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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.