After a decade of work in my chosen profession — both in the office, and out — I can confidently say that all the highlights have involved taking as many opportunities as I can to pay my blessings forward. We can change the lives of our patients, but also pave the way for future generations of dentists to grow into the many leadership positions that are available to them. I always say that no act of charity is too small; some of the best volunteer experiences I’ve had have been community based, in the towns that our offices were in or the city that my dental school was in. There are many programs available on a larger scale — both here in the U.S. and abroad, and I’ve been fortunate to be involved in these as well. The Mission of Mercy events that I’ve witnessed firsthand and read about on social media are always impressive to me, not just because of the massive amount of planning that goes into them, but because so many of us selflessly take time out of our schedules to attend, work at and staff them.
I completed the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership program in December 2021, and the information that we received during the sessions are some of the most valuable pieces of knowledge that I’ve gained on my journey. The first one is this: Leaders empower others to achieve a common goal. As a private-practice owner, this really resonated with me. Once your team is on board with your vision, anything is possible. This includes being able to create the time to give back to your community, in whatever way that you choose.
My passion projects in organized dentistry have always related to student, resident and new dentist engagement. Despite having the support of my family and mentors who helped to guide me, I’ve always had questions about my future and where I would ultimately end up. Looking back on the early part of my career now, I think of what lessons I would have liked to learn sooner — and what I might have done differently. The first thing I tell all students and new dentists is to try to take as many opportunities as possible that come their way and really get out of their comfort zones. What do I mean by this? If you think you know where you’d like to — or must — settle down eventually and build your life, apply for your postgraduate training in an area that you might have always wanted to experience and explore. This might be your only chance to do it, and you never know what connections you might make. New opportunities can also lead to new connections, and this might also mean the chance of finding mentors outside of dentistry. This is a piece of advice I wish I had taken myself, all those years ago. A mentor isn’t necessarily someone exactly like you. Rather, a mentor could be someone who lives their life in a way that you admire or has goals and knows how to work towards them in a manner that you wish to learn. Although I am lucky to have an amazing set of mentors who are also leaders in dentistry and their communities, some of the greatest and most insightful lessons I’ve learned have been from individuals on other career paths at different stages in their lives.
The best piece of advice I can give from where I am now is to find your people: your team, your cheerleaders, your mentors, your circle. Strong women (and men) are some of your best supporters. Remember that the guidance you receive from those who have come before you, comes with the wisdom of many successes, and many failures too. Be teachable, and you will continue to grow and learn. Celebrate the view from the mountaintops but know that with the valleys come lessons and growth, too. Enjoy the ride and get out there and live.
Dr. Patel practices in Westchester County, New York, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.