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Escaping inside-the-box thinking in dentistry to achieve meaningful success

March 13, 2024
John Wilde, DDS, has tips for pursuing success, enjoying the journey, and finding personal and professional peace.

Within our challenging profession, rife with burnout that accrues when rewards are deemed inadequate for the sacrifices demanded, achieving excellence is its own reward as it creates excitement, motivation, satisfaction, and even joy. (And, as the quote popularly attributed to Aristotle states, “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”) But one doesn't attain sustained superiority by doing quotidian things. We've all heard the advice that to excel, one must think outside the box, but precisely how may this cherished feat be accomplished, and how can it help establish the career of one’s dreams?

Many viable answers to this most crucial query exist, but I’ve based this story on my 40 years of private practice. This is how my triumph manifested: by age 40, my investment income (then primarily corporate, treasure, and municipal bonds) predictably and safely exceeded our family's cost of living, so retirement was fiscally feasible. I could have increased my income by working longer hours, but with a wife, four kids, good health, and lots of hobbies, efficiently achieving maximum profitability was my primary aspiration.

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Define your goal

One most rewarding answer exists for each individual at any moment, and defining it is essential. (First step in hitting a target: obtaining a target.) However, let me caution that the only certainty is change. Retaining flexibility in your efforts and objectives is paramount, and one is only defeated when they quit.

From the get-go, I was determined to enjoy work, and doing so demanded creating a high-trust atmosphere. I introduced myself as John, and my staff called me John. We kidded and teased each other all day. (Each teammate must joke back, or you look like a bully. Most were delighted to join in, but some weren't, and I comported myself according to each individual's choice.)

Once they got over their shock, patients delighted in the bickering, and some, rather timidly, picked on me, too. Despite making my share of mistakes and suffering clinical failures, no patient ever brought suit against me. When a problem arose, I swiftly averred, "I’m not happy unless you are. I’ll redo the procedure at no charge or refund your money in full. Your choice.” I don’t recall any asking for refunds, but if they did, they received a check immediately.

To excel, dentists must create trust with new patients in 40 minutes. That’s not easy. I had to earn my team’s confidence through consistently honorable behavior, but my staff's evident belief and enjoyment were transferable. Patients witnessing my team’s faith in me elevated case acceptance rates dramatically.

Don’t overlook inside-the-box resources

Once one has established a preliminary goal, consider specific ways “thinking outside the box” makes attaining one’s desires possible—even likely. But before abandoning the comfort of standard thinking, let’s not overlook obvious in-the-box gems. Success leaves clues, and dental magazines, books, online resources, lectures, and visiting prosperous offices are all viable, inexpensive options to help one flourish.

I also absorbed wisdom from the newsletters and books of legends, including Woody Oakes, Earl Estep, and Howard Farran (of Dentaltown renown). I still visit the amusing and informative dental blog of my friend, Craig Callen, to mention but a few luminaries.

Treasured resources remaining on my bookshelves include Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, Earl Nightingale tapes such as Acres of Diamonds and Lead the Field, Zig Ziglar’s See You at the Top, the Rich Dad, Poor Dad series by Robert Kiyosaki (spoiler alert: poor dad has a PhD), Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective PeopleThe E-Myth Revisited, by Michael Gerber, Peter Lynch’s Beating the Street, and several biographies of fellow quail hunting enthusiast, Sam Walton. I didn’t merely read; I underlined, took notes, and then spent exciting hours envisioning how their documented success could nurture mine. I hope this article will inspire you in a similar manner.

Save and invest

If one desires wealth, the surest way to obtain it is by saving first. I directed my accountant to always place 15% of my payroll directly into a designated investment fund. This action is especially critical if one’s partner is a spender, as money never seen is not missed. (I prefer money market funds as an initial destination due to their safety and liquidity.)

Knowing no one cared about my money as much as me, I didn’t follow a broker’s advice but researched and allocated funds myself. Maybe because I grew up poor, where the answer to every problem was more money, I’m fascinated by the world of wealth. As an autodidact, I slowly and carefully crafted a still-evolving personal financial philosophy. Several of the aforementioned books were helpful, but I’ve read Barron’s magazine and subscribed to Value Line for decades. I dedicated four hours a week—one Saturday morning—to investment matters.

As a neophyte, I purchased safer and more easily understood bonds. In my midforties, during the 1990s bull market, I was 100% invested in individual stocks (never funds). During this high-risk, high-reward strategy, I enjoyed numerous years with yields exceeding 30%. At that return, the Rule of 70 advises one’s money will double in (70 / 30 =) 2.33 years. This math explains why the first million is the hardest to obtain.

Don’t forget to enjoy what you have

Another key to sustained peace is realizing when you have enough. Now that my earning years are over, my energy lower, and my judgment less acute, I am 100% invested in government agency bonds (they offer a higher yield than treasuries while still backed by the full faith of the US government) and brokerage house (e.g., Vanguard, Schwab) money market funds.

Logan Pearsall Smith said, “There are two things to aim at in life: first, to get what you want; and, after that, to enjoy it. Only the wisest of mankind achieve the second.” I hope these thoughts stimulate your quest for success, joy, and peace. This exciting, rewarding adventure is well worth the effort, and I wish you the best.

Editor's note:This article originally appeared in DE Weekend, the newsletter that will elevate your Sunday mornings with practical and innovative practice management and clinical content from experts across the field. Subscribe here.

After eight years of higher education, paying 100% of the cost himself, John A. Wilde, DDS, spent two years in the Army Dental Corps before beginning a practice from scratch in Keokuk, Iowa. By age 30, he was debt-free, owning outright his new country home and the practice he had designed and built. By 40, he was financially able to retire. At age 53, he fully retired. Dr. Wilde has authored six books and more than 220 articles, and may be reached at (309) 333-2865 or [email protected].

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