Middle age, for me, has produced all kinds of wonderful little miracles – like hair growing out of my ear, and a sporadic weird eye twitch. These, although not exactly pleasing, have been expected. One thing that I hadn’t expected was the onset of cranky friends.
These are people, for whom, life has been pretty great. Nice family with cute kids. Big house, nice car, and the type of gadgets that, literally, we saw on the Jetsons. They represent the top 1-3% of income earners in the United States, which makes them the top .001% of income earners in the world.
And they are cranky. They are irate about politics, on one side or the other. They are frustrated with taxes. They find fault with the system in which they work. They merely say the word “economy” expecting to be met with understanding, sympathetic nods of the head. They are walking through life with slumped shoulders, feeling sorry for themselves because of their tax bracket or whomever is the president.
This has been a point of pride for me ever since becoming a dentist. I always considered dentistry as the numero uno profession out there. We have great hours that are under our control. We make a generous living where all of life’s comforts are entirely available. We often get to be our own boss and in control over who we get to surround ourselves with on a daily basis. Even without much effort on our parts, we naturally become reputable members of the community in which we practice. I was confident that crankiness would not infiltrate the members of our profession. It was just too great a gig to inspire the “woe is me” mentality.
This confidence was destroyed as I began touring the country, giving advice about acquiring new patients and creating more team unity. Dentists with tired eyes, and an obvious lack of a spark would approach me and highlight their unique need to “make things better” in their office. For them, their problems in life had so much to do with “not enough new patients”, “poor case acceptance”, “insurance plans that have lowered their fees”, or “that they don’t yet have a CT”.
These were people who had very genuine stress – very real problems. They were pushing through life with unease and frustration. They had a true fear of any disruption to their system because their entire house (figuratively) was built on a very thin foundation. I had a strong desire to help them. I also had a nagging feeling that if I could deliver on “more new patients,” perhaps their problems wouldn’t go away.
While certain problems would go away, other problems became amplified. At the same time, other dentists who seemed to have so many more issues were completely content, even hilariously self-deprecating. The more that I studied different offices and different scenarios; I realized that “problems” were consistent amongst all offices. No one was perfect, and no one had it completely together. Every office, (including mine for sure), had its share of problems. However, it seemed as though each individual had very different attitudes towards their profession and their life.
For the cranky ones, two consistent characteristics emerged:
2. Obsession towards things out of one’s control
Let’s talk about the first one. After completing a professional education often requiring significant student debt, many have found it ok to borrow money for a house, a car, a practice, a building for that practice, a CEREC, a CT, and several 12-month same-as-cash pieces of furniture for the house. Every single one of the above have been repeatedly marketed to us as “good debt”. Whether they are, or are not, doesn’t really matter. For many dentists, and high-income professionals in general, they possess quite a collection of debt, and therefore, a collection of monthly fixed financial obligations. All of these are fine when all is well, but cause stress when, frankly, life happens – several slow months at the office, an emergency repair to a piece of property, or an unexpected health crisis. It is simply too common to see dentists with substantial income fall into states of despair and anxiety when these hurdles in life occur. Their monthly financial commitments are too great, offering very little wiggle room during times of crisis.
If you are already in a lot of debt, spend a couple years living like you did in college. Pack a lunch, exercise in your home, and avoid Target and Starbucks and pay stuff off. Spend just a little time with a loan repayment calculator on-line to see how small increases in your monthly payment towards debt could drastically reduce the number of years in the term of that loan.
Secondly, the desire to fixate on the uncontrollable is a highly natural part of all of our psychologies. I believe this is because, when we fixate on the economy, the president, or the insurance PPO, we immediately pardon ourselves of any blame. In contrast, the happiest people I know seem to be fixated on the many, many aspects of life directly in their control. If their kids do not behave, they could blame the TV, the video games, or the negative role models. Instead, these happy individuals look at the amount and quality of time they spend with them. If they have repeatedly hired ‘duds’ to work at the front desk, they forego the opportunity to blame “how hard it is to find good help now-a-days”, and instead devote more time to becoming stronger interviewers or learning better ways to market a good job opportunity. The cranky devote mental energy towards things they can’t control, while the happy devote it to things they can.
That’s it. Two things: debt and attention to what you can or can’t control. Now might be a good time to ask yourself where you stand in the spectrum between cranky and happy, and challenge yourself towards a better position on that continuum.