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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.

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.

Predictability = Control = Tranquility

April 1, 2019

Filed under: Control,Epictetus,The Stoic Dentist — Tags: — Barry Polansky @ 9:57 pm

Back in the mid-eighties I attended my first Peter Dawson seminar. It was his Seminar I and my first serious introduction to occlusion. It changed my professional career as well as my life.

I was blindsided.

What I remember most from that day was Dr. Dawson telling the students that the reason why so many dentists were unhappy was because they weren’t practicing predictable dentistry. Occlusion was the pathway to more predictable dentistry. At the time I was practicing dentistry at a very superficial level. Dr. Dawson’s explanation compelled me to take the deep dive, and I never looked back.

At the time I was searching for better ways to do dentistry, and get better outcomes. Behind those goals was a bigger goal—part of my search for meaning. I never realized that doing meaningless dentistry was the source of my unhappiness…until I heard Pete Dawson speak. Although I had already taken numerous practice management courses that left me wanting for more, who knew that the key to my problems could be found in exploring technical dentistry at a deeper level.


I went along for the ride.

Slowly but surely I began to understand dentistry better…things really made sense. I couldn’t get enough of restorative dentistry…and I was happier. I thought I found the cure to burnout. But it was only part of the story. I began to study human behavior as well with cognitive behavioral therapy (using rational thought to explain behavior). That helped too, but unlike technical dentistry, human behavior was less predictable than the laws of occlusion.

“I entered the land of Epictetus.”

If that quote looks familiar to you it’s because Jim Collins made it famous when he wrote about Admiral James Stockdale in his leadership book, Good to Great. Stockdale’s plane was shot down over Vietnam in 1965, and he was held as a prisoner of war for seven and a half years. For years before the war he carried around a small handbook, The Enchiridion, the surviving writings of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. What Stockdale learned from Epictetus was that happiness demands that we differentiate between what is, and is not within our control. If we substitute the word control with predictable – Dr. Dawson’s philosophy made so much sense.The very first paragraph of the Enchiridion says, “Know what you can control and what you can’t.”

What we can control are our beliefs, opinions, aspirations, desires and our levels of understanding. These all fall within our circles of concern. We can influence the outcomes when we clarify our beliefs and increase our knowledge. That’s what happened the more I studied technical dentistry. What can’t we control? Plenty: Mostly the beliefs and opinions of other people.

Once we work on ourselves and what is under our control, the more influence we have with other people. We begin to realize that we can’t nor we shouldn’t manipulate other people. People become attracted to us because of who we have become internally. Our character.

I am not sure if Pete Dawson is a modern Stoic, but he certainly understood one of the key principles in achieving a fulfilling career in dentistry.

Check out the Enchiridion. Keep a copy in your pocket. Read it daily. Enter the world of Epictetus and comment below about how Stoicism helps you to achieve freedom and tranquility in dentistry.