By Dr. Tyler Scott, WCI Columnist
Writing my first article as a White Coat Investor columnist was scary.
The imposter syndrome of thinking I had anything meaningful to offer the WCI community was paralyzing as I attempted to type out those first few sentences. Instead of facing the discomfort of telling my dental career story, I sat on my bed watching my beloved Utah Utes lose another Rose Bowl while the Microsoft Word cursor blinked to the rhythm of the fourth-quarter clock in Pasadena and the journalistic insecurity in my mind.
Writing this second post is even scarier.
My first column went live the day before my wife, Megan, and I met up with the rest of the WCI team in Phoenix to set up for WCICON23 and three days before Josh Katzowitz put me on stage with Dr. Jim Dahle and a few other columnists to talk about our experiences in front of hundreds of conference attendees. I’ve never been afraid to speak in public or interact with people I don’t know, probably in large part because of my religious upbringing which gave me ample opportunity to speak in front of large groups regularly for 20-plus years.
While I wasn’t afraid to go on stage with one of my heroes and talk to hundreds of people, I was decidedly nervous about what you would think about what I said and the story I told on the blog just a few days earlier.
The comments sections of the internet are a dark and tangled briar full of noxious opinionated thorns and cutting literary barbs. Linguistically skilled, albeit myopic, trolls lurk there, waiting to overstate an author’s tertiary point or gaslight fellow commenters in the stench of their own poorly digested rhetoric and politically infused flatulence. I knew not whether my skin was tough enough or if my stomach was strong enough to withstand the inevitable lacerations and foul exchanges awaiting those foolish enough to lay out their vulnerabilities for the world to read. As I walked on stage that day to face a jury of my peers, I knew it was quite possible a few onlookers may be armed with these pernicious brambles my tender blogging flesh had yet to encounter.
My opening salvo on stage was a brief synopsis of my newly born post, and as I concluded, the room filled with applause. I was astonished, relieved, and deeply humbled by their generosity.
This is one reason why writing a second post feels scarier than the first. It is one thing to sit at home and feel insecure about a faceless reader’s possible response. It is something else to have real people from my peer group offer warm feedback. While the affirmation is soothing, the stakes also feel higher.
The other reason this post is more frightening to write is because I will tell you the story of why I left dentistry at age 38 after only 10 years of practice.
I know there are strong opinions about those who choose to leave medicine prematurely and especially those who received taxpayer money to pay for a portion of their training, as I did. I just witnessed Dr. Leif Dahleen get chided by the very first commenter in his recent post in which he describes what he does with his time now that he’s not a practicing anesthesiologist anymore in his 40s. The sentiment was, in essence, “You are selfish.”
I’ll own that piece right out of the gate. I left dentistry because it was in my best interest to leave. I left because I believed doing so would improve my physical and mental health. I acted selfishly. Let me tell you how and, more importantly, why.
More information here:
How I Left Dentistry
First, a bit of a spoiler and an answer to a question that I would be asking at this juncture: “If you aren’t doing dentistry, what are you doing?”
The answer is I now work full-time as a flat-fee financial planner providing comprehensive financial plans to my (former) peer group, healthcare professionals, and other high earners.
The series of serendipitous events which led to my exit from dentistry and my entry into financial planning feels fateful to me.
It began immediately after dental school when I was trying to find a blog I heard my coworkers talking about that supposedly provided unbiased financial advice for doctors written by some ER doc in Utah. I couldn’t find that blog, but I did find Mr. Money Mustache. Pete Adeney’s unapologetic insistence that anyone can retire in their 40s, if not before, was utterly captivating. He opened my eyes to the reality and the dangers of the Hedonic Treadmill and sparked a fire that still burns within me to be radically accountable for every dollar I spend. He taught me to be a fierce steward of our money and how powerful pairing frugality and savings can be.
I eventually found that other blog my buddies were talking about, and, at first, I didn’t know if it was for me. The concepts and language seemed way over my head, and so, I returned to the cultish following of MMM where I could tell myself every bicycle ride to the farmers market was turning the ATP in my quads into thousands of dollars of compounding interest by saving $3.78 on gas.
It turns out I hate riding my bike, especially to the grocery store. Especially in the rain! God bless you, Pete, but that sucks.
So, with a rooster tail stain on my shirt and a bag of slightly soggy Dave’s Killer Bread, I sat back down to read that obtuse White Coat Investor blog in hopes of finding a better, drier way forward.
At the risk of being cheesy and inflating Jim’s ego, this blog completely changed my life. The wild, undirected brushfire Pete lit within me became a blacksmith’s furnace under Jim’s guidance. I learned to fabricate the long swords and chainmail of personal finance that uniquely fit my situation. I was now empowered—armed and armored—to be the ferocious steward of my money Pete had inspired me to be.
I absorbed everything on the blog, quenching my thirst for learning something relevant, actionable, and new that dentistry couldn’t—or at least didn’t—do for me.
I proselytized Backdoor Roth IRAs, HSAs, and index investing with a fervor. I helped my anesthesiologist, radiologist, and dental school friends refinance their student loans, lobby for lower-fee investment options in their 401(k)s, and understand the value of tax-protected growth offered by a 529. I became a de facto financial planner for an increasing number of healthcare friends within my sphere of influence.
However, I never once considered it a possible side hustle, let alone a new career, because I couldn’t imagine turning my back on a $280,000 dental school education and mostly because (despite Jim’s consistent messaging to the contrary) I believed financial planners are an insidious evil preying on the trust, naiveté, and exhaustion of doctors.
That changed one day when my dear friend and co-worker (and a recent Milestones to Millionaire podcast guest) prompted me to listen to episode No. 58 of the WCI podcast. In that episode, Jim interviewed a financial planner who had started and successfully grown a flat-fee financial planning firm assisting mostly healthcare professionals. Jim and the guest thoughtfully went through the various compensation models common to financial advisors and the conflicts that can exist in each of those models. The end result of the interview was a paradigm change in my mind and in my heart about how financial planning may have a role in my distant future as a plausible and ethical income-producing hobby.
A year later in the winter of 2019, after over seven years of 40-hour weeks seeing 20-25 public health dental patients a day, the saplings of burnout had begun to sprout. I confided in a few close friends who also worked in healthcare, admitting for the first time out loud that I didn’t think I could do this for 30 more years. Each of them independently told me they could see me being a successful financial professional, particularly working with healthcare professionals because of my lived experience of walking that unique path.
Buoyed up by their encouragement, I thought, “Maybe this is possible, maybe I can offset my dental burnout by transitioning to part-time financial planning. But where will I ever find the time to get credentialed?”
A few months later on March 11, 2020, I turned on the TV to watch my Utah Jazz play the Oklahoma City Thunder. The game wasn’t starting on time. I’ll never forget the bewildered and then frightened faces of the players, coaches, and referees as it was announced that Utah center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID earlier that day.
The next day, the world stopped.
Within a week, our dental clinic was closed—except for the most severe emergencies—and I found myself at home with nothing but an indefinite amount of time on my hands. This was my chance. I enrolled in California-Berkeley’s online CFP program to begin the process of becoming a certified financial planner.
It was a yearlong self-paced course that, thanks to my years of reading the blog, I finished in just under three months. Once the coursework was completed, I passed the Series 65 exam, meaning I could legally provide financial advice in exchange for money. But who would ever hire a dentist with zero legitimate finance experience? I felt equal parts excited and helpless to enact my new credential. The finance dream fell dormant.
I sat with that dormancy and found other ways to scratch my burnout itch. I went to the gym more. I traveled. In the summer of 2021, I even decided to make a big career move within dentistry and leave public health for an academic position at the dental school back in our hometown of Salt Lake City. It was a nice change, but it didn’t turn out the way I hoped it would, and that disappointment gave renewed energy to my financial planning dreams. Turns out, the path to my dream job would actually start with Megan.
During our move from Oregon to Salt Lake, I opened the weekly WCI newsletter at the Stockmen's Casino in Elko, Nevada. (This is how you know I was a full-throated WCI fan!) I read that WCI was looking to hire someone with preference given to those who live in the Salt Lake area. The timing was perfect. Megan had expressed her intention to return to the workforce after about 10 years at home with our young children, but she didn’t know where she would look for a job.
This was it!
In that cheap casino hotel room that, according to the front desk clerk, had recently been renovated after a murder, Megan applied for the job. A few weeks later, she was the newest member of the WCI team.
I was STOKED! Jim, my digital mentor of nearly 10 years, was suddenly my wife’s boss, and a few months later, we were off to WCICON22 as part of the WCI team (spouses of staff often help out at the conference).
It was there on day 2 of the conference that I went to a talk by the very same guest from episode No. 58 who had inspired me years ago. After her talk, I approached her in the hallway to simply say, “I am a dentist but am an aspiring flat-fee planner, and I just want to thank you for helping me believe my dreams of doing that one day are possible.”
She was very kind and slightly perplexed, saying, “Did you say you are a dentist but want to be a flat-fee financial planner?!? I appreciate the kind words and everything, but I’m desperate for more planners who understand this model, especially those with a healthcare background. Would you like to talk about working for me?”
A few months later I had a job. Not just a job, a dream job.
More information here:
Why I Left Dentistry
As trite or cliché as it sounds, I’m outrageously and insanely in love with my wife. I want to be around her all the time. I hated spending the majority of our day apart and then coming home from the office completely wiped out with no energy to engage with her.
I hated that I wasn’t helping around the house as much as either of us expected I would. I wanted to do more laundry, cook more meals, and clean more toilets, and that had proven to be disappointingly inconsistent. The emotional and physical demands of 8-10 hour days in the dental chair were sapping my resolve to be the kind of domestic partner I committed to be.
I wanted to be a different caliber of spouse for the next 16 years than I had been for the previous 16 years. Mostly, I just wanted to be with her more.
I’m happy to report it’s going great so far. We go to brunch, go on walks, go to the grocery store, go to the gym . . . just sit together as we both work from home. It’s absolutely sublime and even better than I dreamed it could be (I still need to learn to cook much better).
As trite or cliché as it sounds, I wanted to spend more time with my kids. The same physical and emotional demands that drained my capacity to be the type of husband I wanted to be were sapping my capacity to be the kind of father I wanted to be.
I hated that I had such limited bandwidth for my kids when I got home, and I found myself often saying, “Girls, just give daddy a few minutes alone, and I’ll be down in a little while,” as I escaped to my bedroom to watch Pardon the Interruption alone in the dark while trying to release the built-up tension of the work day from my overtaxed cerebral cortex and posterior scalenes.
The change now is profound. I greet them at the door when they come home from school, I volunteer in their classroom, I show up for field trips, and I drive them to dance and gymnastics. Most importantly, I am emotionally available to say “yes” to the vast majority of what they ask of me.
- “Dad, can you help me with my homework?” Yes
- “Dad, will you go on a bike ride with me around the block?” Yes
- “Dad, can you come to our Halloween parade at school?” Yes
It is glorious. I feel strongly I will never regret making the choice to be far more present and available to them during these formative years. Whether it ends up mattering to them remains to be seen, but I know for certain it matters to me.
My Physical Health
Dentistry was killing me. My back hurt so badly all the time, and it was rapidly getting worse. In fact, I learned later how extensive the damage was when I got an MRI in the summer of 2022, which subsequently led to me making a successful claim on my personal own occupation long-term disability policy (a story for a future blog column).
The job was leaving me physically diminished in my late 30s to the point where I couldn’t do basic tasks around the house or sleep through the night. I made every effort to employ optimal ergonomics, exercise regularly, stretch, and get massages. But the daily grind was literally grinding me down.
I didn’t want to live like this.
My Mental Health
I was totally unprepared for the daily emotional gauntlet of being a dentist. Granted, I was never a private practice dentist seeing suburban soccer moms that brushed most days of the week. I was a public health dentist seeing patients with a range of mostly untreated mental health conditions, which is to say nothing of the tooth-specific challenges those on the margins of our society present in the office.
While the public health piece is relevant, my private practice friends also report an increasingly heavy emotional drain emanating from their professional lives.
Very few people in our society enjoy going to the dentist. A bigger slice is pragmatically neutral about it, and an ever-growing portion really, REALLY doesn’t like it. They were more than happy to tell me about it. The first 3,000 times I heard, “I hate the dentist. I hate being here. This is my personal hell. No offense, you are great and everything, but I just abhor this place,” I thought, “Yeah, I get it, it’s not my favorite thing either.” But the next 10,000 times I heard it, it started to build up.
There is an immeasurably insidious impact of being told over and over again that my presence in a room, my intention to show up as a helper and healer, my willingness to make less money than my peers in a profession that is breaking me down, is loathsome to those I am there to help. I never resented my patients for feeling this way. In fact, quite the opposite. My clinic provided me with a great deal of training that vastly improved my capacity to feel genuine empathy for the myriad challenges my patients faced.
That ability to look in my patients’ eyes and feel with them was a lovely skill that aided greatly in my passion for my work, and I’m proud to say it led to me having near-perfect patient satisfaction scores for the entirety of my dental career. I sincerely loved my patients, but ironically, loving them made their pain, fear, and anxiety land with me even heavier. I struggled to summon, day after day, the heartfelt compassion for them necessary to hold back the resentment as they debated with me about the safety of amalgam or vaccines, their demands for antibiotics for non-bacterial origins of inflammation, their requests for opiates, their unwillingness to follow post-op instructions, or their reluctance to put down the soda and pick up the dental floss to improve their own dental health without holding me unilaterally accountable for all their dental outcomes.
I’m deeply embarrassed to admit this out loud. I feel guilty that I couldn’t hold up better or longer. I am ashamed that I wasn’t strong enough to separate their experiences from my own.
Dentistry was hard on my back and harder on my soul.
As I have come to know myself better at nearly 40 years old, I now realize there are two things about dentistry that don’t suit my intrinsic nature very well. (I’m interested to hear if these two things resonate with anyone else in medicine or any other profession.)
The first is that I am insanely hard on myself. Dentistry is a game of millimeters, and the margin of error is often measured in tenths of millimeters. The difference between a good dentist and a bad dentist in the public’s eyes is whether the shot hurts, if you are seen on time, and if the waiting room is nice. However, as a peer group and within our own minds (at least in mine), I measured myself against these fractions of millimeters, and I was presented with hundreds of opportunities a month to feel like a failure. Rationally, I know that I was not. I operated at a high level well within the standard of care, but still, that voice inside my head telling me my disto-lingual chamfer margin on #15 was a quarter millimeter too thin could never fully be quieted.
The second is that I think I have professional ADHD. In hindsight, a big part of what was keeping me engaged in my dental journey was the academic and achievement escalator. I had to get good grades to get into a good college, then good grades to get into dental school, then write compelling essays and interview well to get into the dental school I wanted, then the rush and excitement of learning a new vocational skillset, then graduating at the top of my class to preserve my opportunity for the residency of my choice, then finding the job I wanted, then moving to a new place, then paying off my student loans, then . . . 30 years of the same thing with some, but much slower, levels of learning, developing, changing, and progressing.
I have absolutely loved diving deep into a new profession and working toward mastering it as best I can. I bet in 10-15 years I am doing something different again. That thought used to give me anxiety. Now, it makes me feel alive.
An obvious part of being a dentist that I didn’t contemplate or understand when I was 21 years old is that you have to be in the office to make money (those who have built up practices with associates notwithstanding). I became more aware of this disparity between healthcare and many other professional jobs as I aged. I would often be invited by my lawyer, engineer, and entrepreneur friends to “come join us on Thursday at noon for a round of golf.”
“What in the world were these guys talking about? I’ll be at work, man! Every Thursday at noon from now until 2050, I’ll be at work!!!”
But during COVID, it felt like the entire world decided to work perpetually in pajama pants from their bedroom and to make sourdough bread between calls while I put on a fortress of face fabric and commuted into the office like a chump. I wanted in on the pajama pants and sourdough-centric workday.
There is no way I can adequately describe how sensational it is to do any of the following:
- Wake up naturally without an alarm.
- Open my computer in bed to start my day instead of having a rushed shower, force-feeding myself a breakfast shake, and driving through the morning slush in traffic on the freeway.
- Go on any vacation, any time, anywhere (that has Wi-Fi), and be able to continue working without getting a supervisor to approve the use of my preciously limited PTO.
- Go to the gym from 10-11am with the 56-year-old ladies instead of from 7-8pm with the 28-year-old steroid bros.
- Work with clients instead of patients. Working with early- and mid-career medical professionals that value flat-fee financial advice makes for a very different workday than working with disgruntled and demoralized patients who are chronically ill, understandably anxious, financially strained, and increasingly jaded. My work days are now notably . . . pleasant.
Perhaps the good news about being a public health dentist making $110,000-$200,000 is that, from an economic perspective, it is a much shorter climb to reach the same income plateau than if I had been a private practice dentist. When presented with a credible alternative to make a similar amount of money doing a job that is more pajama pants and sourdough than it is back pain and emotional gangrene, it's much easier to make the change.
FYI, in a future blog post, I intend to provide a full disclosure of what our personal budget and cash flow looks like for a family of five living on ~$150,000. We know not every white coat investor makes $650,000, and Josh, Jim, and I are committed to speaking to my fellow “modest earners” more often and more openly.
The truth is that I didn't choose dentistry at 21 years old because I was convinced it was my unshakeable and eternal passion. I chose it because it was part of a societal script I was handed by my culture, geography, and intellect.
Nearly every academically successful man in my community was a doctor. As an only child of a single elementary teacher, I didn’t have many familial reference points to frame my professional work options, and so, I looked to my community to show me what was possible. I am incredibly fortunate that the demographics of my immediate environment showed me that essentially anything was possible, but it was clear to me that if I was going to woo the girl, buy the mansion, have the boat, serve the church, and golf the resort . . . I needed to do the medicine thing.
I did it, and it was aggressively OK. But I don’t want to do it anymore.
Turns out that once I took time to actually get to know myself, to slow down and quiet the noise enough to hear my own heart, I realized I didn’t want to be a dentist.
I never really chose it. It was assigned to me by the unique micro-culture of the place I grew up, and let me acknowledge that is a pretty dang good assignment compared to what is assigned to almost everyone else that has lived in this world; but it was assigned nonetheless.
It’s impossible to describe how much my culture influenced my decision to pursue dentistry. I don’t resent that influence; I just think it’s worthwhile to name it.
After I chose to untangle myself from the culture I grew up in to better align my beliefs with my values, it became even more clear that I had never wanted this dental life. Without the specter of culturally infused expectations and silent but persistent messages about what was expected of me professionally within that culture, I never would have chosen dentistry.
I chose to leave dentistry so I could create my own life. I left because, at 38 years old, it wasn’t too late to take the reins of my own professional happiness.
Only time will tell if these were the right choices, but at least they were mine. So far, that has made all the difference.
More information here:
Possible Lessons from This Transitional Tale
- Beware the greener grass: I thought academia was a greener pasture as I stood on the public health grass. If you are fundamentally unhappy, don’t change pastures, quit farming.
- Walk through one door and see which one opens next: I never could have envisioned where my financial planning path would lead when I decided to enroll at Berkeley to get my CFP certificate. I walked through that door, and I have been continually surprised to see which doors opened next.
- YOLO: Life is too short to stay in a job, a home, a city, a relationship, or any institution that leaves you feeling less than whole. Rather than fixate on all the reasons change won’t work, focus on the way it can work. We are smart, resourceful, and hardworking people. We have already proven we can excel at things that are difficult. It’s never too late to make the life you want even if it appears challenging to do.
- Sign up for the newsletter: You never know what pearls of learning or seeds of opportunity may show up in there.
- Go to the conference: I don’t just mean WCICON. Just go to the places where people you want to be like gather. You never know who you will meet there and how those serendipitous meetings may change your life.
- Shoot your shot: Megan shot hers with WCI. I shot mine with my current boss at WCICON. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, but even the misses aren’t necessarily a bad thing. I took a shot and missed with the dental school job, but even that led to something wonderful (if we hadn’t moved to Utah for that, Megan would not have gotten the WCI job, I wouldn’t have been at WCICON22, and I wouldn’t have my dream job now).
- Don’t place any trust or hope in Utah sports teams. (It's too late for me, but you don’t have to make the same mistake.)
- Learning for me . . . wow, that was interminable. Maybe I should write books, not blogs.
Were you burned out by medicine and decided to make a career change? Could you see yourself following a different path? Would that make you happier? Why or why not? Comment below!