Defeat the perfectionist mindset by discovering the pursuit of process

As dentists, we are perfectionists and overachievers, constantly comparing ourselves to others. Our perfectionist mindset is how many of us got here. We excelled in the classroom, managed multiple extracurricular activities, and were finally accepted into dental school.

Surrounded by exceptional classmates and colleagues, we met the harsh reality that despite our best efforts, we all fell short in some way. There was always someone better at something. Unsatisfied with our results, some of us doubled down on our efforts, resorting to an extremely one-sided and unhealthy lifestyle. Others fell into a defeatist mindset, thinking we could never be as good as those around us. Neither choice left us fulfilled or satisfied.

Even after leaving dental school, the pressure to be perfect continues. We strive to get into the best residency and secure the best job. We struggle to produce more than the previous month and create the best possible dental practice. Faced with new developments in technology and innovated techniques, we resort to the thousands of continuing education courses that remind us of how little we actually know. We look around only to see others doing it better than we do it, making more money than we make, and seemingly happier than we are. It is a vicious cycle, leaving us stuck in the confines of a small operatory looking to solve our problems.

As much as we would like to place the blame on others, the root of the problem doesn’t lie with the success of those around us; it lies within our own minds. We fall victim to a game of comparisons, measuring our results against those around us. While flawed, this line of thinking makes sense because it is exactly what got us here. We did better than those around us, rarely (if ever) failed, and made it into dental school. But the truth is, focusing on those around us can have side effects longer than a drug’s warning label. So much of dentistry and life is out of our control. What we can control are our actions and our attitudes, the process. This is where we will find true joy and fulfillment.

Instead of being fixated on an arbitrary goal that is dictated by those around us, we need to find joy in the process of reaching a goal. Once we focus on the process, we truly realize our potential. Added to a strong work ethic, the results will materialize. We will find more joy every day and be able to work that much harder. But it is only once we find joy in the process that we will be satisfied with the outcome.

But how can we apply this to dentistry?

Step 1: Start with why. Finding purpose in the work you do is the foundation for a healthy and productive mindset. I outlined this in my article, “Differentiate yourself: Start with why,” published in the June 2018 issue of Dental Economics.

Step 2: Shift your focus from a comparison-fueled mindset to a process-driven mindset. This means taking an introspective look at what you want to accomplish and how you define success (your goals, not those of other people). Then, focus on the steps needed to reach those end goals. Focusing on the process does not mean avoiding improvement; it means finding joy in the day-to-day actions needed to get there.

Find joy in the process of growing your office. Find joy in helping your employees grow. Find joy in your personal growth, and find joy in the work you do. Focus on caring for each of your patients every day, and learn to love the process of improving rather than being focused on some arbitrary end goal. If you focus on the process, the results will emerge.

So, instead of a results-oriented mindset and comparing yourself to others, it is best to focus on a process-oriented mindset. Focus on the actions and attitude you bring every day and learn to enjoy the process of dentistry. Instead of focusing solely on the end result, focus on the journey. Instead of comparing ourselves to others, we should look within to focus on our own personal growth. As I read somewhere once, “True joy and gratitude does not come from victory—it comes from the pursuit of achievement.”

Kristopher Mendoza, DDS,
is a third-year dental anesthesiology resident at the University of California, Los Angeles. Prior to residency, he graduated from the UCLA School of Dentistry. During dental school, he discovered dental anesthesiology and gained further interest thanks to his mentors Dr. Steve Ganzberg and Dr. Christine Quinn. He served as the national president of the American Student Dental Association from 2014 to 2015, along with his role on the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations.

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