But, Why?

Becky O'GuinFeatured News

By Leah Schulz, D.D.S., CDA President
From the Autumn 2023 Journal of the Colorado Dental Association

My kids question why I am the CDA president.  Without exaggeration, I answer their question of “why” I do this role every time I have a CDA-related meeting, conference, seminar, summit, etc., which can sometimes be four-to-five times per week.  While asking me “why,” my kids do their best impression of a Precious Moments figurine, making their eyes three times their natural size with little tears in the corners. They hold on to my leg and, in the most heartrending way possible, accuse me of deprioritizing them.

For the first two months, my response went something along the lines of, “because I made a commitment to be the president and do it well, and that means being away some nights and weekends.”  This, however, only held them off for so long.  After a while, this wasn’t good enough for them and frankly, it started to not be good enough for me either.

So, for the past few weeks, I’ve challenged myself to identify my genuine “why.”  Not the surface level kind of “why” like I described above.  To stay motivated and engaged in volunteer leadership, I had to uncover my authentic “why.”

If you’ve ever heard Simon Sinek speak, he talks about finding your “why.”  He describes the three levels of functioning: “What we do, How we do it, and Why we do it.”  If I had to guess, I think most of us are clear on our “what” and our “how”— we’re dentists and we treat oral disease and help people maintain their oral health, whether as clinicians, teachers, mentors, administrators, or in other capacities.  Like so many of you, my work life is a mix of all these roles.  Then comes the “why” that one’s trickier.

Being a CDA volunteer is not always easy, but it is vitally important.  Participating on councils, committees, taskforces, and/or the board means that you interact with dentists unlike you, often to collaboratively pursue a common goal.  You must be open to genuinely hearing others, including their opinions, fears, concerns, and ideas.  No longer are you in the coziness of your siloed practice modality, but are instead invited (dare I say, thrust) out of your comfort zone.  You must read and process things you knew little to nothing about previously, become a mini expert on all sorts of matters, even if those issues are not directly relevant to you or your practice model.  Ask any member of any CDA council, committee, taskforce, or board why they volunteer. The work can be difficult and challenging – and this is on top of the day-to-day stressors of being a dentist.  Why would we all do this?

I can’t speak for others who volunteer their time and energy in the CDA, but for me, my deeper level of “why” boils down to being a part of a legacy of CDA volunteers that have worked for decades and will continue to work, to proactively cultivate the success of a diverse membership and advance the oral health of all Coloradans. “Why”?  Because I care about people.  And I know that you do too.

I started my career as DSO-supported associate dentist and then spent the past eight years as a community health dentist, working with colleagues, students, and residents in suburban northern Colorado.  This meant that until I joined the CDA Board and later matriculated through the CDA Executive Committee, I was blissfully unaware of the day-to-day struggles of a private practice owner, of a dentist practicing in a rural area, of a dentist near retirement, of a mid-career dentist who may have lost their “why” somewhere along the way.  Being involved in CDA volunteer leadership has put me in touch with colleagues from all walks of dentistry, which has opened my eyes, my mind, and my heart to better understanding from where my fellow dentists are coming, where they want or need to get to, and where we can work together to create solutions that help foster their success and the success of their patients. 

I sincerely love getting CDA Volunteer Interest forms from dentists across the state, asking how they can get involved.  I know when I get that form that I immediately have a shared “why” with that individual.  They are dedicated to improving the state of dentistry in Colorado, instead of just griping on social media.  They are willing to step up, chime in, and put in the time, the work, the effort, to get a little “uncomfortable” to learn more about other dentists’ points of view, and to work together to make it better for all of us — both now and for decades to come.  Our “why” usually extends beyond improving the lives of our fellow dentists, as many of us are equally committed to improving the lives of our patients.  So much of the work that we do means improving meaningful access to care for millions of Coloradans, be it through improving dental insurance benefits and administrative challenges, cultivating adequate provider networks through helping recruit and retain dentists to work in underserved areas, addressing workforce shortage issues, and the list goes on and on.

It wasn’t until I started framing my volunteerism through the lens of my commitment to helping patients and providers alike that I felt like I finally had my real “why.”  Fostering the success of both a diverse membership and patient base is a “why” that motivates me, both this year and hopefully for many years to come.

I challenge you to discover your own “why” for how you relate to organized dentistry … then ask yourself “why” again.  And if you feel like you can’t do that, I have a couple of kids who are happy to ask you “why” over and over again. Your “why” has to be important enough to make sacrifices and hopefully I can help my kids understand “why” this is so important to me and model the importance of discovering their “why.”