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The happy dental practice

Aug. 20, 2020
How can you achieve happiness in your dental practice? It can be done, and it may involve a few unfamiliar steps to get there. But taking the time will lead to great satisfaction. Dr. John Wilde speaks from experience.

By John A. Wilde

Aristotle proclaimed, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”(1)

More than a pleasant office is required to achieve that most worthy goal, but it doesn’t seem likely that someone can be miserable at work yet generally happy. Make no mistake, the profession we’ve chosen, while rewarding, is daunting. I discovered this as a junior dental student attempting to restore facial decay on No. 15. When I finally found the lesion, I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” Forty-some years later, consistently performing the highest quality dentistry was still challenging.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca said, “It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.”(2) Adverse conditions, such as the outsized demands of our profession or our current disruptive and deadly COVID-19 crisis, makes it even more imperative that dentists maintain a gimlet-eyed focus on achieving joy.

Who do you work for?

If we accept Aristotle’s words, even if only for the sake of argument, allow me to pose a question that I believe must be answered correctly by anyone who wants to enjoy a blissful life and career: “Doctor, who are you working for?”

The answer will vary based on the individual and his or her circumstances. For example, approximately 1,000 years ago, when I was beginning a practice from scratch, I was working for my family’s survival. Maintaining existence for those you love is highly motivating, and I saw patients four days a week, taught at the University of Iowa Dental College two days, and spent Sundays working assiduously on my nascent office.

Perhaps you work for the patients who trust, praise, and remunerate you. Or you work to become an accepted and respectable tax-paying member of society. Or you’re committed to the well-being of your loyal team of coworkers, because if they aren’t happy, you won’t be happy.

These are all valid, worthy causes, but I contend they are tangential. Each dentist has labored and sacrificed tremendously to be permitted to engage in his or her chosen life’s work. Let the gravitas of that term sink in, then consider another possible response may be: “I work for me.”

Perhaps that sounds a bit self-centered, greedy, and maybe even solipsistic. But I believe I can demonstrate that enlightened self-interest is not evil by nature or design, and it provides a propitious path that allows other objectives to be satisfied.

What do you want?

A critical first step is to determine what this me character truly wants. That sounds deceptively simple, but countless people have struggled for decades to climb the ladder of success, only to be devastated when they find it leaning against the wrong wall. So, before blasting off, it is essential to clearly and precisely identify one’s target. But how?

I first heard this idea many years ago listening to an audiotape called “Acres of Diamonds,” by Earl Nightingale. I have employed the strategy countless times, and regularly suggested it to those who, after reading my books or articles, ask about “the secret to my success.”

All that is required is a quiet, comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed, paper, pencil, and a timer. (A steaming cup of coffee is optional, but highly recommended). Set the clock for 30 minutes. It is imperative that you employ the full 30 minutes. Write your subject at the top of the paper. It can be anything you wish, but for today’s exercise, let’s use “creating a happy dental office.” Start the timer and write. Don’t edit, but document every thought, no matter how silly or offbeat, as it may prove a springboard to a better concept. Customarily, the first 20 minutes fly by as you record ideas. But then, your pencil stops, and you face the fearsome prospect of 10 … more … minutes.

But this is when, as Mr. Nightingale described it, one begins to mine a vein of pure gold. After a distressing delay, one’s creative, subconscious mind is activated. Thomas Watson, former head of IBM, said, “If you want to achieve excellence, you can get there today as of the second you quit doing unexcellent work.”(3) That’s outstanding advice for any dentist who wishes to excel, but within our current context, excellence means keeping your full 30-minute butt-in-chair commitment. It’s the only way you’ll experience the magic. Like digging at the end of a long run, it’s going to sting, but the result may well be a delightful, inspiring vision. (Can you imagine a dentist not digging at the end of a run? All in all, we are exceptional people.)

Books, lectures, and discussions can provide clues, but your unique truth resides in only one place. This roadmap will get you there. With this exercise, you join the noble ranks of those who are deliberately reshaping their lives. But beware, as outside forces will buffet. Staff, other doctors, family, and friends may be distressed if you vary from “the way we’ve always done things.” But you will no longer be a rudderless boat, blown by every breeze. Take wise counsel from Robert Allen, “Don’t let the opinions of the average man sway you. Dream, and he thinks you’re crazy. Succeed, and he thinks you are lucky. Acquired wealth, and he thinks you’re greedy. Pay no attention; he simply doesn’t understand.”(4)

Benefits of a happy office

From the moment I accepted this challenge, every decision was based on a single criterion: “Which choice will maximize happiness?” Fear not, a joyous office is a highly successful one. Its positive energy attracts patients. Palpable mutual trust between team members improves case acceptance, and staff will be reluctant to leave such a salubrious environment.

How can one be sure that a lifestyle based on joy is the correct choice? The presence of joy confirms the correctness of one’s choices. Distress indicates that work remains. It’s that straightforward.

Among many adjustments I made based on this introspection was to stop performing oral surgery. As a young dentist, I needed the work, and patients were unhappy with out-of-town referrals. Just seeing the procedure on the schedule negatively impacted my day. I pledged that each winter (after hunting season ended), I would pick one topic to study in-depth. During my first three years, I focused on occlusion, orthodontics, and orthopedics. Each was massively practice-expanding and life-enhancing.

To paraphrase Mr. Nightingale, if honesty hadn’t been invented, it should be, as the surest way to guarantee success. Don’t forfeit bliss by taking shortcuts at others’ expense. Work harder and smarter. Now, get going! In this land of the free and the brave, the future is in your hands.

I wish you Godspeed.


1. https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/2192.Aristotle

2. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/232596-it-is-a-rough-road-that-leads-to-the-heights

3. https://due.com/blog/quit-doing-less-than-excellent-work/

4. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/robert_g_allen_190120

JOHN A. WILDE, DDS, practiced in Keokuk, Iowa, and is now blissfully retired. He’s written six dental books and had more than 200 articles published in a wide variety of journals. He may be reached at (309) 333-2865 or [email protected].