Taking the Lead

Ignite your passion through dentistry.


Ignite Your Passion Through Dentistry.
“Follow your passion” is a tidy cliché that for many has become a foundational ingredient for finding success and fulfillment. The phrase isn’t just a harmless, bumper-sticker philosophy, however; it’s actually really bad advice. Throughout my career, I have met struggling dentists who attribute dissatisfaction in their professional lives to their lack of passion for dentistry.

The problem is thinking that a passion for dentistry (or anything else) is something that comes naturally, and some people have it and some people don’t. The extension of that philosophy is the notion that people just need to follow their passion to have happy and successful lives.

I firmly believe that passion is something that can be developed. As dentists work to build something unique and meaningful for themselves and their patients, they will correspondingly gain a greater passion for their work. Passion isn’t the source of success, but rather the result of struggle and effort to move past the obstacles that hold people back from reaching their potential.

In the past, I logged many miles traveling around the country and met with dentists at their practices (see the article, “Travels with Dr. Barnes” by Hernan Varas). When I met with a dentist who was feeling unhappy or dissatisfied with his or her dentistry, my advice was always the same: get back to basics! By that I don’t mean practicing basic dentistry, I mean relying on the three basic principles that govern success in any endeavor.

Any dentist seeking satisfaction and fulfillment should focus their efforts on the following three areas: move beyond your comfort zone, find a mentor, and practice dentistry as an art.

A saying that I like much better is, “Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.” I suggest that fulfillment in dentistry comes after venturing beyond one’s comfort zone. Many of our colleagues spend their days just doing the standard “drill-and-fill” dentistry only to find that their happiness and satisfaction is constantly in decline.

Instead of venturing into the full range of treatment options available to patients, dentists often limit themselves and the outcomes they can achieve. Dentists should resist allowing themselves to be limited by what they are comfortable doing for their patients.

Rather than remaining in their comfort zone, dentists should embrace the discomfort of pushing beyond the realm of basic dentistry. I’ve always said that dentistry can provide life-changing results for patients. But those results are rarely accomplished with standard dentistry. Life-changing dentistry is achieved from complex and comprehensive treatments such as implants, sleep dentistry, full arch or full mouth reconstructions, and appliance therapy, to name a few.

To master complex treatments, dentists must seek out opportunities and experiences beyond what is taught in dental school. Learning a new skill is scary, but satisfaction almost always results after accomplishing something that you thought you couldn’t do.

Another way to achieve satisfaction is to provide quality-of-life improvements for another human being. As healthcare providers, dentists are in the unique position of being able to offer treatments that improve the everyday functionality and aesthetics of their patients. Improving the quality of life for another person is inherently satisfying and fulfilling.

The possibilities for dentists are broad and exciting. If you want to feel passion for dentistry again, do a case that pushes you beyond your comfort zone and offers transformative changes for a patient.

Obstacles and setbacks are a natural part of any meaningful learning process. Too many people think that obstacles represent the boundaries of our abilities, rather than the beginning of new opportunities. Often, people let those obstacles stop them from making progress, and they languish in professional dissatisfaction, mediocrity, and safety.

At such times, a mentor can be a powerful agent for change. Having someone who can help you identify obstacles and can show you how to move past them is critical to overcoming challenges and ultimately finding success.

Mentors can be found in various places. A mentor could be a continuing education (CE) instructor, a trusted colleague with skills that you want to attain, or a former associate from dental school. Regardless of where you find a mentor, it’s critical to seek them out and foster that relationship.

Mentorship is an active, two-way relationship—it isn’t enough to watch mentors from afar. Younger or less-experienced dentists must humble themselves as students, and share their honest experiences with their expert mentors. Only then can mentors truly help and offer advice that the less-experienced dentists must be bold enough to try.

A third way to develop a passion for the profession is to treat your dentistry as a work of art. In my experience, all dentists are doing one of two things—they are either practicing the business of dentistry, or they are practicing the art of dentistry. The difference between the two has to do with what I call the artisan mindset. Art has the ability to elevate one’s perspective and lead to an understanding of the beauty and value of things that for many go unrecognized.

Dentists who are stuck practicing the business of dentistry often view dentistry as a series of treatments that insurance is likely to cover, or only those treatments that they think their patients can afford. For such dentists, case presentations are trapped in the uninspired world of everyday price-point dentistry.

Conversely, those who practice the art of dentistry seek to increase the value that their patients see in dentistry by showing patients the full range of possibilities. Presenting comprehensive dentistry to every patient, regardless of their perceived ability to pay, is one of the only ways to practice the art of dentistry.

True artists are always seeking to refine their skills in a new and different creative endeavor. Artists are not content to repeat the same work over and over. Instead, they seek to repeatedly improve by seeking new and different challenges. For dentists with an artisan mindset, each case presents a different challenge because no two patients are exactly alike.

The artisan mindset is also obsessed with craftsmanship—using the highest-quality materials and taking time with their work—in order to deliver the best dentistry. The artisan usually does work by hand and is concerned with the highest-quality result. In contrast, a traditional mindset is generally concerned with mass quantities rather than great quality.

If you have grown comfortable with the cases you are doing every day, take a step back and seek the skills and cases that will push you beyond your comfort zone. If you welcome the cases that challenge your skills, you can rekindle your love of and excitement for dentistry.

The phrase “follow your passion” is for followers. As a dentist, you are the leader of your practice and not a follower. Instead of “follow your passion,” make your motto “dentistry is my passion!” If that phrase becomes your mantra, you will constantly seek to improve dentistry to a level that delivers the beautiful and functional dentistry that will enhance the lives of your patients.

Start today and take a chance! I have walked along this very path and it wasn’t always easy. But it made all the difference to me and I know it will for you.


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