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Part 1 Mindset: Self Leadership Tip #9

Commit to Lifelong Education

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Tip 9: Commit to Lifelong Education

Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.
- Socrates

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.
- Henry Ford

I have always been a curious student. When I graduated from dental school in 1973, I went right into the U.S. Army at Fort Dix in New Jersey as a Captain in the Army Dental Corps. I didn't feel prepared to practice dentistry. So I read. I read everything I could about dental materials. In 1973, the hottest dental topic for a young dentist was the rising growth of composite resins. Bonding was all the rage. We only had two or three composites at the time. Older readers may remember Adaptic and Concise, which were slowly replacing silicates for anterior restorations. Has anyone done a gold foil recently?

Dentistry was on the move and I was trying to keep up. I did my best by reading. I subscribed to all of the journals of the day: Dental Clinics of North America and The Triple O Journal were two of my favorites. I took random courses on new techniques like Mastique, which was an early form of stock veneers. Looking back, this was worth the effort, but I could have used a better strategy. Learning should be strategic. My postgraduate learning was anything but strategic…it was random.

Today, things have really changed. The last time I looked at REALITY, the guide to dental material and techniques, it was close to 1,500 pages. Today we have the Internet, and all of that information can be carried around in our smartphone. But today's easy access to information doesn't preclude my view that lifelong learning is a key to a successful career. There is even more to know today to practice successfully. Knowledge in areas beyond dental technology can go a long way in creating a successful practice and life.

It often becomes confusing these days because we live in a world where we are inundated with nonstop messages. In an article from 2008, "Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists" by Michael Browner, PhD, he claimed that, "The average American is exposed to about 3,000 advertising messages a day, and globally corporations spend over $620 billion each year to make their products seem desirable and to get us to buy them."

Have you noticed the number of implant systems available? Everyone is a self-promoter. You need a strategy. I developed my strategy when I first listened to Dr. Peter Dawson speaking about occlusion. I realized that understanding a concept of complete dentistry was the key to understanding dentistry. I bought into Dr. Dawson's concepts of dentistry. I took his courses as well as the continuum at The Pankey Institute. The lesson for me was that I bought into a continuum of learning…and entire philosophy of dentistry. I never wavered.

My days of random learning were over. Everything I learned outside of dentistry seemed to fit in with their basic philosophy. These were heady times in dental continuing education. It was the beginning of the cosmetics dentistry revolution, which preceded the surge in implant and sleep education. By having the solid educational base of comprehensive dentistry under my belt I was well prepared to continue my dental education without being distracted by
the many self-promoters in the marketplace…some good and some bad.

As mentioned, dentistry has certainly changed. I was in a steam room a little while ago discussing dentistry with a few medical colleagues. I happened to mention that dentistry today was more behavioral than technical. A psychiatrist in the group had no idea where I was coming from. He truly believed that what we do was all about technique. The discussion led me to believe how, not only the public, but health care professionals, as well, believe that what we do is all about technology and mechanics. I think a lot of dentists believe this as well. Peter Drucker used to call this "technical arrogance," where the most important component of a job is technical. But we are in the people business, and we must devote a significant part of our education to studying people.

Some of the topics that will help today's dentist succeed are psychology, self-help, marketing, relationships, sales and general business. Of course, my best piece of advice is to read. Read any and everything, because the more a person reads, the more they understand how to use the greatest tool ever invented—language. Language, more than anything else, will help you understand your patients and yourself better. Margaret Fuller became famous for creating this self-help maxim: "Today a reader, tomorrow a leader."

I once read a poll taken by Pew Research that asked each generation (Millennials, Gen Y, Baby Boomers and Silent Generation) what was their most distinguishing trait. It was interesting to note that the younger generations thought their digital capabilities were what separated them from the others. The older generations felt what distinguished them was their, morals, values and work ethic. I think we all have a lot to learn from each other.

When it comes to lifelong learning, choose your mentors well. If you are older, the younger generation can teach you a lot about technology, today's marketing and social media. If you are younger, look toward the older generation's wisdom and experience about what truly makes a great career.

Other groups that can really help one another are the dental team of dentist and lab technician. Dental technology has changed so much that unless the dentist takes the time to learn the newer technologies and practices them on a daily basis, he or she must lean on a competent technician for help. This may be one of the most fruitful alliances in dentistry, and it will only become more complex in the future. By the same token, technicians need to surround themselves with dentists who truly understand a complete concept of dentistry.

One last thing, not only should you choose your resources wisely but you should stay away from anyone who has another agenda than to help you. Back in my day, dentists leaned on the dental supply company representative. That's not as common these days, but I don't look back fondly on some of those guys who helped me set up my first practice.

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