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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.

Stoic or “stoic” – What’s the Difference?

April 8, 2019

Filed under: The Stoic Dentist — Tags: — Barry Polansky @ 8:25 pm

For people who know me it may seem strange that I am studying Stoicism (with a capital S), because my personality is far from stoic (with a small s). I have way too many opinions about too many things. I may not be the most gregarious person in the room but I am far from grim and somber, and I am not that mentally tough…I actually can feel pain. You ought to see me after a very hot, Hot Yoga class…not stoic.

But Stoicism is not about how much pain a person can endure or how little emotion one can exhibit during tough times. Capital S Stoicism is a philosophy…a practical philosophy which has as its goals freedom, happiness and tranquility. And that is how I became fascinated with it. As a practicing clinical dentist, those traits appealed to me. Dentistry can be emotionally taxing, and Stoicism helped me to get through some tough times. In truth, being stoic can be harmful to a dentist’s emotional health because that implies suppressing feelings.

The first person I ever heard speak about “philosophy” in dentistry was L.D. Pankey. He used language I hardly understood. It was foreign to me. I studied his philosophy and the philosophy of Aristotle but it just wasn’t practical. In other words, after the “dental philosophy” it was much more difficult to apply. Mounted models in centric relation is one thing…but “virtues?” What was Pankey trying to get across? It was years later that I learned about the Stoics who were not theoreticians or academics, but rather real down-to-earth working people who considered Stoicism a new school of Greek philosophy that was practical. They lived it rather than studied it – and they were mostly happy emotionally resilient people who were not stoic.

Stoic virtues have more to do with the social dimensions of philosophy. The virtues include justice, fairness and kindness to others. Applying the virtues takes work. It takes self-awareness in order to avoid making value judgments and creating narratives about situations and people that only lead to high stress. The Stoics challenged all value judgements. They knew what Shakespeare meant when he said, “there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so,” five hundred years before he said it.

Being stoic has some advantages. There are times we need to keep a stiff upper lip and carry on, but as a general philosophy of life it may be detrimental to one’s well-being. On the other hand, studying Stoicism just may be the ticket to a happier and healthier life.

Hearing L.D. Pankey speak of “virtues” sounded old fashioned to me. I knew there was more to him than mounting models. The essence of his message was how to achieve happiness, tranquility and virtue…something I was sorely missing when I first went to Key Biscayne. The key to happiness as the Stoics tell us is the virtuous life leads to inner coherence and outer harmony. In other words it relieves a lot of confusion about life and practice.

These days I practice Stoicism, and it takes a lot of work. It’s worth it. I will also try to practice stoicism, especially after Hot Yoga…I’m sure my Yoga teachers don’t like the complaining, criticizing or condemning the heat.

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.

Welcome to Stoic Dentistry

March 27, 2019

Filed under: The Stoic Dentist — Tags: — Barry Polansky @ 12:55 am
Marcus Aurelius

In my last post on TAOofDentistry.com I explained that I recently retired from clinical dentistry after 46 years. I was lucky enough to sell my practice to a very competent dentist and a genuinely nice guy. But…we were different.

One day, during the transition while we were both taking a coffee break he said something that caught me off guard. He asked me how I was able to remain so calm with all of the things that go on in a dental practice. Apparently he was having some issues with…staff, equipment, treatment planning, handling new patients, the schedule…well, feel free to add to the list. I gave him a quick answer, but it was incomplete. Later that night I reflected on my career and felt I owed him a better answer.

The calmness that he referred to didn’t come naturally to me. Serene was not how I would have described my early career. As a matter of fact it was pure chaos. In my books I describe the stress I had through my first fifteen years of practice.

I was a burnout.

I hated dentistry and wanted to get out. I was depressed and I believe that cortisol production was a factor in my developing type 2 diabetes. But I wasn’t going to quit. That is just not who I was. So I searched for the answers. I became a continuing education junkie. I took every course, some good, some great and many, worthless. There was no one teacher or mentor that totally fit who I was…I had to find more common denominators. I needed to find a strategy that would work under any circumstances, and boy would the conditions change through the years. I was committed so I supplemented the courses with reading.

I read everything I could find.

I read business books, psychology books, dental books and philosophy books. Books on depression, books on burnout, books on finance and leadership. The best books I read dealt with emotional health and emotional resilience and general well-being. Things began to get less chaotic and more organized. Calmer – but nowhere near the calmness that I continued to develop.

Dentally, with the help of some really good mentors I became aware of “structure” in dentistry. I’ll say that again…everything has a structure. Everything. There is order to everything.

So I became obsessed with the examination and case presentation. I looked for the structure in everything. I realized that everything has a process – yes- I actually used the term “trust the process,” way before sports teams started using it. I began to realize that if I focused on every process rather on the outcomes (over which I generally had no control-which is a main tenet of Stoicism), I was happier.

One day while reading a book on happiness I came across something that interested me. Albert Ellis the founder of CBT, cognitive behaviorl therapy had used ancient wisdom to develop his therapy. CBT was very helpful in helping me eliminate my burnout and get back to functioning. At the time I also was studying at Pankey and knew the L.D. Pankey used Aristotle as the basis for his philosophy. In time I read the Stoics.

Over time I had an epiphany. I realized that all of the material I had been reading had been discussed by the Stoics…mostly by the big three: Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca. Today, studying and applying stoicism has become a trend. Many of the young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are defaulting to Stoicism as their go-to for wisdom—personal and business. It seems that when I have an issue the stoics seemed to have the answers.

That is why I created this blog. To help young dentists (no age requirement) find the answers to their everyday issues in practice and in life. I will attempt to blog every week. The blog will use the ancient wisdom of the Stoics in a modern world. If you have any specific issues that you are having issues with, please comment below or message me and I will see if there is a stoic answer.

Many people are under the impression that stoicism was a grim philosophy, that the stoics lacked emotion. That is far from true. They were the most content of all the ancient philosophers because they answered the most basic questions about how to live. Those questions need to be answered more today than ever before.

So…here is a question to answer honestly, if you are a dentist….“Are you happy?”