A proverb states, “Even the longest journey beings with a single step.” Looking back on almost 40 years in dentistry, I know this to be true. As I speak to dentists around the country about what it means to succeed in dentistry, I’m struck by their assumptions about success. Some see it as having the right practice in the right place in the right economy. Others see success as a fickle force that seems to bless some and shun others.
When I share my structure for success I often hear, “Yeah, but you’re Dick Barnes. I’m not like you.” Then they proceed to tell me why they are different. They point out things like “My practice is in a poor area,” “My patients can’t afford the dentistry they need,” or “I am only an associate at the practice.” They somehow believe there is something special about me that is absent in them.
Please believe me when I say that I was like every other dentist when I started out. When I graduated from dental school I had a young family, a lot of debt, and a hunger to succeed. As I reflect back on my first year in practice, it was difficult. My practice was in a working-class area of California where people didn’t have the kind of jobs that could easily pay for the dentistry I wanted to do.
I distinctly remember thinking that the success I had envisioned at graduation seemed so far away. I had a choice to make. I could accept my perceived reality and do the dentistry I thought the market would support, or I could pursue my vision of success.
Perhaps the thing that deters most dentists from success is the false belief that success is a destination rather than a journey. If you believe that at some point you will find the “secret” of success and arrive at the apex of achievement, your career will end in either disappointment or mediocrity. Success is always journeying toward something better. It seeks to push the boundaries of what has always been, in search of what could be.
My achievements did not develop overnight or even in a few years. They are the result of concerted effort and continual improvement. While developing success takes time, deciding to take that first step takes but an instant.
My first step was when I decided to run an ad in TIME magazine. I really couldn’t afford it at the time, but I needed to make a statement. The ad was simple by today’s standards but revolutionary at the time—I publicly announced my intent to take the dentistry I practiced to a new level. At a time when most dentists were advertising dentures for their aging patients, I asserted that patients should be able to keep their teeth for their entire lives. And I made the commitment that as their dentist I would help them make that a reality.
At first I took a lot of flak from other dentists—they thought I was cocky and didn’t understand “real” dentistry. But the number of patients that came to my door asking for help to keep their teeth indicated that I was on the right track. This was but the first of many steps on a journey that continues today.
There has never been a better time to be a dentist. The technologies, materials, and techniques available today make it possible to practice life-changing dentistry. If you are just starting out, take that first step. Make a statement. Don’t wait five years before you contemplate doing a full arch case or placing an implant. Decide today to take steps in that direction and follow it up with action. If you’ve been practicing for several years and are comfortable, acquire new skills and enhance the level of care you provide your patients.
As I look back at the progression of my career, I truly hope I never find ultimate success in dentistry. My reason is simple—for there to be an ultimate level of success, dentistry would have to have a limit past which it could no longer progress. I love this profession and I hope to continue this journey for many years to come. Please join me.