Inspiring Growth Fresh Out of Dental School

In Inspiration, My Story by Erinne Kennedy, DMD, MPH

Growth can come suddenly. Or gradually. Or both.

The phone rang, and I kept saying yes to everything that was asked of me until I hung up and realized what I had committed myself to. I had just been honored with the request to be keynote speaker at my alma mater’s upcoming white coat ceremony. I thought “Wow, this is amazing!” but in an instant that blissful moment was over. Have you been there? When a flood of doubt rushes into your mind: Do I even remember who I was before dental school? Actually, do I even remember some parts of dental school? I was questioning myself and where I had started. I was also questioning my ability to relate to this incoming dental class. But the bottom line was that I had agreed to be the speaker for their ceremony.

In the process of preparing for this talk, I decided to read my entire dental school application over again. I wanted to transport myself back to that time. I wanted to recreate my thoughts, my dreams, my fears, and my goals prior to dental school. I had changed so much as a person in my twenties, now it was hard for me at age 29 to even recall where my mind was at age 22. This good and incremental growth is what we are all looking for as leaders, as moms, as friends, as health care providers, as sisters, and in all the varied roles we find ourselves in as women.

I thought, “If I could somehow sit down with the 2011 version of myself, I would ask myself to be more humble.” Looking back through my dental application made me realize that I was a little over confident–maybe even prideful. Thankfully, dental school and a residency had administered repeated heaping doses of humility, because admittedly, I needed it. But what I appreciated most from my years in dental school is that I was given the opportunity to try out being a leader: for small groups, for large groups, from authoritative positions, and from not-so-authoritative positions. I learned to assess my skills and abilities, but more importantly, I learned to be humble when making mistakes, and I learned that growth sometimes requires change.

Gypsy Smith, renowned evangelist and revivalist routinely demonstrated a concept of self-change. He was known for standing in front of thousands of people and drawing a chalk circle on the floor around his feet. The point of his demonstration was to show that if you want to make a change in this world, it truly starts with changing yourself.

Let’s stop. Wherever you are reading this blog, I hope that you can stand on your feet and look down at your toes. Close your eyes and imagine a chalk circle surrounding your feet.

Inside the circle is where change starts. Where growth starts. Growth starts within the person in that chalk circle at your feet. For me, changing one person started with making the person inside of that chalk circle the best version of myself that I could be: humble, hardworking, and generous. These were things I wanted to focus on. Then I hoped to have a chance to affect others’ environment.

As I was thinking about my journey and my circle and my upcoming presentation, I realized that I was being changed, again. I was trying to write a speech to help others know how to grow, and to dream. I was also hoping to encourage these younger students to have a fabulous dental school experience. But, as life experiences often do, this process of speech writing started growing and refining me too. While I was envisioning my chalk circle, I realized that as a leader I was spending an awful lot of time worrying about other peoples’ circles.

Perhaps I was telling them to change what was in their circle. Or maybe I was telling them how to change inside their circle? Or was I telling them when to change what was inside their circle? Have any of you led others in a similar fashion? Do you think you can inspire growth by pointing out faults?

I started to realize that true growth as a leader starts within individuals, and the fruit of that grwoth has the power to change the world. But this is a hard pill to swallow for some of us. It is often easier to lead others to a new thought, habit, or practice than it is ourselves.

Today I am starting a self-change challenge. This challenge allows me to create inner change when I am caught in a difficult moment, a bad attitude, or in a frustrated scenario. I may not DO something differently, but I will try to choose to BE something different. I will try to be kind when the world shows me a harsh response. I will try to use grace in a world with cultures that are sometimes quick to judge. I will try to love when it is often easier to be offended.

I hope this week you can focus in on your circle. And don’t forget, set out to change the world, but start with yourself. The world–and our profession–is counting on you.

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