was just clocking her hours, counting the days until she could retire. In fact, that was how Mark felt, counting the number of months left until his son was out of the house and he could just retire and do something, anything, else. He heard himself saying, “it’s just another eight years” and then he would feel sick to his stomach. How on earth was he going to drag himself in here for another eight years!
“Uh-oh,” thought Mark. “If patients are noticing, I’d better make sure we all clean up our acts. I don’t want it to get around that we’re not into this anymore. Even if it’s true, I can’t let the people around me know. At least, until I figure out what I’m going to do instead.”
Initially, he came to me to figure out what to do next. He was planning on selling his practice but wanted me to help him find out what, as he put it, he wanted to be when he grew up. I agreed, he needed a change.
We had a discovery session. I dug into what was driving his unhappiness, what had fueled his original decision to be a dentist. We talked about how you can’t burn out if you were never on fire. I made a suggestion. I spoke to Mark about an organization that did dental implant replacements for boys who had been brutalized in a foreign militia. Basically, when these young men were captured and forced into servitude, the leaders yanked their front teeth right out of their heads. It had been a cruel way to brutalize them and to make them docile, compliant slaves. It stripped them of their dignity and showed them – “If we can do this, we’ll do anything to you!” Imagine being a young man, with no teeth, no self-esteem, no hope.
The organization I introduced Mark to does dental implant repairs on these boys and young men. We agreed, he’d give it a go. One dental implant repair and he’d see what he thought. If he didn’t like it, we’d try something else. Anything was worth a try.
The moment Mark saw that boy smile, he says his life was forever changed. Never again would he think he was “just a dentist.” Now, when someone asks Mark what he does, his answer is “I rebuild young men’s self-esteem.” That’s an answer that transformed the way he views his work.
But, guess what? It’s not just Mark who was changed. It was his staff, too. When Mark returned to his office and told his staff what he had done to change this boy’s life, they wept together. Oh, that. That’s what it means to have the ability to smile. Self-esteem. They had forgotten what it was they offered their patients. They each started to see their patients just a little differently. “I see that petulant teenage girl just a little differently now,” says the dental hygienist. “She’s nervous about whether the boy she likes in algebra will like her back. All the teasing her brothers did when she was a little girl, calling her Jack (short for “jackrabbit” since her front teeth are just the tiniest bit longer than the others) has taken a toll on her self-esteem.” Nicole, the dental hygienist, makes a point to tell her something that makes her laugh and then tells her how beautiful her smile is. The girl blushes, but looks up a little from under her long brown eyelashes, a little hope restored that, in fact, she IS beautiful when she smiles.
Mark, himself, is changed. And so is every patient who comes through the office who gets to hear the story about the boy whose life he changed (and the next one and the next one, since Mark has continued to volunteer his time to that organization over the years). They all want to know how they can help. You see, Mark’s enthusiasm is infectious now (just as his sullen mood was). Everyone around him wants to do a little something to make these boys’ lives better. Some of them donate money to support the organization, others get inspired themselves to find a way to boost someone else’s self-esteem. Almost every one of them leaves thinking how lucky they are to get to be a patient of Mark’s – someone who is doing good in the world. They are glad to refer their friends to him and almost always tell the story about what he is doing to make a difference in these boys’ lives. No longer do the patients complain when Mark takes a week off for a vacation to refresh before he does one of these implants – in fact, his patients often ask the receptionist “Oh, is Mark doing one of those boys this week?” when they can’t get in on their preferred date.
It doesn’t end at work, though. His best friend introduced him at a sports bar as, “the guy with the best job in the world.” Everyone wanted to know what kind of work he did that would make for that kind of introduction.
But, Mark told me the best part of all of this was one day when he was in the kitchen with his wife and he heard his son telling a friend in the other room “That’s a picture of one of the boys I told you my dad fixed up.” Although he couldn’t hear what the other boy said, when his son replied, “I know, right, I want to do something awesome like my Dad when I grow up.” The touch of his wife’s hand on his helped to loosen the lump that had formed in his throat and he told me that was when he knew he was doing exactly what he was supposed to with his life and showing his son the way, too. He said, “THIS is what it’s all about!”
Want to love your work the way Mark does and show your kids a better life? You can. Drop me a note, I’d love to help you find the way.