Process over product

April 1, 2006
His name is Atiim Kiambu Barber. Atiim Kiambu is Swahili for “fiery tempered prince.

His name is Atiim Kiambu Barber. Atiim Kiambu is Swahili for “fiery tempered prince.” He is easily recognized by his shaved head and his million-dollar smile. Many of you know him by his slick moves on the football field and his growing popularity as one of the National Football League’s most likable players. He is not the type of player who draws attention by being a “Peck’s Bad Boy.” At age 31, when most running backs are winding down their careers in football due to bodily wear and tear, he has had the best year of his long career. He has had to overcome obstacles such as his exceptionally small size, and a tendency to lose the football that branded him as more of a liability than an asset.

Today, Tiki Barber is the toast of New York. He is quickly becoming an ambassador for the NFL and is looking at a wonderful future in broadcasting when his football days are over. But that doesn’t seem too near in the future right now. Tiki Barber is becoming an icon for those who believe that the older you get, the better you get.

Through the years, there have been a small number of people in various fields who have improved their performance despite their age. George Foreman, Billy Joel, and Robert DeNiro are others who come to mind.

As a practicing dentist, I have always been concerned with continual improvement and growth; many dentists seem to stop growing shortly after graduation. Dentistry is a great profession because it allows us to grow throughout our careers. As a matter of fact, if we pay attention, some of the most important skills we need to develop, such as building relationships, will only improve over time.

Rather than take an intellectual look at their lives and careers, too many professionals play the game until they wear out physically or mentally. It is not just luck that Tiki Barber’s body has held up. In his early days he was known for not being very durable, so he trained extra hard on his own and developed ways to go with his strengths. To mend his fumbling habit, he would run for hours on a treadmill with the ball held high near his shoulder.

The most impressive thing I read about Tiki was how he began to read about the “physics of football.” He intellectualized the game. He began to quote Newton’s 1st and 2nd Laws of Thermodynamics, and how they applied to the game of football. The more Tiki understood the “process,” the more he achieved his desired results. The more he concentrated on the “how” and the “why” of football, the more he received the rewards that football could give. Not only does Tiki receive the financial rewards and the fame, which are external, he also receives the internal or spiritual rewards that go along with putting the process over the product.

A great dentist once told me that the more I understood the depth of knowledge in the field of dentistry, the more I would come to enjoy it. He was talking about the popular concept of flow. The flow state is a positive emotion about the present with a conscious feeling attached. We all experience this state when our challenges are equal to our skill levels, when we deeply concentrate on a task, when there are clear goals, when we get immediate feedback, when our sense of self vanishes, when time stops, and most importantly, when we feel we have a sense of control. That great dentist was a wise man, because he realized that the source of most of our problems is a distinct feeling of not being in control ... not experiencing flow.

Dentistry is a wonderful profession. It affords us the ability to provide our families, patients, and staff members with many material rewards as well as a fulfilling internal life. Our concept of dentistry must go way beyond the tooth … way beyond the outcome or results of our work. When we fall in love with the process, we’ll travel farther than we can foresee. Tiki Barber started out just trying to get into the end zone, but these days he’s giving lectures called “Playing to Win,” and sharing the stage with Madeline Albright and Elie Wiesel.

Dr. Barry F. Polansky practices in Cherry Hill, N.J. He is the author of the book, “The Art of the Examination” and publisher of Dental Life, a newsletter dedicated to finding balance and happiness in private dental practice. Founder of the Academy of Dental Leadership (, which offers small group and individual practice coaching, Dr. Polansky is on the visiting faculty of The Pankey Institute. Reach him via e-mail at [email protected].

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