We all have people in our lives who take your breath away, people whom you put on a pedestal sometimes without knowing anything about them; it’s why, if lucky enough, we freeze and get starstruck when we meet them in person.
It’s why celebrities always seem shorter in person.
We imagine the people we look up to, to be so much grander than us, and thus mistake them as taller. One of those people for me is Josh Groban. In a recent Chicago concert, seats so close I could identify the band’s cologne, I felt mesmerized with not just the music and performance but was in awe of how another mortal could come to affect so many fans.
Josh (no, we are not on a first name basis) is almost human on stage. He’s funny, talks about his life, energizes and engages the audience, and with a decade of listening to his voice on replay, there was a sense of knowing him. But as I allowed myself to imagine him as a person, as a human, and not as a celebrity, a gnawing question presented itself: how did he get there?
What did it take? Did the stars align for him, or was he tireless in his efforts?
How many others are as talented as him but go unnoticed? How many are there with less talent but more fame? What does it take for a single human being, brought into the world like the rest of us, to command a big stage like that? Can any one of us get there?
As I was leaving the venue late at night, I attempted to connect my curiosity to the world within which I live–our beloved dental world. And in doing so, I began to wonder, who in our profession commands that great stage? Why and how did they get there? And curiously, did they deserve the attention?
When I first became aware of Dr. Sonia Chopra’s existence, I saw an Indian real life barbie, brilliant and successful. An endodontist, no less, with beautiful long black hair, a model like figure, and perfection in the way she dressed.
I grunted at how lucky she was to be all those things.
The moment my lamenting was over, I became embarrassed at that assertion. Because if I labeled her lucky, I took away every single solitary moment of sweat, blood, and tears that got her to become the Dr. Sonia Chopra I saw. Though we may not control what we look like as adults, being fit, smart, and successful takes tremendous effort, drive, motivation, and discipline.
In my conversations with Sonia years after said grunt, I found that, apparently, I wasn’t the only one who labeled, or more accurately, judged her based on appearance, image, or social media status.
She’d been singled out many times by her peers for the way she looked. She’d been drilled in residency on the hundreds of pages of literature to be reviewed nightly, maybe for that same reason. In one instance, heels and a statement necklace in tow, armed to the brim with the new found voice of her blogs, a male mentor to many in her specialty, decades her senior, publicly ostracized her for being outspoken. He labeled her a princess and prima donna, only to apologize later (in private).
That kind of labeling, that kind of degradation, is what has gotten in the way of her own belief that she’d made it. Praise, acknowledgment, and congratulations are few and far between, as a result. The level of confidence with which she carries herself, which she describes as being “just her energy,” might be mistaken for a snub or intimidation. People may pat her on the back saying ‘you know you always do a good job,’ yet withhold that special sense of warmth that would carry the importance of the sentiment.
So, as needed, when needed, with it missing for the same reason I was willing to withhold it from her, she pats herself on the back and says “Good Job, Chopra. Good Job.” It’s important to note that the forthcoming story of her rise, her breaking the rules, the overseeing of her vision to execution isn’t a function of her being a woman. What Chopra brings to the table, the education opportunities she brings to other general dentists, the savoir-faire with which she recommends and performs treatment, the mission with which she speaks, the passion with which she wants people worldwide to hang on to their teeth, has nothing to do with her being a woman.
The winding road down which she traveled, the uncharted territory she explored, the resilience, the rebound, and results of her effort… they all very much do. So I thought that if I were to examine the treacherous path down which she drifted, one she dismantled and conquered, could I map out the anatomy of a trailblazer?
I scheduled a conversation or two with Sonia most recently and have used the last couple of years of our camaraderie, friendship, and her mentorship to me as the backbone to making the observation that not only is she my Josh Groban in the dental world, she is much more than that. She is a trailblazer. I asked her if she, herself, sees what I see in her?
If when she hits that stage, does she take a deep breath, does she look around the packed room of people waking up to see her on Saturday at 8 am in Vegas, no less, and think or know that she’s making a difference? Having spoken twice at DS World and being the opening speaker at the upcoming Mommy Dentists in Business event in October of this year, she still struggles with seeing herself as the disrupter that she is. Her self doubt is enlarged by the impostor syndrome common in empowered women.
Sonia, the radical, didn’t fall into the trap of the expectations and status quo of what her predecessors set out. She didn’t set up the usual, quiet, 3-day a week general practice, while she married a breadwinner, then stayed at home to tend children. No, she got to the front of the class, kicked a#$ and engaged an audience world wide.
In the pre-pandemic world, the pre-zoom existence, she was the first, in fact the only one, who had developed and set forth an online module with weekly coaching calls. She was the first specialist teaching general dentists to perform endodontics, with no instruments to sell other than skill and confidence. And that is one of the few credits that she will give herself
From following a map to jumping off the cliff
Sonia’s upbringing is not terribly unique considering her background. Raised in an Indian family, education was the driving factor for success. She followed the journey outlined by her culture and tradition: always a straight A student, becoming a doctor of sorts, marrying an Indian man and making her parents proud. She wasn’t as much a rebel growing up as she was a firecracker, a feisty little girl. She was handed a map toward achievement and was appropriately encouraged to follow it, focusing on academics and choosing a culturally approved vocation. Now, in her mid 40’s, she’s broken the mold.
The mold was broken the moment a ‘publish’ button was pressed advertising that her E-school, an endodontics containing education course for general dentists, was ‘coming soon.’
The mold was broken, a leap was made, and a dream was realized. This leap, she describes, was the turning point in her life, in her career, in her purpose. It was the kind of leap that makes your heart stop and race all at the same time. The kind of leap that makes you examine your past for mistakes and makes you shiver at the future.
The kind of leap that sets one person apart from the rest. The kind of leap that only a trailblazer would be willing to take. But that leap, with her old map set on fire, was a decision analogous to jumping off the cliff. And yet, that terrifying jump that it took for her to create an E-school is the same jump that gave her wings and made her fly.
Personal mission fulfilled
E-school is how I met Dr. Chopra. Monday evening coaching calls which were supposed to last 90 minutes often went on for almost 3 hours, as her passion spilled into teaching us, her students. No question went unanswered. An eye opening curriculum covering what’d been forgotten since the endo course of our D2 year left me, personally, with a disproportionate amount of value for a cold test and a rubber dam.
With outright commitment to her field, she not just helped us understand our shortcomings, but turned the next root canal on the schedule into an adventure, where provided with her shared mastery, we were set on a path of uncompromising success.
Dr. Chopra has a most gentle patience with her students that is fortified with an abundance of expertise and experience.
It was clear, that as time stood still for her on those calls, as she may have missed the tucking-in time with her kids–though she’d spent the previous 12 hours working–she felt fulfilled.
Creating the life of your dreams
What most people don’t realize is that to get to a certain level of success, and moreover, in order to clear a path for others to follow, it isn’t just about moving forward. Becoming a wave of disruption, creating change takes thinking and planning (to a certain extent). There isn’t a plan to become a trailblazer, but rather a plan to live out your BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) to work endlessly toward realizing a personal passion and purpose in the world.
For Sonia, it was simple… Her purpose in life was to save teeth.
Born without 8 permanent teeth and having experienced an extraction of an asymptotic tooth, adding another missing one to the bunch, it was clear that her professional life would become about conserving natural teeth. She could create the most impact on mankind if she dedicated her life to teaching other dentists to safeguard against unnecessary extractions.
Her BHAG, today, is to reduce healthcare costs by saving teeth. Her superpower is to bring back to life the rejected, infected, often thought of as disposable teeth, and to empower and teach others to do the same. She admits that saving teeth or the desire to do so is not a sexy topic.
Yet, it’s a topic so unsexy that it landed her a Ted X talk in the Fall of 2021.
Running in heels
Her journey was not without tears and what seemed like relentless rejection. She started her practice from scratch and performed root canals in heels so she could quickly run out between patients knocking on doors of general dentists to get referrals. She was the first board-certified female endodontist in her area. Yet, when she approached the general dentists inviting patients to see her, they looked at her as if she had nothing to offer.
She cradled her head in a pillow those nights, crying, in disbelief at what she’d signed up for. And yet, morning, after morning, those heels were back on her toes as she returned to her practice and kept knocking on those doors. It built resilience in her. It reaffirmed her commitment to her patients and her professional calling.
But as she worked so hard, as she grew her practice to accommodate more patients than she can handle, as she hired associates, as 3 wonderful kids made their way into her life, she’d realized the burnout of being all things to all people became real. As many of us experience in years 6-15 of our career, she admits to being a terrible boss, to having had high turnover, and to a plateauing life in general. She looked around in disbelief that all the years of relentless hardship and countless hours of work brought her to a point where little joy lived. In 2016, as she realized the self imposed expectations were too difficult to handle, she also realized that no one gave her grace.
So, she sat down, slowed down, and put together a vision board–the initial map of a trailblazer. The return from burnout, the development of a new mission, and of the dedication that it took to bring the mission to life started with a few cutout photos pasted to a poster board. In 6 short years, she’s found that every promise she made to herself, every opportunity she’s wanted to create for those around her, had come to fruition.
As we speak, she is working on a new vision board.
I read Sonia a set of adjectives used to describe a trailblazer and asked if there was one among them that spoke most significantly to her, something of importance that she maybe identified with. I called aloud: drive, self definition, passion, non-negotiables, resilience, relentlessness, vision, execution, courage, disruptor, break all the rules, energy, mentors, grounded, exercise, question, listen, stay true, make mistakes, and keep going.
Without a second to spare, confidently and with a big grin, she announced: disrupter; the word, which on my computer screen had been highlighted in red, as my own adjective most appropriate to characterize her. Seeing her on stage, big and small, seeing her online with 50+ students tuned in, she commands attention. What she preaches, what she teaches is governed by a guiding inner force, that neither I, nor she can explain.
She thrives on teaching her audience a type of mind shift and an awareness of a limiting belief when examining clinical cases. Yet, this mind shift, this new perspective and new context she teaches is not meant for everyone to understand. Dentists challenge her onstage, with questions and in ways they wouldn’t challenge a male speaker.
She disrpts them (I giggle, as I have seen this first hand), she disrupts us, not because she’s a woman, but because she’s ahead, because she’s right.
She asserts and denounces long held and inaccurate clinical findings such as the fact that a J shaped lesion on a radiograph is an absolute indication of a cracked tooth, thereby advancing her self-proclaimed mission of saving the ‘would be’ extracted tooth. And if you are one of the lucky ones to hear her lecture, and are humble enough to listen to her advice, Monday mornings start with reaching for the cold test, rather than a referral slip to your nearest endodontist.
That which made Sonia a trailblazer, will not make me one, nor you one. And it’s not meant to, because there isn’t room for everyone up on that big stage. That’s an honor and a privilege and a reward for uncommon effort. It’s also relentlessly difficult work that requires missing out on other things. And not everyone can make those sacrifices.
The point isn’t to follow a trailblazer’s map, but rather to use it for inspiration.
Be inspired to break the mold, inspired to take a leap, inspired to live out and speak out for that which makes you come alive.
Sonia shared with me that when she pushed to publish the advertisement for e-school, the nagging self-limiting voice made her wonder: “Who is going to listen to this small brown girl?”
Well, Sonia… guess what… we did.
Tell us more.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Maggie Augustyn is a general dentist and writer in Elmhurst, Illinois. She earned her DDS degree from the University of Illinois Chicago, and has completed the course sequence in the Dawson Academy’s continuum in oral equilibration and cosmetic dentistry. Dr. Augustyn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.