Have you ever felt the tension between desiring excellence in your clinical dentistry but often feeling bound by perfectionism instead? There’s a fine line between having a standard of excellence and being stuck with the counterfeit of perfection.
Explore the below conversation as Allison and Shawn dive deeper into this very issue.
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At the core of the authentic dentist is the belief that the answer to the current challenges in dentistry is dentists discovering that their greatest asset and point of differentiation is their personal brand – and that forming that brand out of their authentic selves is the best strategy for success in dentistry today.
Listen above, or read the transcript below 😉
Shawn: Today we’re going to talk about the danger of perfectionism in dentistry. I am so excited about sharing right now and talking about this topic, Allison, because everything we’ve just been talking about that we’re excited to share, this is something that is going to be so valuable for dentists, young and old to hear, because really perfectionism is just something you guys have to live with. You’ve been conditioned to need to be perfect and great and everyone wants you to be perfect and great in your clinical dentistry. But, there’s definitely a danger of what that can do to you clinically though and personally in your practice. That’s why I’m really excited about today’s topic. What is it you feel is common that maybe dentists experience around this topic of just perfectionism?
Allison: Shawn, I think our training has been about everything we do to be clinically perfect. We spent four years of undergrad and then four years of dental school really learning how to have good outcomes, and we expect good outcomes. The public expects good outcomes. Everyone expects this level of perfectionism out of us that maybe isn’t actually possible and it puts a lot of pressure on us.
Shawn: Where did this start? In your own journey where did this kind of notions of excellence and… because we talked about it earlier, there’s this generalization that it’s okay that dentists are detailed and they’re very meticulous, but it’s more than that. Why is it that this kind of applies to all dentists? Probably especially a young dentist that are graduating school. Something about the way that you went through school. It kind of set you up to be this way. Right?
Allison: Well, probably when all of us started in elementary school we made straight A’s. I mean straight A’s through high school, probably straight A’s through college. My college was all math and I loved math because there was an answer. It wasn’t like an English paper where it was kind of mushy what an A or B was. I knew the answer. It was only one answer because it was math. All of us have some science background where that’s somewhat true, finding the answer. Then you go to dental school and dental school is all about learning clinically the answer and putting everything perfect. Our instructors were really hard on us if something didn’t go well. I think you graduate with that mindset that anything less than perfect, is just not acceptable.
I remember I was probably a year out of dental school and practicing and I was so stressed. My husband asked me, “What is wrong?” And I blurted out that I should have the physique of Cory Everson. This is before your time, but she was a bodybuilder.
Shawn: Okay, sorry.
Allison: My house should look like Martha Stewart’s. I should practice like Pete Dawson, who is a very famous dentist that just passed away recently and I should be a mother like Carol Brady from the Brady Bunch. I needed to be all those things wrapped into one. Well, none of those people have all those strengths. They only have one. So, I was being completely unreasonable.
Shawn: What happens if you don’t identify this kind of strain of perfection day in, day out, week in, week out in your practice as you’re starting? What was it that you ended up feeling? Were you feeling energized, practicing the way you wanted to, everything was great and you just knew there was this expectation of you? What did that scene look like early in your practice because of this perfectionism, that maybe you hadn’t even identified?
Allison: When I first started practicing, nothing was good enough because clearly when you first graduate you cannot be Pete Dawson. You just can’t. I was constantly disappointed in myself and what I was doing. I constantly felt like I was failing and I was really getting very depressed and I didn’t want to go to work anymore. It wasn’t fun.
Shawn: Really? Meaning it was that severe that dentistry wasn’t, forget enjoyable, it was hard to even tolerate.
Allison: It was hard to even tolerate and I actually loved dentistry and I love my patients, but that fear that something would go wrong just became ominous.
Shawn: Was this even something that you feel like school prepared you for? To be aware that you might get to this point 18 months in, 24 months in, and all of a sudden you feel trapped because you can’t actually hit the target or you can’t hit those standards, or even if you’re hitting them, you can’t hit them perfectly, right?
Allison: I think school set us up for failure there. They had said that everything was going to be just, I don’t know, silk and roses. We had finally achieved. We were doctors. The world was our oyster and that’s not true. You never actually arrive at any point in your life. You just get to a new place where you start a new journey. That’s been an interesting lesson for me to learn.
Shawn: I think that’s great and just a really quick anecdote for something that brought that to life in my life was when we first had our first child. I remember the delivery of our child was the summit. In my opinion. I was just thinking, “Hey, once we have a child, this nine month build up and we are successful if the child is just healthy. Mommy’s healthy, child’s healthy.” And then all of a sudden the baby gets delivered, and you’re like, “This is the start of the journey. It Isn’t the summit.” Now, and I remember even for my wife, it was she now had to figure out how to actually care for the baby outside of the womb where her body was doing a really good job on its own taking caring of the baby in the womb. All of a sudden it was like we thought just finished a race, so to speak, not realizing the real journey and race had just started. I’m sure in some ways that was a shock for us.
As a dentist that’s graduating and feels like I’ve arrived, now I’m a doctor. I mean you can’t probably start your own practice straight out of dentistry.
Allison: Very few people do. You have too much debt. It’s just really hard to do that. Most people have to go work for someone else.
Shawn: In this new, I’m starting a new practice, one of these shocks is what we’re talking about with perfectionism. Now, when in your journey did you ever have a moment where it was like a aha moment or a real shift that kind of illuminated and brought this to light?
Allison: Like I said, my first two years after I graduated from dental school, I worked in a lot of different practices. A day here, two days there. After two years, I started my own practice and at that point I was getting pretty beaten down. Every day was such a struggle that I had done something wrong. Someone was mad at me. I just couldn’t be this perfect person that I wanted to be. I had joined the Dental Association and I was the chair of the New Dentist Committee and I was supposed to give a talk. I decided I’m just going to throw this out there. I printed off, now this is back in the day, I printed off a bunch of x-rays of things that I thought were failures, other dentists and my failures and I brought them out and I had three older dentists that came into a panel and I was hoping that they were going to give me the answer.
I presented in front of a whole group of young dentists, “This what went wrong,” and I presented it to the older dentists hoping that they would say, “Oh, well you should’ve done this.” And we have an answer. And that’s not what they said at all.
Shawn: You were expecting they were going to be able to give an answer because you weren’t satisfied that you were having outcomes that weren’t acceptable and you were thinking, they’re going to teach you or maybe give you advice on how to not have that outcome?
Allison: Yes, I wanted them to teach me how to never have bad outcomes. That was my plan. That is not what happened.
Shawn: What did they share with you?
Allison: Well, the most entertaining one is I showed a x-ray with a root canal that I had done and the file was broken inside the root canal. I consider this to be a huge failure. I stopped doing the root canal. I sent it over to an endodontist to finish. I was embarrassed and I decided I’m never going to do endo again. One of the panelists said, “Well, if you do root canals, files break.” As if that was just a fact, a statement. And he said, “In fact, that tooth broke your file.” That was a totally different way of looking at things, but it was true. Some teeth are very hard to navigate and that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to do the very best we can, but bad outcomes are just part of practice and they just continue to say that over and over and over again as I was presenting every single one of these.
Shawn: Now, to give context to the timing of this CE, were you able to just go and search for bad outcomes on the internet and was this something that in certain Facebook groups or online groups, you were able to be in a safe place and just share about bad outcomes?
Allison: No, this was 2004 so there was no way to search for something like that. Certainly if you did, you would just find a malpractice suit and how it had been settled. You assumed that in the malpractice suit, the dentist was a bad person, a bad dentist. The way we spoke about that bad outcomes was always that it was a bad dentist. You did a bad job.
Shawn: So it was a big deal for you to actually get up there and show some of the bad outcomes that you had had.
Allison: It was incredibly difficult. I come from this Olympic weightlifting background. My father was a coach and the only way that you grew in weightlifting was you showed somebody what you did and they would correct it, so you could get better. And every time your form got better, you lifted more weights.
So I assumed that that’s what I had to do. I had to be embarrassed and share this in order to grow, and I did, but it wasn’t quite the same way I thought.
Shawn: You were thinking that they were going to give you some sort of an answer again, so you could be perfect, robotic, and not have an outcome that was bad. But really what you learned was it wasn’t about that, it was more about…
Allison: A lot of it was about verbal skills. How do you say there’s a bad outcome to a patient so that they understand.
Shawn: Understand that you’re human?
Allison: That you’re human, and that some things are just more difficult than others. And the other thing that we, that I learned was that other people have bad outcomes. And I guess for some reason I assumed that everybody out there was doing perfect work all the time. Otherwise they were bad.
Shawn: So this is a pretty influential moment in your journey in dentistry. What do you think would have happened if the light bulb didn’t turn on in that moment and you didn’t receive this mindset of, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize I was operating under this crazy perfectionism of I just needed to be perfect.” Which wasn’t realistic and was causing all the stress. If this moment hadn’t happened, I mean it’s probably hard to think about, but what would have happened?
Allison: I’m afraid to think about what would happen. I was pretty unhappy and I’m afraid that I would have continued to be more and more unhappy because you don’t get better with perfectionism. You think that that’s keeping you in line and making you better. It’s not, it’s actually making it so you’re afraid. You’re afraid to do anything.
Just step out of the box and try something because you really won’t be perfect at something you’ve never tried before. It was actually hindering me.
Shawn: And it seems one of the older thought patterns to this kind of reality was, “Hey, it’s not okay to have bad outcomes.” Where now, it sounds like bad outcomes is just part of a life. It’s what you do to either learn from those bad outcomes, that’s important. Do you feel that’s fair? How have things shifted maybe in the last 15 or 20 years around this area of normal? I don’t want to say normal because your aim is still that tension.
Allison: It’s a constant tension because you never want to have a bad Yelp review. That’s the worst, to be publicly humiliated like that. And you never want to have a malpractice suit because that can just destroy your livelihood and your practice.
So there’s constant, you feel like everything has to be excellent and perfect. And yet if you’re human, it doesn’t work.
Shawn: So if there’s people struggling right now and maybe they haven’t had that light bulb moment and they’re still operating under the weight of, “I have to be something that I can’t be. And because of that, I’m not liking my dentistry. I’m terrified that I’m going to do something that’s either going to cause a Yelp review or malpractice. But at the same time, I want to grow in excellence, but I don’t want to be bound by the toxins of perfection.” What are some of the tools or what are some of the tips or what are some of the strategies that you might be able to encourage them with?
Allison: So it used to be that every time I looked at the six month checkup, x-rays, we call them four bitewings. I was terrified that I would see something on that x-ray that I had done that wasn’t nice. And then I would focus all day on that one thing that was wrong. Instead of looking at the patient, I did 12 other fillings in there and they were all perfect. I saw 10 other patients. Every one of their radiographs were perfect, but it didn’t matter. There was one thing and that one thing was going to destroy me and I really felt that way, that one thing was going to destroy me. It was keeping me in a prison.
Shawn: Keeping you in a box. I know you mentioned, we were talking about, just kind of a growth mindset and just how you manage change even incrementally in your practice instead of. 10 new instruments all at once. Can you kind of elaborate on that?
Allison: Well, one of the first things I did after that continuing education as I decided to, to focus on my wins. So every patient, I would count how many things looked nice that I had done and it was amazing the ratio there were very few things that I did that were wrong. It was just that that was what I was focused on, which made me feel like a failure. So once I started doing that, I started seeing, okay, I am a good dentist, I’m doing a of good in the world and I need to sort of own that and accept that I am a good dentist, but I’m not a perfect dentist.
And then the next thing I wanted to do was create a culture of excellence in my office. And I think that’s going to go back to the weightlifting where you can’t create a culture of excellence without some vulnerability, without being able to admit that there’s some imperfections and let’s look at them and make them better, rather than let’s hide them and be embarrassed about them.
Shawn: That’s really good, especially about clarifying expectations. I know when we’re talking, you mentioned even this new coaching habit that you’ve employed so that you’re not throwing perfectionism on your team because you have this really clear expectation of yourself, which you even have to manage giving yourself grace when you fall short, you know? But how that transitions us to you leading your team…
Allison: It’s so easy to expect perfection out of your team because they’re a reflection of you and so therefore they have to be on all the time. But, that creates them living under a microscope and that creates fear and the more fear that you give your team, the more they mess up. So it’s giving them some clear expectations and some grace when they make a mistake and just coaching them, not making them feel bad, but coaching, this is why we do this.
Once you create that encouraging environment, people can blossom. And I learned that in my family life too. I have two kids that are just like me, with this level of perfectionism. And it was not helpful for me to put that on them. In fact, I think it really hurt them and I had to back off and recognize that, well, they’re human too.
Allison: They’re going to make some mistakes. It was okay if you got a B, really, we would all live through it. And they were experiencing the same issues that I was.
Shawn: And I think that’s really wonderful. And that’s why we’re wanting to talk about perfectionism today because it really can hinder people developing into who they really want to become. So I know when we were originally talking about just the topic of perfectionism, I was kind of going through, well, I’m not a dentist, I’m a business owner, and as a business owner over the last 15 years, what ways has perfectionism kind of plagued me?
And the areas that I identified was when it came to shipping something, and in business, that’s a term we referred to, that just kind of describes, it’s easiest to view when you think of it like an author having a manuscript. It’s something they care about. They pour their life into it. Maybe they even view it as part of their life work, at that time, and yet in real time there comes to that moment of needing to send it to the publicist.
Allison: You’re exposing yourself.
Shawn: Right. Find out if that publisher says what you value is great, if they think it’s great. There’s that vulnerability to it. So, where it struck home with me is in business, there’d be times where I would create something, whether it was a new business model serving a underserved market, whether it was tweaking our value proposition, which kind of brought forth this new offering that we are really excited about sharing in dentistry and then somehow in the board room or just because of some kind of working the idea out, I would tell myself the lie of perfection, I’d hear it. “It’s not ready yet. It’s not perfect. It’s not perfect.”
And at some point I would end up talking myself out of actually just shipping it, which means sending it out publicly to be viewed into the marketplace. And what I really got robbed of was I was learning, I got robbed of real growth that happens when the market interacts with your idea and says, “Yeah, we really like this, but not this.” And you don’t find that out in the land of theory, in the boardroom. True experience and true knowledge comes once you’ve actually shipped something. So, I think back on the last 10 years, and I’m like, “Man, there’s a lot of times that perfectionism didn’t allow me to step up and just lead or even contribute, or risk, because I didn’t know how it was going to be.”
So my thought is maybe there’s dentists out there, that there’s different areas of their practice or there’s something, some passion of theirs and they’re really wanting to see if they can step up and lead their team in a new way, or if they can lead their whole practice in the community in a new way. Because they’ve been inspired by something, just some thoughts that they’re having. But, that lie of perfectionism says “You’re not ready. It’s not ready. It’s not good enough.” And because of that, really we’re not getting that contribution and we’re not getting that beautiful expression that could totally bust the industry.
Allison: It’s funny that you should say that because we all go to these continuing education where we learn about business strategies and things you could implement in your practice and even new clinical things. So, you buy all the equipment or you’re all set up and you put a new system in and your team decides they don’t really want to do that.
And you think, so it’s bumpy. This isn’t going well. We can’t seem to set up our equipment right. Or the first time we talked to a patient about this, they turned us down, or whatever, something didn’t feel comfortable and you retreat. And suddenly you’re not doing whatever it is that you really wanted to implement because, and it is, it’s about perfectionism, because you couldn’t just walk in and do it perfectly. It’s, I think, a struggle in everyone’s life. It’s not just business. It’s not just dentistry. I think that everyone deals with that. You and I were dealing with that with this podcast.
Shawn: Yeah, totally. We’re not doing this because we can do it perfect.
Allison: We agreed that we would just jump in because how will you learn what works, unless you do it?
So Shawn, do you have any ideas of how somebody could implement something new in their practice with it going smoothly?
Shawn: It sounds like what you’re saying is dentists often come from the conferences, like you’re saying. Is it something that they struggle with from time to time, getting adoption or getting implementation of a new idea?
Allison: Oh yes.
Shawn: Well, so one of the things I’ve learned over the last 10 years is this concept of failing fast but failing forward. And the reason why it’s that term ‘fail’ is because we often think of it as a failure of you try something and it doesn’t work out the way you think it should work out. But in reality, in that process of trying to implement something, you can either learn or you really do fail. The real failure is if you don’t learn anything. So, I would say let that expectation on your own leadership style be, it’s okay.
The greatest businesses, they fail and they fail as fast as they can because then they can learn as much as they need to learn, and they fail forward. So they fail in the direction of where they’re wanting to head. And that might even sound like, I don’t know. How does that sound as a dentist, when I even mention the word, fail fast, or should I say fail often?
Allison: Oh, my stomach is burning. That sounds awful because you see, when you’re talking about a failure, you’re talking about somebody’s tooth. We’re talking about a person. I can’t fail. I can’t fail fast because I’m hurting somebody. And yet the reality is everything is new, you have to try it. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be completely educated when you walk in and do your very best, but you do not want to be the guy that’s still placing silver points and root canals. You just cannot be that guy.
Shawn: And the thing is, you were trained to be great at clinical dentistry, so it is fine for you to not want to even kind of have certain expectations of failing often. But you weren’t trained in leadership. You weren’t trained in team development, you weren’t trained in even change management within an organization.
Allison: No. There’s no time for that in dental school.
Shawn: So if that greatness that you have in a different area of your life doesn’t allow you to try and get in the game and learn in these other areas of your practice where you need to, maybe that paradigm of failing fast and failing forward, don’t put that over your clinical dentistry because you already are great at that. And give yourself grace to be human. But when it comes to leading your team, when it comes to leading a new initiative, something moving forward or your practice, you want to try a new style of marketing, there’s a new office loyalty program that you’re wanting to get adoption, for that side of your leadership, that side of that expression of again, leading a team, give yourself permission to fail fast and forward. You don’t have to do it right the first time, but by not willing to try, you’ll never learn.
Allison: Well, I think I’ve taken this to a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset. So I’m not going to change everything at once. If you change everything in your practice at once, it’s chaos. It makes you crazy. So you pick one area where you’re going to grow and then you implement something and then you pick another area so you’re not changing everything at once. And I think that allows you to really try something, fail fast, and try something else. But you can’t, you can’t keep your office in the same way it was 20 years ago. Dentistry’s moving fast. I don’t practice anything like I did 20 years ago and I suspect in 20 years it will be even more different. Even more different is that?
Allison: But it will be, it will be very different in 20 years and you can’t fall behind. You still got to move forward. And that means that there will be some failures.
Shawn: And it’s how we’re viewing those failures. Failure is, I think it was Henry Ford or Thomas Edison, both of them are notoriously famous for failing often and failing fast. And they viewed it as it’s just an opportunity to begin again more intelligently. But, you can’t grow and begin with new intelligence if you aren’t actually trying. And we really care about dentists growing. We care about dentists moving forward on this journey of being more authentic and practicing the dentistry of their dreams, practicing the dentistry that’s really true to their passion, what they care about. And part of that is they’re going to need to learn to deal with this tension of perfection. Because let’s face it, they are very, like you said, detailed and meticulous, and excellence is something that they’ve been accustomed to and it’s a good thing that they can be very consistent with excellence, that is unbelievable, but we don’t want them to get derailed by a wrong mindset.
And that’s why it was so valuable what you shared Alison. Again about, wow, these experts on this panel were saying, wait a second, she thinks we’re going to help her not…
Allison: Fail, ever.
Shawn: Right. And that’s not what they said.
Allison: That’s not what they said at all. And you know what, looking back I can see that I was very vulnerable to do that. At the time it didn’t feel that way. It felt embarrassing I guess, but it didn’t feel as vulnerable. But I think vulnerability is the only place where you can grow, where you can ask for help. You can admit something’s wrong because if you just stuff it, that’s when I think we run into all this depression and anxiety, where we just are not enjoying our practice. So that vulnerability of, “Hey, this didn’t go well. Can somebody help me?” And I think that’s part of why I’m in the Dental Association, that that’s why you join groups, why you’re not practicing all on your own, so you can talk about it and realize you’re not alone. All of us have bad outcomes. All of us have failures. We don’t like the word failure by the way.
Shawn: Right. Trigger word.
Allison: We have bad outcomes. Yeah, we all do. And it’s just part of being human.
Shawn: And this is what makes podcasting with you great because we’re not wanting to mislead people by just sharing again, this fake, “Hey, this is who we are and everything’s perfect.” You have the courage to be transparent and you have the courage to be vulnerable. And I believe that’s why your team respects you the way you do and so many. That’s why you’ve been able to hold such leadership positions because you lead authentically. So just to honor you and validate you, you’re the perfect partner even to do a podcast with. And like you mentioned before, this is us in action showing that we’re not going to let perfectionism stop us from expressing what we care about.
So to wrap this up, what would you want to leave people with, whether it’d be a challenge or an encouragement to someone that right now, what can they do, what are some next steps that they could do?
Allison: Well, I have to acknowledge you. You’ve taught me a lot of things here. And I think one of the big things is that culture of excellence. That you allow yourself to be vulnerable. You allow yourself to be vulnerable in front of your team, and then you create systems within your team where you can do your very best work, but you’re not mean to other dentists. If you see something that somebody did that wasn’t a beautiful outcome, you don’t put the other dentists down in front of the patient or in front of your team. You accept, you give them some grace, and you give yourself some grace, and then you do the very best you can next time. And I think that gives respect from your team, from your patients and it makes you sleep better at night.
Shawn: Absolutely. To the listeners, we’re just say take some time this week and just reflect on areas that you have grown. Reflect on the things that are doing great in dentistry. And if you’re tempted at all to think about ways that you could improve by looking at something your not doing well. Don’t do that. Maybe that’s what’s natural for you or what’s comfortable, but we want to challenge you actually integrate the successes that you’ve had. Integrate the ways that you’ve grown over the last 12 months. Give yourself a pat on the back, take a deep breath and go, “Wow, I’m doing it. I’m in process and being in process is okay.” So we just want to encourage you, keep going.
Allison: Somebody told me a long time ago that when you become perfect and you never have a bad outcome, you should retire because you’re scary.
Shawn: That’s awesome.
Allison: Well, thank you, Shawn.
Shawn: Thank you, Allison.
Allison: Thank you. Shawn.