Step 6: Keep the fire burning

June 1, 2004
An encyclopedia salesman came upon an old farmer and gave him a sales pitch: "If you buy these books, they will double your production." The farmer said, "I already know how to double my production. I just don't want to do it."

Barry Polansky, DMD

An encyclopedia salesman came upon an old farmer and gave him a sales pitch: "If you buy these books, they will double your production." The farmer said, "I already know how to double my production. I just don't want to do it."

Someone once said, "Most men die at age 35 but they don't bury them until much later." One of the biggest problems our profession faces is the problem of burnout. I see too many dentists who are still breathing but there is nothing left inside. No one is immune to burnout — even the very best-intentioned practitioners are subject to the general malaise that sets in over time.

Entropy is defined as the measure of the energy in a system that is unavailable to do work — in other words, the burned-out dentist doesn't have the energy to produce quality dentistry and slips into mediocrity.

Dentists who practice for many years without going through burnout have defied nature. They have been lucky enough to keep their fires burning. Maintaining passion for their work allows them to awaken each morning and look forward to another day of exciting and rewarding work. These dentists have become my heroes.

It wasn't always like that for me. I credit Dr. Peter Dawson for inspiring me to understand dentistry at a level that makes diagnosis and treatment planning exciting. Up to that point, dentistry had lost its meaning. Rekindling the fire was my antidote for burnout.

To keep the fire going, identify what you really enjoy doing — and do more of that. Stop doing what you don't enjoy. If you don't enjoy something, it becomes boring and mundane. The things we enjoy should be pursued with increasing complexity. Imagine you are a pianist. How exciting would Chopsticks be if that is all you played? Too many of us get caught up in the same procedures over and over again.

Have you ever watched children play? Have you noticed how much curiosity and interest they show in everything they do? They rarely get bored. Another antidote to burnout is to become curious about things that are taken for granted. The placement of a simple filling can be relegated to boring work, or like G.V. Black, it can become the center of an entire career. We can become curious about people; curious about each patient and the puzzle they are for us to solve. It is a joy to watch older dentists who enjoy their work with the curiosity of a child.

Another way to prevent burnout is to take interest in people. To do that, take control of your time and schedule. Work can't be enjoyed if you are always in a hurry. Take time with patients to get to know them. Take time to eat a proper lunch. Take time to sit and reflect on your diagnoses and treatment plans. Doing so produces a practice that is relationship-based.

Seek out the elders in our profession who understand the nature of balance in our lives because they, too, have suffered through burnout and survived. Mentors are important. We can learn more than clinical tips from great mentors. We can learn from their experiences — wherein lies the joy of dental practice.

There are a multitude of ways to prevent burnout, but the very best way by far is to develop your own vision of practice. We started this series of articles with a discussion of vision. I want to reemphasize the importance of vision. Jim Collins, author of the bestselling book "Good to Great," describes how to develop a vision. The first exercise is to take the time to understand yourself better by writing down your core beliefs and values. This is akin to L.D. Pankey's "Know yourself." Everyone has beliefs and values. Many of us haven't taken the time to express them to ourselves. Without this exercise, we can never really behave with consistent integrity; that is, acting congruently with our values and beliefs. Our values and beliefs create the culture.

Collins' second component is purpose. Think back to the time you first decided to become a dentist. Imagine looking out into the night and seeing the moon. The moon, like your purpose in life, never changes. People may never fulfill their purpose; it is more a direction than a destination. The moon illuminates many mountain peaks. Collins uses this analogy by calling each mountain peak a mission. We can work on our missions for our entire lives, but they are achievable.

To prevent burnout and keep the fire burning is to keep this vision before you everyday. Your vision will serve as your guide to the happy practice.

Barry Polansky, DMD, practices dentistry in Cherry Hill, N.J. He is a member of the Visiting Faculty of The Pankey Institute for Advanced Dental Education and author of the book The Art of the Examination: Why Patient Care Goes Beyond Clinical Correctness. Dr. Polansky also publishes a monthly newsletter titled Private Practice, and may be reached toll-free at (866) 428-4028, and also at

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