In dental school, the highest clinical mark was a score of 9. I clearly recall the day when a brave soul in the back of the class raised his hand and daringly asked, “Why is the highest mark we can get a 9?” The professor shot back, without a moment’s hesitation, “It is because there is no such thing as a 10.”
Ouch. Okay, I thought. Perfection is expected but unattainable. Great. I believe my first ulcer began brewing right about then.
Instagram is not making things easier. Countless articles have been written about the adverse effects of thinking the grass is greener on the other side of the Instastory. My acupuncturist once said, when she heard I was becoming a yoga teacher, that I should teach my students to focus on their own downward dog. There are, however, many great Instagram profiles that are educational and aspirational, like the content from the outstanding oral pathologist, Ashleigh Briody, DDS.
How Are You Feeling?
Danielle Ofri, MD, discusses difficulties such as self-doubt and compassion-burnout affecting health professionals in her wonderful book, What Doctors Feel. I can recall virtually every negative comment I received in my training. These things really stick with you, like the name of the kid who made your life a misery in kindergarten. Just hearing that name decades later still makes you cringe. These little traumas don’t simply evaporate.
Leading PTSD expert Bessel Van der Kolk, MD, discusses how all traumas remain in the body and how their ill effects start to add up in his book, The Body Keeps The Score. Just reading it gave me a fresh perspective and tools with which to address these issues.
I approached my yoga training as I did dental school. I spent countless hours making charts and memorizing every posture in Sanskrit before the course even started. I quickly realized I needed to be more (here comes that word) mindful of what I was doing so I could help my students do the same, and any feedback was going to help me do a better job. I recall a recent conversation with two very accomplished former residents who were shocked to hear that the feelings of Imposter Syndrome never really go away yet were comforted in knowing they were not alone in these thoughts.
Passion = Work
How do we bring more mindfulness into our practice lives? Good question. First, we have to find what it is we feel we do really well in service of our patients. You say you have a passion for endodontics or oral surgery. It’s all great until the files, and roots, start breaking.
In an excellent New York Times article, Stephanie Lee talks about the pitfalls of finding a passion, noting that “part of why we haven’t found our passion yet is that we tend to give up quickly on new things. The reason? Prepare for a hard truth: We’re pretty bad at most things when we first try them.”
Failure, of course, is part of the process. But it’s never fun, is it? It is the lens through which we view said “failure.” I love this quote from Thomas Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Edison ended up doing just fine.
I went to dental school during the “suck it up” days. The pendulum has swung completely in the other direction, and we need to find a middle ground. I have young students tell me all the time they lack the coping skills to deal with the stresses of school and subsequent practice. I am saddened when new dentists tell me they want to quit only to find out the ink is barely dry on their diplomas.
In a world where the public expects healthcare professionals to be perfect, young professionals fresh out of training often strive to meet these demands far too quickly.
A recent dental graduate I mentor was struggling with his Class II restorations but was asking so many people for their opinions that things got worse, not better. I discussed taking a step back and trying one technique at a time versus a scattershot approach. His dedication, painstaking as it was, resulted in tremendous improvement.
It is about purposeful versus naïve practice, as K. Anders Ericsson, PhD, and Robert Pool, PhD, discuss in their book, Peak. There also is an excellent video that summarizes the concept of focused practice and getting the right coaching from a mentor.
Just playing more golf will not make you better. Focusing on different parts of the game, one at a time, helps get you to the Masters! This sort of purposeful effort, as Ericsson and Pool wrote, yields improvement. They originated the idea of the 10,000-hour rule to achieving mastery of a skill.
A former patient of mine is now an accomplished surgeon. (I really am getting old.) When I asked why he limits his practice to a particular procedure, he responded, “I like to take small bites and chew them really well.” If you only spend, for example, four hours a week doing a procedure and did so every week of every year, it would take you approximately 52 years to achieve 10,000 hours of practice.
Task lists are critical. You cannot move to the next step until you complete the first. Most of us make to-do lists where the order in which you do things—pick up the laundry, buy paper towels—doesn’t matter. That sort of haphazard approach just yields more stress and no improvement in skills.
Mark Manson said it best: “The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.”He emphasizes that “the avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering.”
We cannot be great at everything, so learning where to mindfully focus is critical, carefully nudging our egos out of the way as we grow!
Dr. Freeman is co-director of the TMD-Facial Pain Unit at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. He is an honours graduate of the Faculty of Dentistry at the University of Toronto and completed the Advanced Education in General Dentistry program at the Eastman Dental Center in Rochester, New York. Dr. Freeman then returned to the University of Toronto, where he received his diploma in orthodontics and taught in the undergraduate dental clinic. Subsequently, he completed his master’s degree in temporomandibular disorders and orofacial pain. He lectures internationally on the topics of patient experience, facial pain, and virtual surgical planning. He is a certified yoga instructor with additional training in breathwork, meditation, and trauma informed movement. He runs a wellness program for the hospital dental residents at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, where he teaches yoga and mindful communication. He can be reached at email@example.com.