As summer is quickly evaporating in front of our eyes, I realize that this is the time of year when most dental schools finish classes — and as such, there are countless students all over the world who are getting ready to make the leap into the “real world.”

Incidentally, I was recently reminded (by a Facebook post) that a couple of years ago I was invited to Seattle as the keynote speaker at the graduation of the Prosthodontic Residents at my alma mater, the University of Washington. I've been an affiliate associate professor there for 20 years, so let's just say that I was deeply humbled and honored to be invited to speak at such special occasion.

This elicited spending a good deal of time reflecting on how I could package a message that would be meaningful, momentous and memorable — the three M's that my late mentor, Dr. Vince Kokich Sr., taught graduate students like me while studying at the University of Washington.

Ultimately, my message highlighted three crucial pieces of advice for new dentists:

  1. Be kind to yourself
  2. Create solid networks
  3. Learn to be patient

The world today is certainly a different place than what it was just a couple of years ago — a world where dental students' educational journeys were curtailed by the pandemic and ostensibly reduced human interaction among fellow students and instructors.

But this doesn't diminish the value of these three elements for successful and meaningful practice. In fact, graduating dentists today could probably benefit from keeping these concepts at the forefront of their journey as they navigate these challenges in an especially tumultuous and uncertain time.

Male doctor smiling in front of blurred patient examination room with xray of teeth on a screen

Be kind to yourself

There is something uniquely special about finishing a residency — or for that matter, finishing dental school — and jumping out into the world of clinical practice. In my experience, many students anticipate that this experience will validate that all those years studying have truly equipped them to treat patients without issue.

The reality though is that this “uneventful future” is a pervasive fallacy, and issues are inevitable. As new professionals, dentists are not immune to failure. In fact, failing is an absolute requisite of constant personal and professional growth — the question instead is how quickly one can overcome those bumps in the road, learn from them and carry on.

In my career as a dentist, I've found that there are three types of failure:

  1. Failure in communication
  2. Failure in treatment planning
  3. Failure in execution

Each one of these comes with its own nuances but at the end of the day, it all boils down to learning to embrace these failures as learning opportunities.

One of my favorite quotes that nicely frames this concept is one by iconic baseball pitcher Vernon Law, who said, “Experience is a bad teacher, because it gives you the test first, and the lesson afterwards.”

In this same vein, I would urge new dentists and recent grads to keep in mind a simple acronym:

Yellow text on blue background spelling out the word mistakewith the following words: Meaningful instances serving to activate key essential solutions.
Meaningful Instances Serving To Activate Key Essential Solutions

Create solid networks

If you have not learned this yet, your time as a practicing dentist will soon make one thing clear: It is next to impossible to accomplish anything on your own. Another absolute for any new dentist who wants to achieve personal and professional success is to embrace the power of relationships.

Staying close with the right people will help you calibrate your vision, your pace and your impact as a dentist. To do so, you must acknowledge that creating and nurturing these types of relationships is an art form, and one that needs to be practiced continuously.

How do I know this?

Back in 2000, as I was finishing my postdoctoral program at the University of Washington, we were invited to attend a celebration from the Seattle Study Club network that was taking place in the 6th Avenue Theater in Seattle. We were invited because our mentor, Dr. Ralph Yuodelis, who served as our program director for many years, was receiving a lifetime achievement award.

Dr. Yuodelis' acceptance speech was among the most eloquent, thought-provoking and powerful speeches I'd ever heard.

It went something like this...

When I finished my postdoctoral education at the University of Washington back in the late 60's, my mentor, Dr. Saul Shluger, approached me and said ‘Ralph, let me give you the secret to a successful life: No matter what you do, make sure that you surround yourself with people that are better than you.' And that is exactly what I did. Thank you all for being here and sharing this special moment with me.”

Since that day, I have tried my best to honor his memory by surrounding myself with folks who are better than me — and today I can decisively affirm that this is the single best piece of advice I've ever received.

But what does it mean to surround yourself with people who are better than you? In my view, it means that you truly respect and admire those you surround yourself with. Importantly, it also necessitates nurturing an essential trait of successful people: Humility.

Being humble does not mean you are less than others — it means that you don't need to exaggerate who you are and what you've accomplished. Regardless of these things, self-reflection and self-awareness are still crucial for continuous growth.

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn says, “We are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.” This begs us to choose mentors wisely while ensuring we are a worthwhile mentee.

As opposed to the intimate relationship that exists between a teacher and a student, the mentor/mentee interface has a tacit pact that elicits continuity of ideals, principles, or even techniques — which translates, in a sense, into a ubiquitous reciprocal commitment. What better proof of such continuity than me sharing those wise words from my mentor during his iconic speech over two decades ago?

And strive to become a mentor yourself as early on as possible, regardless of your age. Being born in a different era allows you to “reverse mentor” more tenured professionals.

Jack Welsh understood this concept very well when he was CEO of GE. He chose to have younger employees teach senior executives about the internet back in the late 90's.

As a new grad, there is a good chance that you fall into the category of a “digital native” and likely have the upper hand when it comes to technology. Consequently, you could easily mentor more senior colleagues on the use and benefits of so many incredible digital tools available today.

And last, but certainly not least...

Be patient

One of the toughest things to overcome in our world is the resistance to immediate gratification. Becoming a successful healthcare professional rarely happens overnight. An impatience with achieving a certain professional status generally comes at a high price. You can rest assured that many of your childhood friends will be up and running successful businesses while you feel you are buried in debt and barely moving uphill.

But don't be fooled by your friend on Instagram who has thousands of followers and became an overnight influencer. Fight the instinctive feeling of telling your patients how much you know before showing them how much you care. Don't try to be interesting — instead, work to become someone who is genuinely interested.

The more you do this with your patients and your team, the easier it will be for you to make a real impact — and expedite the timeline for creating your vision for the future.

A final thought...

I hope these three pieces of advice serve you well as you embark in one of the noblest professions today — a unique profession where the lines between science, technology, art and humanity are blurred.

Keep in mind that at the core of what you do is serving others. If dentistry is a process of building something one brick at a time, you will notice that service leadership will help you build a castle — one built on a foundation of integrity, respect, and admiration from those around you and well-worth the time and energy invested.

But even more importantly, enjoy the “making of”. Enjoy the process of building this castle as life itself is ultimately much more the journey than it is the destination.

Ricardo Mitrani, D.D.S., M.S.D., is a member of Spear Resident Faculty.