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Start With the Fruit

June 28, 2021

Filed under: Control,The Porch — Tags: , , , — Barry Polansky @ 1:12 am

It’s been a long time since I made my decision to become a dentist. I can’t even remember how I made it. I know that I was under some pressure to decide, mostly from my parents and their friends. I also know the reason I told others about why I chose dentistry…because I had spent so much time in dental offices growing up. Yeah…I had dental problems. But really I didn’t know that much about how I would spend the next fifty years of my life.

There were peaks and valleys in the early years… mostly valleys.

From where I stand right now, I believe that seventeen is just too young to decide what you want to do with the rest of your life. It was for me at least. But…as my father would tell me…“That’s life.” And I know it will not change for the younger readers out there, but what could change is the way dental education prepares students for what to expect. Dentistry is a complex field that requires students to become proficient in multiple skills and many micro-skills.

I wish someone would have sat me down and gave me some real world career advice…like I did for my kids as they were growing up, to avoid some of the mistakes I made. I would begin with Stephen Covey’s Habit #2—Begin With the End in Mind. I would ask students what outcomes they would like from their career in dentistry…and I would disqualify money as an answer. That’s the dummy answer.

Because money buys what people really want.

The great Warren Buffett tells a story from his youth in his biography, The Snowball, about how he always wanted to make money…it was most important to him. The story is about how at the New York Stock Exchange he observed that the really wealthy employed valets to roll their cigars. He thought it was “pure frippery to roll cigars – handmade, custom made cigars – for the member’s own particular pleasure.” When he observed that, he claimed that on that day the vision of his future was planted.

“He wanted money.” Because…

“It could make me independent. Then I could do what I wanted to do with my life. And the biggest thing I wanted to do was work for myself. I didn’t want other people directing me. The idea of doing what I wanted to do every day was important to me.”

I believe that there is a lot of universality in that thought. Yet we are all unique in our own lives…but ultimately it is up to each of us to determine and design our ultimate game plan.

Buffett wasn’t seeking money as much as he was seeking the things we all want in our lives. If only we could understand what those things are at age seventeen, then we could design our careers to meet those needs.

Adam Grant in his amazing book Think Again questions that very unreasonable inquiry that all kids are asked: What do you want to be when you grow up? In his book he uses his cousin Ryan as an example of someone who chose medicine…because the medical profession (dentistry included) is what every parent wants their child to become…my son the doctor. Once Ryan made his decision he spent years staying on track.

I’m sure many students can identify…staying on track no matter what…even when in the throws of burnout. Then, there is no turning back. And then there is the debt and all of the other sunk costs…physical, financial, mental and emotional. But we continually tell ourselves that when we hit a certain milestone like owning our own practice then we will be happy and have all the things we want…but as the positive psychologists will confirm, that is a poor prescription for happiness.

Once we realize we are in over our heads, instead of rethinking and pivoting as Grant recommends, we double down. We work harder and harder and take more and more courses looking for the answers to our disappointments. Grant calls that an escalation to commitment. We dig in.

Many of us suffer from a form of tunnel vision. We foreclose on our identity to become the doctor that our parents wanted us to become despite our dissatisfactions. In other words Grant suggests we need to look at careers as actions and tasks rather than the identity it gives us. The tasks involved in a successful dental career are multitudinous and complex. There are many micro-skills and tasks that are necessary but never discussed in dental school.

If you are a dental student reading this post and you are having second thoughts about the profession, I highly recommend that you read Grant’s advice on having a career checkup in his book Think Again.

If you follow my blog posts or have read my new book, The Porch, you know I am a big fan of knowing the ultimate game you are playing. That game according to the ancient philosophers and the modern psychologists is to become your best self…and that will result in happiness…or what Marty Seligman calls flourishing. Choosing a career that fits well with your best self will result in a flourishing career.

Isn’t that what we all want? To flourish.

There is an expression that claims if you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life. So the question is to create or design a life that enables us to love what we do. Psychologists tell us that passion is developed not discovered. We develop our passions through mastery. But mastery is not as simplistic as it sounds. Mastery includes a love of learning, curiosity, the growing concomitant passion, purpose and meaning, autonomy and competence.

As I suffered through my own burnout phase I realized more and more about the role of meaning and purpose and the real contribution I could make for my patients and team. Grant says the more meaning and purpose are important for our happiness, the older we get. I surmise that if happiness is our goal, the only way to achieve it is to understand the various pathways to happiness rather than looking for happiness itself.

Grant quotes the philosopher John Stuart Mill: “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.” There isn’t just one path to happiness (money?)

If we begin with the end in mind…happiness, and define what happiness means, we will see clearly the diverse pathways that lead to our intended destination. By understanding the role we play and the contributions we make we will see that the road to happiness includes mastery, freedom, autonomy, positive relations, engaging work, and accomplishment.

Knowing this anyone can design a work life that will be rewarding and fulfilling.

My new book, The Porch, discuses the ultimate game —how to achieve the fruits of your work, in story form. Order now and receive a copy of my bestselling book The Art of Case Presentation absolutely free.

Once Upon a Time… in Dentistry

May 10, 2021

Filed under: Control,The Porch,The Stoic Dentist — Tags: , , — Barry Polansky @ 1:30 pm

Isn’t that how most fairy tales begin… with that stock phrase that implies how things used to be… and like most fairy tales, end with the other phrase… they lived happily ever after? If the dental profession could be told in the form of a fairy tale, I don’t see it ending as they all lived happily ever after. 

I started practicing dentistry in 1973. Some would call that The Golden Age of Dentistry. Looking back, I would say it was the end of a golden age. I have thought about the exact moment or moments that changed dentistry… like the day the earth stood still, or the day the music died, but I always come up empty. Things rarely change radically like a revolution, but rather unfold over time like Darwinian evolution. 

Let’s begin this tale in 1973… what I am calling the beginning of the end. When I graduated, most dentists just hung up their shingle and started what has come to be known as their fee-for service dental practice. This was how we did things back then. Sure, there were alternative ways of practicing, like group practices and specialty practices, but the economic framework was pretty much cash and carry or fee for service.

Things seemed to be working well. The private practitioners worked well with the free clinics and the welfare offices of the time. In 1954, labor unions sought to add dental coverage as a fringe benefit and consulted with state dental societies in Washington, Oregon, and California to develop a benefit where care would be delivered in the dentist’s office. 

I wasn’t practicing in 1954 but apparently the idea caught on. In 1966, Delta Dental was established and by that time dental insurance was on fire in the corporate and government arena. It was almost a political issue… but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Most dentists even thought it was a good idea. I never complained in the early years. These days I am not a big fan of corporate entities getting involved in the marketplace… but that is a story for another day. In the early seventies, what did we know?

Let me diverge for a moment with another story… Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. An allegory is a story which acts as a metaphor for other points of view. Click on the link for a quick summary of the story. Imagine us sitting in the allegorical cave just watching the cave wall as images go by. In Ancient Greece, that may have truly been a cave but today I think more of a lecture hall or newsfeed, social media… or wherever we get our information. Facebook anyone? Plato used the term puppet master to represent the person who was controlling the images. 

As insurance entered into the marketplace, we were fed many stories from various special interest groups until the entire landscape of dentistry changed. In my day, we had the early development of closed panel groups which were the early versions of what legitimate insurance companies converted into PPOs. As years went by, insurance plans converted from total indemnification plans to PPO’s and the thankfully unpopular HMOs. 

But slowly people were losing their freedom of choice. Slowly… slowly… slowly… not only doctors but patients as well. If you were around back then, you would occasionally read messages sent from insurance companies that were meant to coerce patients to join their plans. (“You can keep your own doctor.” Really?)

The Stoics believed in free will. People wanted to decide for themselves free of coercion. But outside interests from labor unions, insurance companies and in some cases organized crime were coercing patients to join their plans – upsetting the marketplace… slowly, slowly, slowly. 

And it worked. We no longer have what Adam Smith called the invisible hand of the marketplace

I am probably preaching to the choir. Understanding this concept may be attacking someone’s personal view of the world or work, or life in general. I get that. It’s an uphill battle… steeper now than in the seventies. What concerns me most of all is the well-being of individuals. What is best for the good of all. Through the years I have watched the dental profession change from a highly desirable destination for young people to a battleground for the health-care marketplace. 

We need to look out for the good of all the players… doctors, patients, team members, lab technicians… all of the frontline workers.

So, I wonder what the future holds. Will we continue to devolve? Or will there be a movement of leadership that has not existed in the past. My new book, The Porch, tells the story of a young dentist who is struggling with burnout. He meets his mentor who tries to combat the forces in dentistry and dental education with his own brand of leadership—an authentic, virtues-based leadership that confronts dentistry’s gatekeepers in a subtle manner and begins to change the tide by calling out the puppet masters.

Don’t we all want this story to end happily ever after?


The Dental Warrior

April 26, 2021

Every morning I awaken to the Serenity Prayer downloaded onto the desktop of my computer. To many this has become a boring, humdrum banality that we take for granted…unless of course you have a problem with alcohol. During these very difficult days of the Covid-19 Pandemic I began to read it more closely and observed how much sound judgment it contains.

Many people associate it with Alcoholics Anonymous. When I was in dental school during the seventies I used to pass an AA Meeting Hall on the way home. I never had a drinking or drug problem…but I was curious and went in one night. They welcomed me in and served up some good coffee and donuts. I remember the meetings starting with a reading of the Serenity Prayer. Recently I looked up the origin.

The prayer was written by a protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr in the mid-thirties. He needed a topic for discussion for an upcoming sermon. It was meant for everyone…not just alcoholics. Alcoholics Anonymous(AAadopted the prayer in 1941 when an AA member saw it in The New York Herald Tribune and asked the AA secretary at the time, Ruth Hock, to see if it could be printed in distributable cards. And so it has since become the mantra of AA.

When I read The Serenity Prayer these days I see ancient wisdom. I see Epictetus when I read it.

Who? You might ask. Epictetus was one of the most prominent Stoic philosophers…a slave and the teacher of Marcus Aurelius. He is known for his handbook The Enchiridion which is meant to keep the philosophy close at hand. For those literary types he was also the center of the main theme of one of my favorite books, Tom Wolfe’s mega-bestseller A Man in Full.

My new book, The Porch is a tribute to Epictetus and the Enchiridion. It’s a reminder for dentists about how to use and apply philosophy in dental practice. You can order a copy of The Porch right here and for just a short time get a free copy of my book The Art of Case Presentation.

Those two books helped me to realize that philosophy…specifically Stoicism, was more about practical application than about thought, meditation and reflection. Real philosophers are warriors not librarians. Philosophy can guide us …offer us help, but only if we make it accessible. Alcoholics needs actionable counsel…and so do we during these most difficult times.

Epictetus 101 tells us to “control what you can and ignore the rest.” Like the Serenity Prayer he was all about knowing what we can and can’t control. He advised his students to carry his handbook with them…so the counsel would always be at hand— accessible – hence I keep the Prayer on my desktop. It reminds me of what Socrates and Dan Goleman, the neurobiologist, consider the fundamental rule of “know yourself.”

Let’s break down the simplicity of the Serenity Prayer. It includes some very key words like, courage, acceptance, wisdom and serenity. The first three words remind me of Aristotle’s Four Cardinal Virtues. Notice that the virtues are verbs – they require some actions. Let’s examine the warrior nature of these virtues.

First courage. It takes courage to get through each day. It takes courage to act in the presence of fear…to do the right thing. Mostly, it’s harder to do what we know is right than to sit back and do nothing. Aristotle considered courage the chief virtue because without it the other virtues could not be practiced. The Jospeh Campbell, the mythologist, would tell us that we should “slay the dragon ‘thou shalt,’ as a sign of maturity and courage.

Second virtue: acceptance. That does sound fairly passive…but I would substitute the virtue of gratitude here. To understand acceptance we have to look at its opposite…denial. The word denial implies a world of “should.” When the world doesn’t behave as we think it should…we get upset, angry and frustrated. The answer is acceptance. Accept everything…take nothing for granted…only as granted. Accept as if we had actively chosen the outcome. For that mindset we must be grateful for everything.

My father taught me as I was growing up, that life is unfair. If it were fair…s**t wouldn’t happen. But, as you know…”s**t happens”. But through acceptance I never feel victimized. I deal, accept, move on and take positive action…of what is within my control. Acceptance and gratitude are liberating virtues.

Finally the virtue of wisdom. Wisdom gives the warrior clarity and perception. To know what is up to us and what is not up to us. Without clarity we don’t know how to act. Socrates considered wisdom the chief virtue.

This is a blog primarily for dentists who are trying to reconcile their work lives and their personal lives. I hope this helps…because it truly is about the universal reward for being a warrior philosopher, and that is the final word in the prayer…serenity. After some tumultuous years in practice I realized that serenity was what I was looking for.

The great Stoic philosopher Seneca said, “Our character is the only guarantee of carefree happiness.”

Bill W. the founder of AA used to say of the Serenity prayer, that it tells us “accepting the things we cannot change.” Acceptance must not be confused with apathy. Apathy fails to distinguish between what can and what cannot be helped. Apathy paralyzes and acceptance liberates. But acceptance, he used to say, required moral courage, to carry on when things look hopeless.

By becoming a philosophical dental warrior you will gain the most important thing in life: serenity and peace of mind.

Time to Rethink Dental Education

April 19, 2021

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

Adam Grant, in his new bestselling book, Think Again, The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know (highly recommended), describes a few character traits that set the great presidents apart. Experts found that of the best character strengths the great ones had, that intellectual curiosity and openness to experience distinguished them from the rest. Grant said, “They read widely and were eager to learn about developments in biology, philosophy, architecture and music…”

In other words these leaders had a different mindset…rather than a certain skillset. Maybe dental schools (and other professional schools) should consider focusing more on mindsets rather than skillsets.

For those of you who study philosophy, Stoicism or positive psychology, you will recognize intellectual curiosity, openness to experience and love of learning as character strengths that come under the heading of the core virtue…wisdom.

When I look at the current state of the development of dental education over the past 50 years I see not much has changed. The focus has remained on training dentists in technical skills (techniques, materials and equipment have changed), rather than on training dentists to think more critically and to become better leaders.

It’s time to rethink dental education.

Through my years I have witnessed the coming and going of trends and fads that promised dentists happiness, freedom and success if they mastered the associated skills. From business management and sales and marketing skills to technical skills in cosmetics (veneers, Botox), implants, sleep dentistry and splint therapy, all made the promise of success.

I agree that mastering technical and business skills are the key to mastering dentistry…anyone who thinks otherwise is crazy. It is the job of dental educators to produce competent dentists…first and foremost.

Yet…something is missing…and that is becoming more and more apparent every day. With the rising costs of dental education, the rising incidents of burnout and suicide and the decline in trust by the public…I have to look at the dental education as a way to improve the existing conditions.

Maybe…it’s time to rethink dental education.

A good method of finding insight is to use what the great investor Charlie Munger would do…he would use inversion. His philosophy was to “invert, always invert.” That is not unlike the philosopher Aristotle who would explain the virtues by describing his golden mean by looking at their opposites (see diagram above). So, if our job is to find the truth— then lets look at the inversions of the strengths of curiosity and the love of learning.

First let’s take a look at the opposite or absence of curiosity and learning. Words that come to mind are orthodoxy, complacency, laziness and dogma. Then there is the condition of an excess of a love for learning — know-it-all-ism. Know-it-all-ism can be just as bad as the lack or opposite of a love of learning because it can lead to over confidence and arrogance.

Sometimes it is hard to detect the laziness and complacency in dental education but the arrogance sticks out like a sore thumb. Adam Grant suggests that we look for three behaviors that are emblematic of complacency, orthodoxy and arrogance: preaching, prosecuting and politicking. They all defend their current position until the status quo is upheld.

Preachers love to tell us why their point of view is the right one. Prosecutors take on the role of an attorney defending their position, and politicians just do whatever is popular. Grant recommends that we look at all sides of an issue by becoming scientists.

One of the roles of any doctor or health professional is to be a teacher. The word doctor comes from the Latin word for “teacher,” itself from docēre, meaning “to teach.” Yet, dental schools spend very little time educating students how to become better teachers and leaders.

Never forget that another primary role is to be competent technicians.

By neglecting the role of teacher and leader…who suffers? The patients, the community but mostly the practitioners. And that is what we are seeing in dentistry today.

How can we fulfill our role if we are not trained to be teachers and leaders?

Something else I have noticed through the years is that the best students—the A students, don’t make the best dentists. Just asking ourselves why that is can reveal more about the system than about attaining mastery and excellence.

The late and very great Peter Dawson would talk about teaching dentists critical thinking. Too many dentists focus on the outcomes of treatment and then claim success without waiting long enough to observe that actual results. Critical thinking is about being process oriented so that many future failures can be avoided…this is not only about technical dentistry but behavioral dentistry as well. Maybe it’s time for dental education to heed Dr. Dawson’s advice.

My new book, The Porch, is a tale about a dentist who suffers through depression and burnout until he meets a mentor who teaches him the real tricks to the trade. He then goes on to clinical success and more. What more you ask? Find out by reading The Porch.

Courses in positive psychology and leadership development at the dental student level would go a long way to making the dental profession better. In the end the students will achieve all of the things they became dentists for: mastery, freedom, happiness and peace of mind.

Maybe—just maybe it’s time to rethink dental education.

If you have any thoughts or feelings about this important issue please leave comments below….just don’t preach, prosecute or politicize.

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.