Taking a Career Break: The Power of Small Changes Over Big Fear

In Inspiration, Success by Ritu Rao

About a year ago, I did what I thought was inconceivable—I sold my practice.

It was one of the biggest decisions I’ve made.

Big decisions are big for a reason. The stakes are high. The uncertainty is paralyzing. In and around, there’s often an invisible, oppressive tangle of influences, including logic, emotion and the resulting pendulum of want-vs-should.

Also, big decisions bring with them big fear.

Fear of the consequences, at what cost, and of course, the “what ifs”, like what if I’m wrong?

Or, what if I’m right?

What Happens When You Say No?

For a long time, selling my practice was a vague thought I could barely articulate. I had a fee-for-service practice, I worked 3-3.5 days, had a strong, reliable team who helped me build great relationships with patients and provide great dental care. Just like in any career, there were good days and bad, but we sailed along. All was well.

Except, there was a constant, nagging feeling that I was on a path that was no longer my own. I was going through the motions, doing what was expected of me, and being a responsible adult, but it all felt hollow somehow.

Naturally, I ignored it. This is what I went to school for, and worked so hard to achieve. I had my own practice, and it was my idea of successful. This is what dentists do. On paper, everything was as it should be.

So, like any good professional staring at frustration, burnout or whatever you call that empty sensation, I decided the answer was to work harder.

The problem with ignoring such feelings is, try as you might, you can’t banish them altogether. While you might succeed pushing them under the surface, they continue to simmer under the radar.

Over time, my restlessness grew and hit a low point. Then, I hit rock-bottom, the kind that feels miles below on the inside while on the outside no one suspects a thing. I felt frustrated, defeated, and utterly exhausted, mentally, physically and emotionally.

Then one morning, while I was putting my infant son back to sleep around 3 or 4am, I had a realization. It was deep, visceral; a rare moment of absolute clarity. I realized that:

If I didn’t start making some changes, things would continue on this path. And if I wanted something to change, I would have to be the one to do it. 

It shook me, and instinct told me I had better listen. So I did.

What Happens When You Say Yes?

I’ve always been a firm believer that change starts on the inside, so I began taking small steps. I started running. I started writing. I made more effort to reconnect with friends.

Over time, I also increased focus on my practice, improving systems, taking CE, and doing fun projects.

Start where you are, right? Who knew, things could turn around.

And turn around they did. In the next few years, I joined a running club and made new friends. I turned from couch potato to ultra-marathoner. Writing was a great outlet and I discovered I liked it, so I kept doing it.

But those thoughts in my work life wouldn’t go away. I realized it was time to stop ignoring and acknowledge them. This was, at times, frustrating, and at others, totally defeating. The idea of selling the practice seemed illogical and financially irresponsible.

But I kept working on it. I journaled, made lists, sought advice from people older and wiser, read books. I started to meditate, just a few minutes every day, and focused on gratitude. I did whatever I could think of to feel more at peace. I didn’t have all the answers; all I knew was that I had to change where I was now.

Maybe it was time for something totally new, something to help me get out of this rut where I was stuck, like a fresh start. And so, because I’d been toying with the idea for a while anyway, I wrote and published a book.

It felt great, this sense of accomplishment that I hadn’t felt in a long time at work. First with running and now with writing, I had done something on my own terms, held myself accountable, not only to start but persevere (with two young kids, no less) till I reached my intended goal.

This much was clear—if you want things to change, you have to want it badly enough to make that change. 

And I badly wanted my work life to change. Beyond the fear, beyond the logic, beyond the shoulds, it was clear that after years of denying, wondering, hoping, wishing, I was on the wrong path. Changing it was totally wrong on paper, but felt totally right in my gut. While unbelievably terrifying, it was was unbelievably.

It then became not a question of if, but when.

Then one day, I realized there would be no perfect time, because it didn’t exist. Just like there was no perfect time when I bought my practice, when I had kids, ran my first marathon or wrote my book. My part was to prepare the best I could.

Not long after than day, I wrote an email. Three months later, and after almost 10 years of ownership, I sold my practice.

Permission To Break / Break Free

A few weeks after the sale, I went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat. No phones, talking, reading or music, and ten hours of meditation every day. After the last few intense months, I thought this would be a fitting way to release and reflect on life, and I did.

Still winded from what I had just done, part of me secretly hoped for an epiphany, some divine reassurance that I had done the right thing. But alas, no. The silence is not a place to demand answers, it is a place to accept uncertainty. It remains, however, one of the best experiences of my life.

Meditation and mindfulness remind one to stay present, but our practical, everyday self wants the security of knowing what’s next. Uncertainty is a big fear, if not the biggest.

Fear keeps us safe. But it also keeps us where we are. 

Which is exactly why small changes are so powerful. Even if they’re small enough to feel they don’t matter, they eventually lead us to what matters most.

As for me, this isn’t where my story ends. In fact, my story is still going, still unfolding. One of the best lessons I’ve learned from taking a break is that as you figure, or reconfigure your path, you have more power than you think.

In a big life, that’s no small thing!