Not every dentist who graduates feels on top of the world. Most of us did not graduate at the tops of our classes. Furthermore, regardless of class ranking everyone finds once again they are small fish in just a little bigger pond once they step out the dental school door. What helped me weather the transition and to continue to grow, learn and love dentistry were five words my dad told me that I took to heart.

My dad was an endodontist and his practice was in El Cajon, California. He obtained his specialty degree from Loma Linda University which was a two hour drive north from where we lived. When he graduated he was in his late forties and may still be the oldest graduate student from this Endodontics program to date.

In order to afford to transition from general dentistry to endodontics after twenty-five years in private practice and still keep our family of six in our same home and schools, he would commute every week and live out of our old (even then) Open Road motor home. He kept it parked in a trailer court near the dental school. To replace his income while he was in school for two years we lived off savings and a remortgage of his office. Upon completion of the training he simply reopened the old office and went back to work, except that on one day a week he would still drive up and back to Loma Linda to work for free as a clinic instructor. This meant when, years later, I became a dental student, he would naturally come and see me every week.

It was only a month or so into my freshman year that my dad spoke the five words. They came in a conversation after I expressed serious doubts that I could survive dental school. The academics were okay, it was the freshman dental laboratory course that was eating my lunch. I enjoyed working with my hands but was not used to the level of precision the instructors demanded. I truly believe that the most important fact I learned that entire year was to know what a half millimeter looks like. It seemed everything had to be accomplished within a tolerance of a half millimeter.

To be graded as to whether or not you could wax crowns or prepare typodont teeth to this standard threw me. I would turn in assignments feeling pretty good about them only to have them returned as either complete failures or barely passing. Up to this point in school I was always a good student, used to A’s and the occasional B. Now I questioned whether or not I would graduate, let alone ever be a competent dentist.

It was early evening, just before dad was leaving to drive home. We were sitting in the little house I and a college friend were renting, just the two of us, when I opened up and expressed all of my doubts and frustrations. He listened quietly and then said “Ben, I need to tell you a story.”

He explained to me that he was accepted to dental school at the University of California San Francisco just after the end of World War II. Class sizes were large because young men (not many ladies back then) were returning from the war. He sat in a large auditorium when someone in authority spoke the well known words, “Gentlemen, look to your right and look to your left. If one of these people is still here a year from now chances are you will not be.” Then I learned something I had never known before. My dad had to repeat a year. Based on the nature of the teaching method of the time to liberally wash people out, he considered himself one of the lucky ones.

Then he gave me the five words. “Ben, dentistry is a learned procedure.”

Dentists aren’t born, they are made. Raw talents are never enough, not by a long shot.  Those who persist will learn and develop into outstanding clinicians no matter where in the class they ranked at time of graduation. Those who persist and work and trust these five words to be true will become anything in dentistry they want to become. This is also true about marriage. It’s a learned procedure. We start with romantic thoughts, but this is not what sustains us. We have hard work to do. It’s true about parenting. It’s true about golf, tennis, bridge, music.

Our biggest mistakes along the way are to internalize the critical words and grades of others as being in cement. They are not. Failure in a moment is not failure in life. Even if you have to repeat things over and over. It is all learnable. Remember, you have already been through the rigorous selection at the front end to be accepted to dental school. Someone believed you could do this even if you have doubts.

The other common mistake is to believe that if we don’t know something or can’t do something by a certain time or date it means we will never get there. The refinement of dentists takes decades, not four years, and we learn by working and interacting with other dentists. That’s why in an earlier post I said we need each other.

It’s a learned procedure. You can do it. It takes practice without a hard time limit – something school cannot easily provide. This is also a reason to join dental societies and take courses. We learn best when we can learn from and along side one another.

I have posted this blog in a number of LinkedIn groups in order to make you aware of a new group I just formed entitled People-Centered Dentistry. If the human side of this profession interests you, then please come, join the forum and invite your friends.