In 2010, a man stole $30,000 from me.
I sent it to him willingly in the form of a cashier’s check, a detail around which he was suspiciously adamant. It was a red flag, but I told my gut she was wrong, that she knew nothing about how business worked, that this was the way things were done all the time, and I sealed up the money and mailed it anyway. Instead of making good on his end of our deal, this man vanished with every cent.
I was 29 years old, fresh out of orthodontic residency, newly postpartum with my second son, and building an ortho practice that I knew deep in my core I didn’t want. But it was the next rational step in my life, one that would put all of my costly training (for which I owed hundreds of thousands of dollars) to good use and that would allow me the freedom of being my own boss. Toward the end of my residency, I remember feeling like something was wrong since I wasn’t excited about this next step the same way my co-residents were. They were all like horses at a starting gate, pitching their heads forward to get slack on the reins. I was more like a horse that would rather hang back and gnaw on grass during the race. I chalked up my lack of enthusiasm to the fact that I was in my third trimester of pregnancy and completely baby-focused. I assumed the fire would light under my tail after the baby came, because I’d always been the self-motivated, ambitious type.
After taking some time to bond with my second born, I found myself feeling just as hesitant to move forward with my plan. Before you jump to conclusions, there was one thing I knew for sure: I didn’t want to stay at home all the day long with my beautiful kids, because that’s the hardest job there is, and I wasn’t cut out for the hardest job there is. I was meant for something different, and I’d always known that. After a hefty investment in my schooling, I felt obligated to follow through with it, even if I knew it wasn’t the best fit for me. I’d cornered myself, and I just needed to get on with it.
The $30,000 was part of the money I borrowed from the bank for my build-out. It was flagged for all of the technology I needed: multiple computers, wiring for cable/internet, TV’s, a built-in audio system, and more. I’d gotten the man’s information from a co-resident who had chatted with him, though my friend ultimately went with a different company. After several conversations with him, I sent him the money and waited for the first of my equipment to arrive. When it didn’t, I called the phone number I had for him, only to go straight to voicemail. My gut twisted to spell out “I told you so.” But I explained it away and persisted. Maybe he was waiting on a shipment himself before he could deliver to me. Maybe he was in between phones? Weeks of leaving messages went by before I officially learned what my gut had known all along. I’d been conned. This man had been stealing money from dentists in multiple states, and I would have to take the financial hit, because even if the authorities were able to catch him, it was highly unlikely he still had my money.
Devastated isn’t the word for what I felt. Shame. Anger. Embarrassment. Fear. Stupidity. Naiveté. Loss. Defeat. Incompetence. The combination of those words comes closer to describing it. I sobbed on my knees with my face pressed into my bedroom carpet for a solid twenty minutes before I could get it together enough to call my husband and tell him.
I wish this part of the story had a more satisfying ending, but I never got a dime of that money back. To my knowledge, the man was never caught, either. By that point, I thought it was far too late for take-backs, so my gut was just going to have to eat it on this one, too. I went on to borrow even more money and open my office despite my reluctance. During the four years I owned my practice, I never made it to the black, as they say. I owed far more than it was ever worth, and I never felt like anything more than an imposter there.
It took a long time for me to realize that I was free to let go of the idea that I “had” to do any certain thing in my life. I didn’t need to prove anything. I’d never been so deep into anything that I couldn’t change my mind. I didn’t need to live my life for anyone else but me. I’d always had a choice, even if I hadn’t allowed myself to see it that way at the time.
I failed at running a successful orthodontic practice. Full stop. I used to try to add more to that sentence to soften the blow to my ego—little caveats about the state of the economy, blah blah blah. Just the same, it took some time for me not to cringe inside when I thought about it. Admitting failure, even at something I didn’t truly want, felt like being naked in front of the world. It took even longer for me to understand that I’d failed not because I was incompetent or stupid. I’d failed because from the get-go, I’d chosen to quit listening to myself. I’d lost trust in my intuition and allowed external noise to push me down a path not meant for me.
How many times do we ignore that internal whisper? The wise one that says things like, Leave this relationship. Apply for that job. Say no to the one-more-little-thing-you-don’t-really-want-to-do. Take the big leap already. Wait just a little bit longer. Speak out. Stand firm on your no-glitter-slime-in-the-house rule. Slow down. Don’t send the $30,000 check. We can become pretty masterful at justifying our misaligned actions by simply tuning out our gut feeling. We trick ourselves into believing the consequent suffering was unavoidable.
I believe we each have a predetermined path that winds through the span of our lifetimes. This path takes us through the imperative lessons we’re here to learn. We have the freedom to take detours, of course, but as detours do, the ones we take ultimately spit us back out onto the predetermined path as long as we keep on moving.
Intuition is our built-in GPS. It’s there to make our trip as efficient as possible. It has the ability to spare us heartache, preserve our time and energy, and point us toward our joy. It’s divinely programmed to guide us, so we’re best served to put our trust in it and act accordingly. But we always have the choice to go rogue. That doesn’t mean we won’t get where we need to go eventually or that we won’t learn what we’re meant to learn. It simply means we’re prolonging the process of our learning and potentially making it more painful than necessary.
I can’t tell you exactly what it was that made me start letting my gut have back her say when it comes to my career. Maybe it was seeing my kids growing older. Maybe it was the acknowledgement that I don’t have an eternity to do what I want to do while I’m here. Or maybe it was just as simple as a desire to feel that the work I do is meaningful to me and other people. Orthodontics didn’t fulfill that desire in me, and that’s okay. It’s even okay with me that I chose the long (and rather expensive) road to understand that. I’m not sorry for it. What I am now is much more interested in listening to my gut. She’s been right all along, after all.