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.

12 Responses

  1. Ben:
    I would love to meet you some day. So inspirational in your thoughts. I have been practicing for over 32 years and the most common question is “Where do you get your passion from?” You said it “Dentistry is a learned procedure” and boy do I still have a lot of learning to do. Learning to be a better leader at work, also makes me a better dad, friend and husband. Learning to use some new 3-D software gives me the confidence that one day I wont have to ask my wife to download my Itunes! What an amazing profession we have and to have mentors like yourself who share how not to only be better clinically but behaviourly is not taken for granted. Keep it up.

  2. Ben, I have similar experience…my Dad was a GP and after practicing 18 years decided to return to school and take up orthodontics. For two years we lived as your family did; my Dad worked weekends in his practice and went to school all week. Dentists and most of us have learned that life is a learning process. I have had dentistry in my life since I was a child. My father’s practice was attached to the house! However, there isn’t a day that goes by that I am not looking to learn more.

  3. Hi Ben, You clearly have been fortunate to not only become a dentist like your father, but a story teller like him also. There is no doubt that the words in your writing (not just on this site) exude your inner self; your leadership. Life is but a journey no matter what profession or craft, we grow as we learn from good or bad experiences. I appreciate the opportunity albeit only through the possibilities of social media to be a party to your dedication and mentoring within the dental profession via your new linked in group People-Centered Dentistry. My personal and professional values appear to be”old fashioned” – as a small fish in a huge pond” but together through the power of social media, I believe as a collaborative group with the same values we can do what we can never do alone.
    Thanks for sharing!
    Sincere regards,

  4. Ben your story just reinforced my conviction about dentistry. I’m a very young dentist, having only graduated in 2003, I’m in the process of setting up my first practice and over time I have come to realize I can aspire to whatever specialty I want in Dentistry. I had to repeat my first and last years in Dental school and it was a very painful and scary experience. I had doubts about my abilities and skills as a clinician and was on my way out of the profession after graduating. While waiting for a job opportunity to fall through in a totally non-dental line of work I decided to take a job as an associate dentist in a small practice and that was it. After six months I was hungry for growth and knowledge and got a job in probably the best dental practice in my country. Now I am setting up my own practice, and I almost walked away from it all. I advise dental students all the time that it doesn’t matter how you graduate or how long it takes. What matters is the zeal to improve and grow as a clinician. In my country a lot of fresh dental graduates end up leaving to work in Europe and the United States, I was one of those that wanted to as well. What changed my outlook? The fact that most things in the real world are all learning processes. So as long as we strive to always improve on our previous achievements there will always be that hunger, that drive, that joy that comes from being able to do something you love and doing it well.

    1. Wow!

      Thank you Femi for sharing this. I do hope you will find me on LinkedIn and join our group, People-Centered Dentistry. You have a great story to tell and you have been a real encouragement to many today. Thanks again.

  5. I found this blog article after googling the header for the one written at the asdablog- they cut it off after Then he gave me the five words. “Ben, dentistry is a learned procedure.”.

    I think that is a shame given how meaningful the last few paragraphs are, it changes from story to insight.

    1. Thanks Jesse. I gave them permission to post it or link to it. If you think they are missing the boat, please let them know. I’m sure they can correct it. And thanks for you kind words.

  6. Ben, your words are truly inspirational – – my husband and I both volunteer-teach perio residents (part time) and have been in practice 35 years, feeling greater purpose and passion with each passing year. . . your message needs to be embraced not only by students as well as practitioners, but by FACULTY who too often forget what it’s like to be plagued with such doubt and self recrimination (I’m keyed into educational/cultural reform in health science edu).
    I would love to follow your postings and will join the LinkedIn group – – thank you for generously sharing your insight and wisdom :o)
    I hope to someday meet you — maybe at an AAP . . .

    p.s. we were just in your lovely city for the Alamo Bowl and look forward to returning some day~

    1. Thank you Stacy. I look forward to meeting you and your husband where ever our paths may cross. Ben

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