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.

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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.

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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.

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46 thoughts on “On Making Change, Getting Off the Beaten Path, and Taking a Career Break

  1. Sold my practice at 50. It was the best decision I could have ever made. When you own a dental practice, it ends up owning you. Dentistry is a tough gig . It destroys your back and neck. Now, I have my freedom back

      1. I practiced 24 years -I owned my practice for 19 years. I have only been free 5 months. However my health (mental and physical) has dramatically improved. Now I am free to travel so I have been seeing family and friends. Now I can go to the beach any time I wish. Like you, I hated the call part. I frequently got calls on the weekends for non-emergencies. I made a decision about 8 years ago that I would save a lot of money so that I wouldn’t have to be chained to the chair. What’s nice about dentistry is that given a high salary, it is possible to leave in your 50s if you plan for it.

        1. Oh wow! It’s so fresh for you! Super huge congrats!!! I’m so glad to hear that you feel better too. Would you ever want to share your story in a blog post? So many people would find it so inspirational. I have a few thoughts about how we can do it if you aren’t up for writing anything. Let me know, and I’ll email you!

  2. 19 years in the game, don’t have the guts to leave yet. Feel like throwing myself under a bus most days 😪

    1. I am sorry you are feeling so badly-I have been there. I just started taking baby steps at first to get out. Be sure you stay close to your friends and family to help you.

    2. Yup, most of us have been there. My latest thought on this is to ask yourself how desperate you are. I was so desperate to change, that I did what both Susan and Ritu did– took a lot of baby steps. It never happens in one massive quantum leap. If you’re desperate enough, use that desperation to drive you to do something small every day that will move you in the right direction. It might not feel like it’s working, but it is! You can do it!!

    3. It would be easy to say…knock that thought right out of your head! But, coming from a guy that owned his practice 27 years and hated most days during the last 3 would be monumentally hypocritical! At 53, I felt I was aging way before my body was; it took time but I realized my mind was slipping into depression and finiteness. Finally, I got the guts to make the change, despite my wife’s “fear” of the financial unknown. Selling was like jumping under a cool shower during a very hot summer day. Feeling the gentle water cleansing your skin while the mind wonders off to a peaceful place and ultimately allowed me to emerge refreshed.
      My advice…..sell and stop the aging process before its too late. You’re growing older faster than you deserve.

      1. Wow… thankyou for being upfront and honest and sharing your advice… 🙂 Just curious to know what have you been doing since you sold your practice…. That’s a question I ask myself often!

      2. Great advice and a very brave move to save yourself and make a big change in your life. I feel many dentists feel “trapped” in their practices which leads to depression. 27 years of owning your practice is a great accomplishment. I could only make it for 19 years.

    1. Right now , I am not working. I have told colleagues that I would check hygiene or fill in for a few days but I don’t plan on practicing full time. I am taking this year off to exercise and clear my mind from 24 years of drilling and filling and working on a schedule. I feel like I have a new back and neck. Chronic pain was killing me.

  3. Lola it was your blog inspired me to go part-time, but a year on that isn’t helping, I was just miserable 3 days a week instead of 5,so 2 months ago I handed in my notice, I think being a hearing aid dispenser is as bonkers as dentistry, but without the high salary!, at least over the pond here. Don’t know what I’m going to do, but like Ritu & Susan I’m going to take some time out, get healthy and sort myself out! Thanks guys! 🙂

    1. Wow, fraggs!! That is so cool. I guess I didn’t quite realize that my story helped you make that decision. You know… I went part-time too, and it didn’t help me either. I also didn’t know you gave your notice! You are still working though, right? You deserve some time for yourself. Congrats! You will find your way. I just had a thought for you. I’ll email you– not sure if it exists or would fly over there, but it could be interesting if it’s a possibility! Oh, and yes, I’m sure that you dealt with the same stresses in your field. Maybe there is a guest blog post in the future…

  4. I have practiced periodontics going on 25 years. The biggest change I have noticed in dentistry was when I got out of school… All the ‘oldtimers’ defined themselves as dentists. Their world revolved around it and they all practiced til they were too impaired via health to practice…. Or died with the drill in their hands.
    In meeting and talking with younger dentists the first thing out of their mouths is ‘I just want to practice to make enough money to comfortably “get out”.
    What changed? Pressures of practice? They have always been there. Unappreciative complaining patients with unrealistic expectations? That’s DEFINITELY on the upswing but the profession can only blame ourselves by advertising impossible results….. Perfect Hollywood teeth on 4 implants on the floor and premaxilla in a day? Bullshit.
    But I digress, I think the reason most dentists look in other directions is part of the mental make up that caused them to enter the profession in the first place. When I was in high school 3 of my friends dads were M.D.’s, 2 were dentists. All very sucussefull and lots of cash and mTerial goods, BUT NOT ONE OF THEM recommended going into medicine / dentistry.
    You know how affairs/ divorcees are more rampant amongst doctors? I suspect it’s because our brains are wired “I’ve achieved this… What’s next”. Most doctors are (obviously) smart. Over achievers and narcissists. They want the greener grass… Until they get there… Then it’s something else. I throughly enjoy LLB’s blogs, but I am amazed at all the whiney responses.
    Nothing’s perfect people, suck it up and move on. Now if you are like some responders in LLB’s blogs that say they “throw up everyday” whilst heading into the office, yeah… You might want to consider a career change. But if your just “unhappy… Or unfulfilled”… I doubt you will ever find anything that 100% makes you “satisfied’… But good luck.

    1. You’re absolutely right, nothing’s perfect. Every job has its challenges that must be met or else there’s little hope for success. But affairs/divorces are not exclusive to those wholeheartedly committed to high-achieving professions; being unhappy and unfulfilled are matters that need to be addressed in a responsible ways, not ignored in the name of soldering on, or they too can lead to affairs, divorces or worse, suicides.. They CAN, if acknowledged, be fuel for change, whether that be in attitude or careers. If you look around, plenty of jobs/industries have become obsolete despite people “sucking it up” or sticking to one thing. The world changes, demands for skills change and those nimble on their feet and able to reinvent themselves are the ones who survive. Complaining may feel good but is of little use. Taking action to better your situation is always the better alternative, whether that be improving where you are or moving on.

      As far as dentistry goes, the demands of running a practice, working with patients, etc., they have been there and will continue to do so. But if someone should not choose to stay in the profession for 30+years and move on to something else, why not? Nowhere are we asked to sign a contract that says otherwise. We get one, short life, and if there is desire – accompanied by hard work, ethics, and other quality attributes – to do or explore other things, well then I say more power to that, as well as to the desire to commit to one thing if that is preferred. Many successful people have become so because they reinvented or changed careers. A long list is a short google search away.

      Dentistry is a noble profession for sure, but those in it consider it a betrayal when one of its own wants to leave and don’t take it too kindly. Why is that? Is there only one path for all to follow?

      Life is too short, let’s live it. Peace to all.

      “For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh,

      1. I love your writing and thoughts, Ritu. I am in awe of this betrayal thing you point out because I’ve experienced it myself– although I will add that many I have talked to are more envious in a good way than betrayed. I don’t get it. It’s almost as if we’ve rejected and insulted the other dentists by leaving. That was the whole point of my Escaping the Cult of Dentistry post. I got torn a new one on DentalTown one time for making a comment about how hard it was to leave dentistry, and you would have thought I killed a puppy. The other dentists took it so personally and instead of having a reasonable discussion about it (as we do on Lolabees) they basically resorted to insulting me. That was a proud moment for our profession. 😉

        1. Lolabees, You are so spot on regarding the disdain that other “practicing” dentists impart on us that chose to leave. I can’t help but believe much of there discord is due to the tunnel vision and ingrained resistance to ALL that exists that dentists classically have. To put another way, they’re stagnated by “paralysis by analysis” too. No one should condemn those that stay OR leave. Life must be embraced; however it presents itself ….to me…..to you…to everyone……to make the best of it.

    2. Rickauf, you make some interesting points here…

      One thing I have noticed is that as a whole the younger generation doesn’t want to be defined by our careers. We want more balance in life, realizing that there’s more to it than just the income, title, and prestige (things you and I have all mentioned before in our discussions.) The older generations call that lazy. 😉 There probably IS more of a “suck it up” mentality with the oldtimers, but a lot of the younger dentists don’t actually admire that. The one single thing that drove me to change was the mental picture of myself at 65 years old sitting on the edge of my bed one morning, trying to work up the strength to tolerate another day in the office, and reflecting back on my life, wondering where the last 30 years had gone and wondering why I wasted so many years of my life doing something that made me miserable. I think that is what drives so many in my generation. Somehow we dream that things can be better, and we CAN have it all (or at least a lot.) The sad thing is not all of us actually take action. That may be what you’re referring to with the whining. But, I will say that what you say about the different generations is something I hear from a lot of the old guard dentists that I have known. I worked in a practice with several docs in their late 50’s and early 60’s, and they said the same thing. I’m Gen X– do you think we’ll be saying the same thing about the Millenials as we work our way through the workforce over the years? I think so. We are already doing it! So is it something that always happens with the younger generations, or is this Gen X more thin-skinned than the Baby Boomer gen? A well-known dentist author and blogger I have spoken to also expressed frustration with the same thing– that us younger docs are quick to jump ship. To Ritu’s point about it being a betrayal (yes, I’ve written a whole blog post about that,) this dentist finds it frustrating because he believes we can find ways to enjoy it, and that we need to work through the hard times to make it better for everyone– dentists and patients.

      As far as the whiny responses go. I have had the same discussion with my own husband before. One day he said to me, “You know we all get the Sunday night blues. We all don’t want to work.” I replied to him, “yes, I know. But you don’t understand that this is more than that. For me, a little bit of me dies every day.” A bit dramatic, yes, but I will tell you that feeling is accurate. He didn’t understand that, but once I explained it, he got it. And I think that feeling is similar for many of the people who make the “whiny” comments here. I think those are the people you describe as needing to find a career change. They are commenting here or sending me private emails because they are that desperate and unhappy, and they’re looking for help. My biggest wish for them is to do something, anything to move towards change, but some don’t. In that case, maybe it is whining, but I know we all operate in our own time. I think the ones that just feel unfulfilled or don’t love it are generally not making the desperate comments on this blog and are quite willing to suck it up. They’re out there, but they’re less likely to be so dramatic on this blog.

      Anyway… as always, great to get some good snark from you. You know your comments crack me up, I love your sarcasm, and you are one of my favorite contributors on my blog. More snark, please, next time. 😉

  5. I do not find any of these dentists “whiney” or “narcissistic”…. They are simply looking for “a way to die without the drill in their hands” 🙂 Middle age is the time for contemplation and self reflection. It is also a time for change, for many. If dentistry as a profession or as a business no longer resonates with your values at this time in your life, it is time to find something else that is fulfilling. There is no need to shame or blame or analyze any further.

    Having said that, I know it is difficult to let go since our identities are so caught up in being a dentist because it brings so many good things with it too…status, money, recognition and we all want to be of service to others. Change is difficult even if it something we really would like.

    1. I agree. Well said, Sujata. We forget that many of us pick these careers at such a young age. There’s nothing wrong with evolving over the years. Along the lines of my other comment to rick, I think my generation (and maybe yours too??) is more open to doing that than to stay stuck. I like that. It’s a quality I’m proud of and admire in others.

    2. BELIVE ME, no one appreciates hour outlook more than myself. I guess I am just speaking for myself….. But I ALWAYS want changge… New challenges. Can on ever TRULY be fulfled? ( other than winning the lotto and owning a beachfront bungalow in Costa Rica?)
      I started my practice “from scratch’ 17 years ago. The first day I came home ( sitting around the office all day waiting got the phone to ring… My wife informed me “she was pregnant”. Believe me, there have since been countless sleepless nights staring at the ceiling wondering “how’d I get myself into this, this is t what I signed up for, how am I going to swing the )0 K in tuition due for my kids AND make my ICAT payment this month?
      I KNOW, it sucks. And a little bit of me does die every morning guys I get up to go to the office. But (probably from all my Jesuit education)…. Life is NOT Disneyland…can’t get off the tea cup ride and run to the Dumbo ride. Life has demands that need to be met, and sometimes as a father you DO NEED to put your own ‘fulfillment’ behind that of your family. My daughter ( first day of practice notic) graduated from High School today. Now I have to figure how to come up with the tuition money for Princeton. I’m not sure how. But I will… I always do. I think EVERYONE on thi blog could.
      The priest that tAugt Latin always said ;” Nullum prandium gratuitim”…. “there is NI FREE lunch”. It’s been my motto since 9th grade. ( and yes I have thrown up in the AM at the thought of going to see patients.
      For the record did not mean to infer any participants on this blog are ‘wineg’. Was just talking about the (yes, I believe so, LL ) thin skinned Gen X’s. In fact I gleen quite a bit of informative insight on this blog. I appreciate what peoes !real ” feelings are

      1. Yes, I know this about you because we have had many discussions about this… I have a good friend who used to hate his career as an attorney. We really connected on seeking out change. I felt so sorry for him because while I had no kids and a husband with an income, he had 2 girls and a wife without an income. Talk about feeling trapped! He eventually changed careers– it was sort of luck in a way that wouldn’t happen to most of us, but he became a director of a summer camp! Can you believe how different that is? Anyway, having a family definitely makes it much harder to change. The only way to get through is to have other things you love to do with your free time!

  6. I used to think for years that I shouldn’t be a dentist.During dental school I also thought I was doing something wrong and I had the feeling that I didn’t belong there.
    So for years and years of true misery I started therapy.I had about 10 sessions per total in the past 7-8 months and somehow it made me understand I was truly too anxious,had some low self esteem and was a bit shy.
    Once I understood that better I started to think that maybe my mind is my enemy.So what happened was that I appreciated more my job and the oportunity it gave me to earn maybe more money that some people and to have a 6 hours job.(When most of the people work 8 hours.)
    So instead of heading to work feeling very down I would just do it without overanalyzing and tried to communicate more freely with my patients as if we were 2 humans not “some patient” and me “the unsatisfied doctor”.
    So I don’t want to say that life is all pink now ’cause it’s not but I just started to feel more confortable doing my job.
    I don’t want to say now that my profession is all I ever wanted neither that there aren’t any chances of changing my mind ’cause this job is tough. I still consider it quite tough.
    What I wanted to say is that I’m not obssesed anymore with career changing because it actually dominated me for so long.Honestly it was the only thing I could ever think about over the past….10 years aprox( since I started Dental school).

    1. Alina, I’m so glad to hear that this is working for you! I actually went through similar experiences, and this will make you a better, stronger person. Keep your eyes open… continue to develop your interests… and maybe you will organically eventually find what you’re looking for without the obsession and misery you’ve experienced in the past!

  7. I think the dental practice environment has changed dramatically from when I graduated 20 years ago. It was much different than today with corporate-owned practices popping up on every corner and fierce competition to bring in new patients. And I think patients are much more savvy and demanding than they were years ago and aren’t afraid to leave seething reviews on Yelp if they aren’t happy. Maybe this is why the “old” dentists don’t understand why (some of) the “young” ones are unhappy or have fallen out of love with dentistry themselves. And now it’s more common to have more than one career in your lifetime. We’re also more in tune with our emotional health nowadays instead of the persevere-until-you-die mentality. There are still plenty of dentists out there who love their careers and thrive in the profession, God love them! But there’s no shame in deciding something else is on your happy path. I can honestly say that since I transitioned out of dentistry for good 6 months ago, I haven’t given it another thought. Except when I was filling out the application to retire my license!

    1. Excellent comments Kristen. I graduated 24 years ago and the dental profession has dramatically changed. The constant advertising and coupon mailers have turned dentistry into any other business. Dentistry is seen less as a healthcare profession. Also nowadays there are many two profession couples thus making it easier to leave dentistry or other professions earlier than ever before. Anecdotally ,I know many DDS in their 50s who are cutting back or getting out if they can afford it. If you can cut back or leave in your 50s while you have your health than it makes enjoying pursuing other interests much easier. I have know several DDS in their 60s pass away.

      1. I talked to a career coach recently and what she mentioned is as women in our younger years we look to accomplishing what is generally mandated by society …a good career, making money etc. However, at middle age most women look inwards and want to do things that are more fulfilling to their inner selves and not just to please society.

        I am turning 50 later this year and since last couple of years my priorities have changed. I still love dentistry and will keep practicing it… but I am ready to give up my dental business at this time to follow my other passions:)

        1. Interesting comments by your career coach. So like me , you are selling your practice at 50 and you plan on practicing as an associate ?

        2. About selling the practice, I go back and forth a lot… taking one step forward and 2 backwards. Meanwhile, I do work at a health center part-time as a locum dentist.. and have just started teaching yoga (my other passion)… Being single, it is a lot more challenging in terms of income. Let’s see how it goes. I will keep you posted. 🙂

        3. I know it’s cliche … But you can’t buy happiness ! Some of my fondest memories were my wife and I “screening” the house to see if we had enough $$. To buy a pizza. But like the late/great Don Henley sang;” you can’t go back… You can never go back”

        4. No, thank YOU for a consise and well penned out thoughts. One of the reasons I love LLB’s blog… All her observations, and those of her contributors really help me ‘reset’ my outlook and deal with my frustrations. I often feel ‘sorry for myself, and ‘wigg out mentality. But I find perspective here and it regrounds me that i have a wife and 3 children I am responsible for. Sometimes you just ‘have to go to the back of the bus”!

      2. I think it’s brilliant to be able to retire in your 50’s… that’s definitely not a waste of your years. That would have been my goal, except I couldn’t stand it any longer– could barely make it to 40! 😀

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