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Psychiatrist and author, David Viscott said, “The purpose of life is to discover your gift, the work of life is to develop it, and the meaning of life is to give your gift away.” 

I’m not certain I understood this early in my career. I was too busy focused on external metrics like practice growth. I was constantly striving to prove myself to others and to assuage self-doubt and fear. I grew up with role models who instilled work ethic and diligence into me from a young age. I also grew up in the 1980s when movies like “The Meaning of Life” by Monty Python highlighted the absurdity of life’s contradictions. I wish I had read more Viscott and watched less Monty Python.

I had this conversation with Coach Brook Cupps and Ryan Hawk recently on The Burleson Box podcast. We all agreed, it happens for everyone at some stage in life: the realization that you’ve been chasing the wrong score; measuring yourself by the wrong metrics. Hopefully it happens sooner rather than later, so that you can live more life according to the idea that the real meaning and joy in life come no from striving for external accolades, wealth or status, but instead of get really good at your gift and to give it away.

Smiles Change Lives is one powerful way we get to do that as orthodontists. The nonprofit foundation started in Kansas City back in 1997 right before I started a six-year dental school program and I was fortunate enough to see it grow from conception to powerful realization in the lives of so many deserving families. If you’re an orthodontist or dentist and you want to learn more about Smiles Change Lives, I highly encourage you to do so here.

If you’re a dental student or resident specializing in orthodontics, take a moment to reflect on Viscott’s quote. How are you discovering your gift? What problems do your friends, colleagues and co-residents bring to you to help them solve? In which area of your specialty could you work all day and not feel tired? When do you feel most engaged and exhausted? Ask a trusted friend when you seem to light up when speaking about a topic or area of practice.

Give yourself permission to explore, try new things, fail, and learn from those failures. Early in my career, I did a lot of complex TMD care and pre-restorative orthodontic treatment. It was exciting and rewarding but sometimes exhausting if patient’s weren’t able to complete the treatment plan. I placed a lot of lingual braces and prescribed functional appliances. Again, exciting and rewarding but patient compliance and cost were sometimes prohibitive. Then I started working at a children’s hospital on the cleft lip and palate team. I traveled to New York to study with Barry Grayson and Larry Brecht to learn nasoalveolar molding (NAM) and taught it to a few of our associates, who also went on to take the course at NYU. Most of these patients couldn’t afford orthodontic treatment so we found a way to get them the care they deserved through Smiles Change Lives or the Rheam Foundation, a non-profit I started in response to a need and my desire to give my gift away.

I had so much help and support along the way from brilliant cleft surgeons like Dr. Jiang, Dr. Kaye, Dr. Lypka and the pediatric dental department chairs, Drs. Lowe, Onikul and Bohaty. They gave me the room to learn and supported the chair-time necessary to get NAM implemented at the hospital. All of this started after an encouraging word from my department chair and mentor, Dr. Katherine Kula. She was the first person to ask me if I had ever thought about teaching. Watching and modeling her leadership together with other amazing leaders in my department like Dr. Don Thompson and Dr. Dan Blackwell, the path for me to contribute with Smiles Change Lives and the local children’s hospital was easy. I’m forever grateful for these amazing mentors in dentistry who helped me develop my gift and find a way to share it.

Although my contributions have been small, I’d like to highlight that they all stemmed from the ideas, concepts, time, energy and generosity of others. So, when an opportunity presents itself to help someone younger or less experienced in your profession or specialty, take the opportunity. Encourage them. Lend your support. You never know where it might lead.

  • Learn about Smiles Change Lives here.
  • Learn about the American Cleft Palate and Craniofacial Association here.

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