The start of a new year is a great time to examine the past year and make goals about the things we want to improve. Everyone seems to understand the concept of goal-setting, but only a few people can successfully implement them. In early January, the gyms are full of people working on the goal to get in physical shape. By the end of the month, the crowds have diminished and the gym is again populated with the “regulars.”
The same pattern can be seen in dental practices across the country. Each year, dentists decide to make the coming year better than before. We are going to be better leaders and communicators in our practices. We are finally going to do a large case. We are going to be better and more productive.
For the first few weeks in January the excitement is palpable, but by the beginning of February, that ambition has usually diminished to a shadow of what we intended. When another new year rolls around, we try again.
The Root of the Problem
I have experienced years like this in my own career. It was the inherent dissatisfaction with such a routine that led me to find a better way. To understand why this cycle happens, we must answer the question: What prevents us from making effective and lasting change? The answer is fear and doubt.
Fear and doubt are at the heart of what stops all human attempts at self-improvement. The goal of being a better leader is usually stymied when we encounter a difficult situation. We start to doubt our own judgement and operate from a place of fear in making a wrong decision. As such, we lose the confidence of our team members and, possibly, our associates. So we retreat to the way we have always done things in the past.
We can experience fear in many ways: we fear that patients will say no to treatment, we avoid difficult team members, and we worry that we might not know how to handle a case that is more advanced than what we have attempted in the past. As a result of fear, each year finds us making only minor advancements in our skills and productivity.
The cure to fear and doubt is to have hope and faith—a phrase that is easily said but quite difficult to do. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (ad 161–180) understood this all too well. He accomplished great things despite seemingly insurmountable odds. He wrote, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” This quote means that the solution to any obstacle is to go through the obstacle. Knowing what the obstacle is can lead you towards a path to overcome it.
Up in the Air
I learned this principle when I started taking flying lessons at a young age. I remember the flight instructor asking, “Do you want to try getting out of a spin?” I was game for anything so he put the plane into a spin. The experience frightened me so much that I actually considered never piloting a plane again.
For those not familiar with a spin, it is when a plane stalls and starts to fall in a spinning motion. It is not unlike the feeling a dentist can have when attempting his or her first full arch case, or when having to deal with a difficult situation involving a team member. At such times, dentists might think, “Maybe I should stay where I am and not try to go beyond my limits.” It’s a classic inner dialogue of fear and doubt.
I could have stopped taking flying lessons after my first spin. Instead, I approached my instructor and asked him to explain how a plane goes into a spin and how to get out of it. The next time my instructor asked about doing a spin I said, “I want to do it, but I am going to initiate it.”
While in the air, I pulled the stick back slowly, and as the plane pitched up into a stall, I pushed full right on the rudder and looked out the window as the plane started to fall out of the sky. After two hair-raising spins, I gradually gained control of the plane and climbed back to altitude. That experience was a game-changer. It taught me that in order to overcome an obstacle, I had to initiate the very situation I feared.
Seize the Day
A perfect example of how this applies to dentistry is the tendency dentists have to wait until the perfect case walks in the door before attempting a full arch case. Rather than waiting for the ideal opportunity, we should initiate it ourselves. How can you do this? Diagnose every patient with comprehensive dentistry (see the article, “Who’s the Doctor, Doctor?” by Dr. Jim Downs). Always present the best option for your patients, and make that first full arch case happen on your terms.
It’s important to be proactive rather than reactive. If you encounter an uncomfortable situation within your team, don’t wait for it to become toxic. Team members often respond to change by saying, “Give the dentist a few weeks and he or she will get over it.” Sometimes they even do things to “prove” that the change won’t work. I call that internal sabotage.
Initiate an honest discussion and don’t wait to handle the problem. If you need advice, find a mentor to help. Ask someone who has already encountered such a predicament, and put your newfound knowledge into practice.
The start of a new year (and especially a new decade) is full of potential. If you find that your past efforts have been limited by obstacles, do as Marcus Aurelius advises and confront those obstacles directly, and on your own terms.
Replace your default dialogue of fear and doubt with one of hope and faith, along with purposeful action. If you do, you will find that there is nothing you can’t overcome. It will be your best year yet.