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Part 1 Mindset: Self Leadership Tip #18

Realize What Makes our Work Meaningful

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Tip 18: Realize What Makes our Work Meaningful

You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.
- Albert Camus

I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.
- Joseph Campbell

I have already mentioned my years of burnout, but in this tip I will reveal the exact moment my life in dentistry changed. I was looking for ways to become successful. I was making a good living in dentistry but I was beginning to hate what I was doing. The barometers of success for me had always been money…being happy was something I hadn't considered until I realized how miserable I had become. Then I went to a Dr. Peter Dawson seminar in Philadelphia.

The place was packed with dentists trying to learn and understand the role of occlusion in their everyday practices. Many dentists, including myself, seemed confused by the material and how to apply it, but something happened that day to set me off on a journey that still exists even as I write these words. Occlusion, which I had learned in dental school, finally had taken on new meaning. On that day I began to see occlusion differently. Of course, this had something to do with the expert explanation developed by Dr. Dawson.

Prior to taking all of the Dawson seminars and going to the Pankey Institute, dentistry lacked meaning for me. It was all fill and drill, clean and scrape. Suddenly, I began to understand dentistry at another level…a deeper level which I have come to realize has no ending. I thought I knew it all, and found out I didn't know anything. Thus started my journey not only into occlusion but into philosophy, psychology, physics, lasers, implants and just about anything that related to serving my patients better. I was becoming happier because I found new meaning.

Essentially this guide is about sustaining a practice of dentistry. It is about having a very fulfilling career. Earlier I discussed the concept of PERMA…positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment, as the criteria of a life well lived. Our culture has placed too much emphasis on the last criteria, achievement. We relate success to the external material rewards of money, stature and fame. Although those things are included in a fulfilling career, they are not the only things that are important. Working with meaning and purpose is one of the keys to sustaining a fulfilling career. Many people spend years trying to discover their purpose, but for me it wasn't discovered as much as it was developed.

It has been said that what you work on works on you. This is what I found to be true when I came back to my practice with my newfound knowledge of occlusion. And it didn't stop there. Explaining occlusion to staff and patients became another task I had to develop. That leads to understanding human behavior and case presentation. Finally I was reaching people in meaningful ways. Slowly I realized that dentistry was more than a job or even a career. It was becoming a calling. It became what the Reverend Peter Gomes defined as vocation: "the place where your great joy meets the world's need."

Once I was able to practice with purpose, it seemed that the other criteria fell into place. I became more engaged in dentistry, not just clinical dentistry but also writing and teaching dentistry. As I was more engaged, my days were less frustrating and therefore filled with more positive emotions and more positive relationships. Staff liked their jobs better. I was more pleasant and easier to be around. In the last Tip I wrote about managing your energy. Finding purpose and meaning is energizing as well.

David Brooks, in his bestselling book, The Road to Character states, "No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation…if you serve work that is intrinsically compelling and focus just on being excellent at that, you will end serving yourself and the community obliquely. A vocation is not found by looking within and finding your passion. It is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us." So it was on that day in Philadelphia, listening to Peter Dawson, that my life and career changed. That was just the beginning. I then sought out role models and mentors that helped me continue along the journey we all must travel.

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