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Stoic Dentistry

Jeopardy! and Dentistry-The Ultimate Game of Life

April 12, 2021

Filed under: Philosophy,The Porch,The Stoic Dentist — Tags: , , — Barry Polansky @ 1:52 pm

The Pandemic, with the creation of new time schedules, has had most of us crying out to develop new habits. That is not an easy task, so I decided to entertain myself by reverting back to an old habit: watching Jeopardy! every night. I was always a big fan of the show and its iconic host Alex Trebek. I used to be a better player…my recall isn’t as good as it used to be. These days I watch with a different perspective…how the game of Jeopardy is like the game of life.

Recently I watched a smart young attorney competing. In order to prepare she admitted to doing the NY Times Crossword Puzzle for one thousand consecutive days. Now that’s gritty. Apparently it worked as she plowed through the questions and reached Final Jeopardy in a “no lose” situation. She was $3000 ahead of the second place contestant…but she had only accumulated $10,000…a paltry sum when you consider the amounts most formidable contestants earn.

I was impressed with the amount of knowledge she had accumulated…it just didn’t transfer over to dollars. Isn’t that the point of the game? To win as much as you can and return for another day. I made a note that her style of play would cause her to lose the next night when she would play, not necessarily a more knowledgeable opponent, but one who knew how to play the game…the ultimate game.

Through my years in dentistry I have met many talented professionals who did okay, like the attorney above, but never reached their full potential because they never realized the game they were playing. When you know your ultimate game…your entire game plan changes. Let me explain through the Jeopardy example.

Take a look at Jeopardy’s three most successful champions in the photo. The guy on the left, James Holzhauer, long before he racked up $1.69 million as a contestant on Jeopardy!, he made a living as a sports gambler in Las Vegas. Holzhauer also has a very high IQ…but a big part of his game was taking big risks.

I’m not suggesting that we have to be gamblers…but in life we all need to take appropriate risks. All three of the greatest Jeopardy players were risk takers…and do you know what they were betting on? They were always betting on themselves. Our attorney, even when she was confident rebuffed the idea of taking a risk. In that moment of truth…something interfered. She had what the cognitive psychologists call loss aversion. It’s very common. Everyone likes to win but some people are just afraid to lose.

This isn’t a good strategy for Jeopardy, and it isn’t a good strategy for life or for a career. We have to take risks. I remember my career…every course I took I lost a little sleep over how I would pay for it or how much I would lose by being out of the office. Every new technique I learned I worried about the outcome and considered staying with techniques I knew. Taking risks is what moves the ball downfield. Our attorney contestant was smarter than she believed.

The guy on the right in the photo, Brad Rutter is the highest money winner of all time across any television game show, with total “Jeopardy!” winnings of $4,688,436. He has never lost “Jeopardy!” to a human opponent. Watching him play was amazing. He never lost his cool. He would ring the buzzer mostly when he knew the answer. So many contestants on Jeopardy these days don’t seem to have the emotional stamina to compete. Every answer is an adventure. Maintaining emotional composure in life is no easy task…especially when we take risks.

Serenity, tranquility and steadiness are worthy goals in life. Yet…so many of us chase the external returns.

I have seen Brad Rutter go “all in” and lose. He shrugged his shoulders and actually crawled back to win the game. Too many contestants just “lose it” after a bad call, as if their complete identity were at stake. Once again, as in life, we have to play to come back another day…so peace of mind and tranquility at all costs is the objective of the ultimate game as well as the prize money.

And then there is the guy in the center. Everyone knows Ken Jennings.  He  holds the record for the longest winning streak on Jeopardy! with 74 consecutive wins. That was no accident. Jennings knows how to play the infinite game. This is a game where there are no winners and losers as author Simon Sinek tells us. Jennings watched other contestants like Holzhauer and learned how to take the proper risks…and he watched Rutter and learned to stay calm under pressure…but mostly he watched the host Alex Trebek…who he became.

Trebek died on November 8th, 2020 after a long-standing illness. He hosted Jeopardy! for 37 years. He was loved and respected by all. Ken Jennings has stepped in to be his “temporary” replacement. And what a job he has been doing. Jennings knew how to play the infinite game and he watched the exemplars in the game…until doors opened for him where he didn’t even know the doors existed.

Life has rules. Wisdom…the virtue that Socrates thought was the chief virtue in life, is the virtue that guides us in knowing the game we are playing…the ultimate game…the infinite game. Life is the essence of risk and struggle…all of us must master fear…even the attorney who lost her championship the next night.

My new book, The Porch, is a fable about a dentist who uses the wisdom of learning about the ultimate game of life. His lessons taught him about the necessary tools to succeed and live a life worth living. Check it out…and if you order now I have a special offer for you.

There Are Teachers and There Are Teachers

April 5, 2021

Filed under: Epictetus,Philosophy,The Porch,The Stoic Dentist — Tags: , , — Barry Polansky @ 10:00 am

These days everyone wants to skip the line. Everyone is looking for instant success rather than putting in the time. I’m for that as well. I mean who wants to put in 10,000 hours to become a master at anything like Malcolm Gladwell and Anders Ericsson suggest in their bestselling books. Who doesn’t want a good hack?

Even when I was in dental school, students were looking for the easy way. Most of us learned dentistry like chefs learn how to cook…very procedure oriented. There is a story told by Stoics of a student who approached the great teacher Epictetus and said, “Tell me what to do.” The wise sage responded,”It would be better to say, ‘Make my mind adaptable to any circumstances.'”

His advice was to learn how to learn. We shouldn’t pay attention to teachers and friends who are only interested in showing us the shortcuts and the hacks. We need to pay attention to the principles…every field has them.

Harrington Emerson once said: “As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

When we take the time to learn the principles and apply the principles we can solve most any problem that occurs…as Marie Forleo tells us in her best-selling book, Everything Is Figureoutable, yes—everything is figureoutable. This is one of the keys to mastery. Being able to figure out solutions no matter the circumstances.

I am a big fan of Jim Cramer…the Mad Money guy on CNBC. I watch him every morning. Sure, he gives out stock tips, but more importantly he discusses the principles of investing. Every day is a new day in the stock market and only those who adhere to the fundamentals of investing will make money in the long run.

Years ago, I used to go to the racetrack. There is an old horse racing adage that claims you “can beat a race but you can’t beat the races.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that quote, and it applies to just about any field. Some might say the same thing about the stock market. But we don’t want our profession to become a game of chance…that won’t happen if we learn and follow the principles…our “odds” of success will go up exponentially.

How does this apply to dentistry you ask?

Remember, our ultimate game is to win over patients to accept the care they need for optimal oral health and for us to competently provide that care…and in order to win, we need a process backed by principles based on perennial wisdom. Just like the best stock pickers don’t speculate on every stock and the best horseplayers do handicap their spots…the best dentists choose their big cases wisely.

When I go on social media (way too often), I see magnificent cases of stunning dentistry. Some are simple cases and others are intricately complex. Because I am retired, I am like the boxer that Paul Simon described in his classic song…“In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade…” but I do carry the reminders of every case that cut me down and I tell myself that “I am leaving, I am leaving…but the fighter still remains.”

So I look at these cases on social media and wonder. I wonder whether the dentist followed protocols…principles based on a philosophy. I spent fifty years in dentistry…the early years…with no real philosophy. Then after writing The Art of the Examination and clarifying my philosophy, I never broke protocol. And still…

Cases failed. I’m pretty good at picking stocks…and still I pick losers. And horses…I used to be a legend in my time at the track…but still losers.

So I wonder how these dentists do their cases. I wonder whether what I am seeing on social media is an illusion…and whether the cases will stand the test of time. I know from my experience that collective success over time on Wall Street, the racetrack, and work depends on having a guiding philosophy composed of principles we learn from the best teachers and mentors.

I say best because not all teachers are equal, and many will just give you some how-to tips without teaching you how to figure things out.

I have a couple of lifehacks for you…Can you guess what they are?

Clarify the philosophy by which you will approach your dentistry and life.

Ben Graham, Warren Buffett’s mentor and teacher taught him a philosophy for investing. It was pretty simple: 1). Develop a worldview–or a philosophy on how the world really works. 2). Create methods or systems and be consistent. 3). Be aware of your temperament –the world and the markets are very fickle.

Ben Graham was a Stoic.

My new book, The Porch, is a fable about a young dentist who changes his life and career based on philosophical principles…order you’re copy and begin to learn the secret sauce of success in life and dentistry through philosophy.

Use that philosophy to guide you in learning…in communicating…in leading…in solving diagnostic and treatment puzzles…in doing your hands-on work.

As the wise sage Epictetus said, you will make your mind adaptable to any circumstances.

Louie—A Cautionary Tale

March 29, 2021

Filed under: The Porch — Tags: , , — Barry Polansky @ 1:40 pm

When I was just a small boy, growing up in a quiet suburb of Queens, in New York City, I used take the bus to school every day. Back then we had to walk a mile just to get to the bus stop. I don’t want to sound like Abe Lincoln, but we got used to it…rain or snow. Everyday. Walking along with us…but really all by himself, alone, was one of my neighbors...Louie.

Louie wasn’t going to school. He was starting his long commute into Manhattan which he repeated five days per week. Sometimes I would see him reversing his route later in the day. It was a long time ago and I can’t recall how old Louie was at the time. My only reference now is that he had two daughters who were some years younger than I was, and they went to a closer public school.

Louie, otherwise, was a pleasant chap, but my memory of him and his circumstances at the time was one of pity…like that old comic strip character, Sad Sack. Every day he would move along slowly, head down, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, slumped over and plodding along, there was never a smile on his face. I vowed, as a young kid…never become Louie.

I did my best to avoid that fate.

I followed a straighter path that would lead to a much happier place…I went to school and became a dentist. The phrase, “master of my own destiny” became words I tried to live by. I was fairly successful. I chose dentistry (at least I thought I made an active choice at the time), because it was a profession, and like medicine, law and accounting it would give me the opportunity to be the commander-in-chief of my own fate. At least that is what I believed.

I had no reason to suspect otherwise. I was raised by parents who taught me the meaning of self-direction and freedom. Everything I had learned was confirmed by my own experiences…except the riddle of Louie. So I followed the well worn path of college and then professional school.

After school I went into the U.S. Army Dental Corps for some much needed practice and experience. Then I jumped right into private practice. Things were different in those days…it was an easy transition. I never had to get a job, I made a living right away. But…about five years into practice, things took a turn, not financially but emotionally.

I had become Louie.

I wasn’t happy, and I blamed everyone else for my unhappiness…family, patients (oh, those damn patients), staff, the supply guy, even the waitress at my favorite luncheonette. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I sought outside help but the courses I took just taught me that doing better dentistry was the answer. I would make more money and that would make me happier. NOT!

So, probably unlike Louie and so many others, I took the ball in my own hands. I started to read books on self-development and philosophy. I came across a quote which has become my mantra: “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” This became my anti-Louie strategy. It wasn’t an easy fix…but persistence and resilience pays off.

In life there is no such thing as instant pudding.

After a few years I learned about a dentist in Florida…Dr. L.D. Pankey. I went to the Pankey Institute and for the first time I met people who spoke my language. I was introduced to a book which L.D. used as a resource for his philosophy: What Men Live By, by Richard Cabot. This wasn’t a book that a kid from the streets of Queens, who drove a cab to get through dental school, would naturally gravitate toward.

Early in the book (not a page turner), I came across a word that resonated with me...drudgery. Right then I began to have visions of Louie. I knew that whatever Louie had fought and lost, Dr. Pankey had fought and won. I knew that I had found the answer.

I also realized that drudgery wasn’t about dentistry and that it was common in the world of work. Early in my journey for answers I realized that blaming my feelings on dentistry was not the way…soon enough I learned the opposite, that dentistry was a great profession, but only if I crafted the way I worked.

“If it’s to be, it’s up to me.”

And so my journey began. I read books, I studied, I reflected, I found wonderful mentors. I failed, I fell down…got back up and persisted. I felt like quitting…but I kept going.

Today, I am retired. After close to fifty years I can look back and say it was worth it. I avoided becoming Louie…or anyone else who dreads going into work everyday.

If you identify with with Louie…there is hope. There is a brighter future…there are known pathways and everyone is capable of finding a way.

Meaningful work is very different than drudgery.

Mike Rowe’s show “Dirty Jobs,” on the Discovery Channel, was his attempt to “tell better stories of men and women who master a trade.” He demonstrated that meaningful work is very different than drudgery…and meaningful work comes in all shapes and sizes.

A doctorate does not guarantee happiness. There was a point in my life when I thought that I could have continued driving a taxi and been happier. I could have found more passion for interacting with people in my cab than I did in my dental operatory. But with so much invested in becoming a dentist, I just couldn’t give up. Thank God I found my meaningful purpose and began making meaningful strides on “the road to mastery.”

Any trade, even dentistry, can be dull and dreary, or it can be pursued on this amazing road, becoming joyful. It’s on the road to mastery that we find our passion and purpose, but first we need to recognize what is most meaningful to us and apply energy in pursuit of it. It’s not only about “doing better dentistry.”

These days I have a passion for telling stories to improve lives.

That’s why I continue writing for and about dentists. Creating a life of personal purpose and wellness in dentistry is the “better” story that I aimed to tell in my latest book THE PORCH, which is fresh off the press and available now in print and digital form on Amazon.com.

THE PORCH is the story of a dentist… I think of it as a fable. Others may think of it as a fairy tale. My co-author, Deb Bush, thinks of it as an allegory for 21st century dentists. But every reader of the preliminary manuscript found it compelling. It resonated with their own experience in dental school and dental practice.

Dentistry Post Corona: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

December 22, 2020

Filed under: The Stoic Dentist — Barry Polansky @ 8:08 pm

The Great Pandemic of 2020 has created mass disruption in the lives and work for most people. In a current bestselling book, Post Corona, author Scott Galloway has an interesting perspective on the many various changes that we have seen and reveals his theory of what the “new normal” will look like. But don’t be shocked to discover it will just be more of the same.

As the premise of his book, Galloway uses a quote that is often attributed to former premier of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin: “Nothing can happen for decades, and then decades happen in weeks.” Of course Vlad was speaking about the Russian Revolution, but we can apply that logic to what we have witnessed over the past 11 months.

In other words, social and business trends that were already in motion went into turbo mode. The virus has acted as an accelerant. It has affected every one of our lives and every market in the world. Take e-commerce as an example. We have been using Amazon.com for years, yet e-commerce has only grown at a rate of 1% every year. Just before the pandemic, e-commerce was 16% of the economy. Then, from March 2020 through April 2020, that number jumped to 27% in just 8 weeks…just like Vlad said.

Think about other instances like virtual meetings and the emergence of Zoom. I hope you bought their stock. Zoom was around before the virus…now look at it. Stay at home stocks have been on a tear. With gyms closing and people social distancing, Peloton and Lululemon’s Mirror have really taken off.

And what about dentistry? Early on, dental practices were seeing the effect of fears of close contact and aerosol transmission. Then things eased up…practices became busier. Now, with the rise in cases, the fears are returning. One thing we must respect is that we have no control over other people’s behavior. And we have no control over the pesky virus. The vaccine is coming but human behavior will prevail.

As a retired dentist, people continue to ask me one question: “Is it safe to get my teeth cleaned?” My answer, as a dentist, is always yes, but as a patient they will be asking that question for a long time to come…vaccine or not. Dentists must see this through the eyes of their patients.

Galloway, in his book Post Corona, tells us that the existing trends will continue to accelerate…the good ones like stay at home practices, the unpopular ones like masks and excessive PPE, and even the ugly ones like misunderstandings in business and within families. So what do we do?

As a good Stoic, I would advise firstly to accept what we cannot change…the circumstances. Just like a war…it’s unfortunate and not fair but a Stoic accepts the challenge and moves forward. It never pays to get frustrated or angry. Now is the time to build resilience and pay attention to leadership and communication skills.

Yes, the troops are coming, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel (I love clichés), but basic human behavior will prevail in the end.

Can We Go into the Water Yet?

April 20, 2020

Filed under: The Stoic Dentist — Barry Polansky @ 1:30 pm

I bet many of us feel like we are living in a movie these days. I’m sure you have compared this pandemic to any number of movies. One of the biggest questions we all have on our minds is when will it be safe to go back to work, and what will it be like? The first movie that comes to mind is Jaws. In that movie everyone wanted to know when it will be safe to go back into the water. And now, forty five years later, people are still asking a similar question: whether it’s safe to go back to work.

Let’s explore the parallels.

The year Jaws came out, 1975,  I was serving as a Captain in the Dental Corps at Ft. Dix N.J. During my time there I came down with Hepatitis B. I became infected from working on a patient…without gloves. Remember kiddies, this was 1975…there were no rules. It was the Wild Wild West in health care. As we all know, hepatitis is caused by a blood borne pathogen. I became quite jaundiced and severely ill. I spent two weeks in the hospital. I started feeling better after one month.

I felt good enough to go back to work, but the U.S. Army had other plans. I couldn’t go back into the clinic until my liver enzymes were back to normal. I was tested frequently not only by the military, but also by the county Board of Health. I remember how diligent they were about the testing. They were serious…I couldn’t go back to work until I was cleared. That was mostly to protect anyone I would come into contact with. I was a known carrier, unlike the infamous Typhoid Mary who carried her disease covertly. I’m sure the public was grateful that the government was acting so responsibly. That was their job.

Like today, the public health department’s job is to protect the public. That trust must exist for us to function as a society. 

Fast forward to 1981. I was practicing full-time in my own private practice when the AIDs epidemic arrived in the U.S. By then I had learned my lesson and I was one of a small number of dentists who wore gloves on a routine basis. But I was in the minority. AIDs changed our entire profession. By the time it was over (if it ever truly was over) the life of every dentist changed forever. This time around I learned how serious government could be in enforcing public health regulations. They meant what they said (for those who are interested look up the case of Kimberly Bergalis). This was a classic example of the combination of blood borne pathogens and dentistry.

One thing I noticed during that period was the public awareness of dental practices and sterilization techniques. AIDS changed everything. It wasn’t the isolated patient who wanted to see how instruments were being sterilized. Many people stayed away during the height of the crisis. Yet in time the fear eased up. But not before more stringent rules and regulations were enforced. And once again the public was grateful.

Safety is a big concern for most humans. 

Behavioral psychologist Abraham Maslow formulated the Hierarchy of Needs. At the very base of the Hierarchy are physiologic needs like food and sleep followed by safety and security needs. His theory stated that people would not seek satisfaction of higher needs (love, belonging, self-actualization), until the basic needs were met. Modern dentistry has been focusing on the higher needs for some time by developing more and more elective procedures. Patients will be demanding safety when practices reopen. Patients have been deciding on the essential nature of dentistry forever. 

As long as it is safe…then elective procedures become essential to fulfill their higher needs. 

Now…almost 40 years after AIDS we have a new pathogen – the corona virus– Covid-19. The biggest difference is that this one is an airborne pathogen. And that makes all the difference in the world. Fear is ubiquitous. There is a new shark in the water. It does not show its fin. Like Typhoid Mary. In the movie Jaws there were people who went back in the water and defied the local police even though the beaches were closed. The small New England town was divided by those who didn’t believe the shark was a threat. Martial law was imposed to keep every safe.

Today’s pandemic presents similar issues. People demanding to get back to work. People not wearing masks in public. People congregating on open public beaches. Protests. 

This post is not about the biology or epidemiology of Covid-19. It is about human behavior and public trust. As long as the fear remains and people do  not have the absolute certainty of safety, they will not return to dental offices except for essential services (pain based). The other part of this is that it is the job of governments to protect the public—no matter what. Until they know it is safe, dental practices will have to operate under new rules.

Forty five years after Jaws roamed the ocean it is safe to go back into the water, but rest assured we do know one thing…there will always be new and more dangerous sharks to worry about.

Time Has Come Today

April 14, 2020

Filed under: Philosophy,The Stoic Dentist — Barry Polansky @ 10:01 pm

One of the more frequent conversations I hear during the recent pandemic is people not knowing what to do with all of the time in isolation. I hear people saying that with all of this time they can finally get things done – yet as each day goes by they spend more time watching more Netflix.

Readers of this blog know that I retired from clinical dentistry almost two years ago. As a retired dentist I feel a bit arrogant giving advice to the still working. I could never imagine what it must feel like to practice during these trying times. Certainly I practiced through some tough times like the HIV epidemic, but this is much worse. I hope I don’t offend anyone.

But this may be the best time to finally get some very important things done for the future of most dentists. One thing we know: things will not be the same, and I just can’t figure out the tele-dentistry thing. As dentists we are so used to the word “production.” The problem is that most dentists are finding this almost impossible. Having virtual Zoom meetings with staff can only go so far when it’s production we’re after.

As an observer of young dentists I have noticed how many have developed an overachieving mindset. How tough it must be to stay at home and develop new workout routines or cook new recipes while their practices are suspended in limbo. I don’t envy the young dentist who is devoted to self-optimization.

I thought back to my career and how I put my practice together forty years ago. I spent innumerable hours reading, taking notes and working on a practice philosophy. Writing policies and systems. It was something many dentists never found the time to do. Most just went to work everyday with one goal in mind: produce dentistry.

But it was these hours I put in up front that gave me the production capability that enabled me to build a successful practice. And now many young dentists have the time to sit and reflect on what’s most important in their lives, and to create that vehicle to get them there.

I am reminded of a story from author Steven Pressfield from his book Virtues of War. It is a great lesson of leadership and with all of this down time, one to think about.

Alexander the Great and his armies were finishing up after a battle when a young man ( future philosopher) approached the great warrior. One of the soldiers told the young man to kneel. He pointed to the lad and said, “This man has conquered the world! What have you done?”
The young philosopher replied without an instant’s hesitation, “I have conquered the need to conquer the world.”

And so the lesson is to get to “know ourselves.” This is philosophy – the first step in developing a strategy for our lives and practices. Most do not take the time to do this…now we have the time—I can think of nothing more productive.

The Sacred 40%

February 3, 2020

Filed under: The Stoic Dentist — Barry Polansky @ 10:25 pm

When did dentistry change from a profession into a business? Well, I guess it has always been a business it just seems that today it’s primarily a business rather than a vocation, a calling or a profession. When did the meaning of dentistry become what it matters to the dentist rather than the patients?

Let me give you an example. I am a diabetic and every time I go to my endocrinologist I pass a dental office that caters to Dentistry for Diabetics. I always wondered about what that office does different than other dental practices. Do they just treat diabetics? Do they focus on special diets? What makes them unique? What is their value proposition?

One day my endocrinologist asked me the same question. Both of us wondered what made this office unique. Both of us were aware that diabetics do have special concerns however we both never heard of a dental specialty for treating patients with diabetics. Through further investigation I found that the concept was originally created by a marketing guru who was selling the concept to dentists.

So what’s new?

Over the past fifty years the focus has turned from patient care toward business and marketing. Years ago, dentistry was protected from “outsiders.” Not today. Non-dentists are allowed to enter the field and literally take over through retail tactics, unethical marketing and even ownership of dental practices depending on the state practice acts.

So what’s new?

What’s new is that some dentists are making incredible amounts of money. And others are suffering through the worst era of burnout and depression that the profession has ever known. The numbers are staggering. Where will that take the profession in twenty or thirty years? What will happen to passion, purpose and mastery.

Author Jacob Needleman in his book Money and the Meaning of Life said that money is important, it is emotional and desirous but it is secondary. Secondary? To what? you say. Whatever is primary. Primary includes all of those spiritual things that we cannot touch and feel like purpose, passion, mastery and happiness.

So then if business, money and marketing isn’t the royal road to happiness for many or most dentists, what is?

In her 2007 book The How of Happiness, positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky elaborates, describing happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” That would be the opposite of burnout and depression.

She describes happiness in the pie chart at the top of this post. A full 50% of our happiness is fixed or set through genetics. Some of us were born lucky…others not so much. No matter how well you eat or sleep or how much you meditate or exercise, that 50% doesn’t change.

Ten percent is dependent on our current circumstances whatever they are. Okay let’s say that you consistently can’t make your payroll, or you haven’t had a new patient in a month or your staff is holding you hostage. Well, those are fairly common circumstances these days. But are they worse than the circumstances than Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl or POW John McCain had to endure? The question then is how to survive horrendous circumstances.

The answer is the sacred 40%

That 40% are the source of our thoughts, feelings and actions. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said this is all we truly own. It is the source of all of our reasoned choice. When we don’t take control of our thoughts and feelings and what truly matters, our actions, then we become victims of our genetics and our circumstances. A full 40% of our well-being is volitional – we have total control. Forty percent is a lot.

Viktor Frankl the author of Man ‘s Search for Meaning said it best: Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

This is the heart and our of Stoicism. Knowing this isn’t good enough. Applying our freedom of choice is the key no matter the circumstances. The sacred 40% is where our freedom lies.

You Don’t Own Me

January 21, 2020

Filed under: Control,The Stoic Dentist — Barry Polansky @ 12:46 pm
Lesley Gore- You Don’t Own Me

If you are a Baby Boomer from my generation, then you undoubtedly heard of Lesley Gore. She was a singer from the sixties who had many smash hits including It’s My Party (and I’ll cry if I want to), Judy’s Turn to Cry and my all-time favorite, You Don’t Own Me. Gore died at age 68 from lung cancer in 2015. According to her obituary “with songs like “It’s My Party,” “Judy’s Turn to Cry” and the indelibly defiant 1964 single “You Don’t Own Me” — all recorded before she was 18 — Ms. Gore made herself the voice of teenage girls aggrieved by fickle boyfriends, moving quickly from tearful self-pity to fierce self-assertion.”

Lesley Gore must have been a Stoic.

One of my pet peeves in dentistry has always been the concept of patient ownership. I was always bothered by the idea that doctors referred to their patients as “my patient.” Or the reverse – patients calling me “their dentist.” I am not being anal here, I wasn’t that bothered, but through the years I have come to find, sometimes painfully, that we don’t own anyone. Just like Lesley Gore was saying, she was free to move on anytime she liked.

In one of the most egregious cases of this, I treated a family of five for years. They grew up in my practice. They were like family to me and my staff. No one would have argued if we both used any terms of ownership. As a Boomer I was raised on the virtue of loyalty. Then one day (if you own a practice, you know what’s coming), they called for their records.

I felt fleeced. Betrayed. Lesley Gore was right…we don’t own other people (girlfriends or patients). As a matter of fact there isn’t much we do own. The famous Roman Emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius once said that we don’t own anything and that even our lives are held in trust.

Held in trust. I love that expression. If you get to know a little more about Stoicism you will see that even our bodies , physical health and our wealth are just held in trust. The trust that we take the responsibility to take care of things that have been entrusted to us…our physical health as well as our relationships.

In the The Enchiridion (“The Manual”) a short read on stoic advice for living. Epictetus ‘ practical precepts might change your life. He wrote about what’s in our control and what’s not. Some things he said are in our control and others notThings in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

Our own mind–and our own actions…that is all we can control.

That is why trust is so important. When we take on the responsibility with the perspective that we are just holding our relationships in trust – then we will value them more, take care of them more. Our patients won’t become commodities, and neither will we.

Being aware of being virtuous —doing the right thing all of the time- is what it takes to build trust. And like in the above example, there is still no guarantee. This all may seem obvious but the point of this is to gain perspective. We can’t control everything. Fortune and misfortune occur every day. How we see things is what will lead to a more stressless life…our well-being matters most.

Dr. Peter Dawson – Keeper of the Meaning

July 31, 2019

Filed under: The Stoic Dentist — Barry Polansky @ 10:45 am
In the comments please tell us what Pete meant to you.

My first major speaking job was at The Dawson Alumni Meeting in 2003. I had just published my first book, The Art of the Examination, and Joan Forest invited me to speak in Orlando. I was honored…but mostly I was nervous.

There must have been close to a thousand people in the audience. Joan told me to keep looking at her…and not to look at Pete. During my talk my eyes found Pete in the front row and that was the end of me. I thought I was terrible, Joan said I was fine and later that night at dinner Dr. Dawson gave me his seal of approval.

I was invited sit at the head of the table with Pete and his wife Jodie. For me the conversation was unforgettable. I considered Pete Dawson dentistry’s finest teacher and I was breaking bread with him and his inner circle…what a privilege. I told him that I had just finished Rick Warren’s bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life. The book is a predominantly Christian book, and Pete was impressed that I, a Jewish dentist from the Northeast was reading it. Silently I thought to myself that the subject matter, purpose and meaning, is non-denominational. And this was long before purpose and meaning found it’s way to the business literature.

We spoke about his friendship with Dr. Morty Amsterdam and how he so enjoyed coming to Philadelphia. He spoke about L.D. Pankey. At one point he said something I will never forget, he said, “You know, L.D. was no fluke.” I asked what he meant. He told me, “L.D. really loved dentists and loved the dental profession. That is what drove him.”

To serve someone other than oneself is the highest order of meaning and purpose. Pete has been doing that through his writing and teaching for the past fifty years or more. When news of his passing came, tens of thousands of dentists all over the world wrote about how much he meant to their lives and careers. He carried the torch of meaningful comprehensive dentistry into the hearts and minds of dentists for as long as I can remember. Dr. Dawson was no fluke – he was a warrior for meaningful, excellent and dutiful dentistry.

Excellence, duty and meaning are the primary sources of Stoic joy. Not the surface cheerfulness and pleasure that we have come to know on social media. The essence of what he taught led to real inner happiness. I know it did for me.

Erik Erikson the developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst known for his theory on psychological development of human beings described the last tasks of adult development as generativity and keeper of the meaning. It seems as if Pete’s entire adult life was devoted to passing on the knowledge to younger dentists (from one generation to the next) and to never waver on the meaning of dentistry for patients and dental professionals. Erikson claimed that if one completed these tasks the reward would be a full life. Pete Dawson was the man in full, as we can tell by the people he touched and his wonderful family.

I carry coin in my wallet which reads, Memento Mori. The Stoics used that phrase to remind themselves that everyone is mortal. “You could leave life right now.” When the news of his passing came I was shocked. Joan Forest reported that Pete was prepared and yet on the Tuesday before he was still preparing lectures and writing a chapter for a new book. I guess that is what the keepers of meaning do right to the end. Dr. Dawson, to me, was the most admirable man that I have ever known in this profession. I know I share that sentiment with many.

Dentistry has changed since I first took Seminar I many years ago. The things I see on social media don’t resemble the way things were. Dentistry needs heroes like Pete Dawson. I am reminded of the last stanza of the Simon and Garfunkel song, Mrs. Robinson:

“Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?

A nation turns its lonely eyes to you – woo woo woo

What’s that you say Mrs. Robinson?

“Joltin Joe has left and gone away, hey hey hey.

Hey hey hey.

Put a Human Face on It

June 11, 2019

Filed under: Control,The Stoic Dentist — Barry Polansky @ 10:02 pm

During my forty six years of practicing dentistry I had, like so many dentists, a few pet peeves. One in particular really bothered me. Whenever I met a new patient I would always ask about their previous dentist. What bothered me was when the patient didn’t remember their old dentist’s name. Right then I made it my goal to make sure that this new patient would remember my name—in a good way.

Names are important. We are not nameless, faceless robots that wander around all day. We all have our stories, and the way we differentiate ourselves, identify ourselves is with our names. Names give us our presence and our sense of importance. We remember people by their names.

Recently I took a hot Yoga class in Santa Fe New Mexico. The first thing the teacher did was introduce himself. Dave looked at my form and said he had a dentist growing up in Boston with the same last name as mine. That started a whole conversation about other Yoga teachers we both knew. My mind drifted to the time when I was a young child growing up in the Bronx. In those days doctors made house calls.

I still remembered Dr. Weltman who would come to our house. He was beloved by everyone in the neighborhood, and I still remember his name. I am not naive to suggest that we return to those times. Health care has changed. My pet peeve focuses on one change that we can do something about. We need to get to know our patients better, and they need to get to know us better – if we are going to stop the commodification of health care.

Business and marketing author Theodore Levitt once said, “There is no such thing as a commodity; everything can be differentiated.” And it starts with naming it. When we attach a name to someone we put that person in the context of their story. We begin to care more. It is the start of the trusting relationship. Things change when we put a name to every human.

Yes, call me old fashioned, but I do long for the old neighborhoods of the Bronx and Boston when everyone knew your name. We live in a world that is becoming way too impersonal. I was proud of the practice I grew. It was a close knit family of patients and we all knew each other – by name. I felt bad for those patients who didn’t remember the name of their last dentist. It told me much more about them and what they would expect from my practice.

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