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Strategies: How to Overcome Setbacks As A Dentist

Strategies: How to Overcome Setbacks As A Dentist

This week, I’m here to talk about how to deal with setbacks in your clinical career and some strategies you can use to progress and move past these setbacks.

I want to centre the talk around a quote by Ray Dalio, billionaire investor, hedge fund manager and author of the book “Principles: Life & Work,”  in which he talks about different strategies and lessons he learnt while running Bridgewater Associates, one of the largest hedge funds in the history of the United States. One of his go-to quotes in the book is “Pain plus reflection equals progress”. This quote really spoke to me while I was reading the book, and as a clinician, I was reminded of all the times I experienced minor setbacks in my clinical career but didn’t know how to overcome it. As somebody working in a clinical set-up with patients, there are many times when clinical procedures do not go as arranged. Complications arise, things take longer than originally planned, or the outcomes are not as favourable as you had hoped for. This happens with everybody starting out with their clinical careers. 

Picture this; you’re doing a root canal and it’s taking too long to finish the case; you obturate the canal, then you find out you’re short of the apex. Oh, the frustration! Or, you’re doing a surgical extraction and you face some complication like infection or excessive bleeding; you get too flustered and you’re unable to handle the case at that point. Whenever we encounter such situations, it tends to put us off. We feel that we shouldn’t bother doing this anymore because we don’t have the required skills or expertise. Or that it’s not worth the stress and hassle. 

Ups and Downs in Clinical Practice are Normal

Everybody experiences ups and downs in their clinical practice. One week, everything is going well and you’re on top of your game. You’re doing all your procedures well,  and you’re happy. Then you run into some roadblock; you break your instruments during Endo treatment, or one of your composite patients’ come back with post-op sensitivity. Whatever the case may be, it’s bound to make you upset and re- evaluate your skills as a clinician. But it’s important to understand that these small setbacks are crucial for your growth. 

An alternate way to approach such setbacks would be this – you make the mistake, and instead of thinking about it in a negative light, you actually address the setback from a learning point of view. Instead of wallowing in misery, you reflect on what happened during the procedure, why it happened, and what you learnt from it. You think about what you could have done correctly to finish the procedure smoothly. You reflect and you come upon a realization that yes, so and so technique was wrong. Maybe I should have tried it another way. Spend some time studying up or researching the procedure so you are more confident the next time you are called in for it.  Here, the “pain” that happened and the “reflection” that ensued, can be a great way to guide progress and prevent you from committing the same mistakes over and again.

I remember I was doing an extraction two-and-a-half years ago, and it took me a while to complete the procedure.  It wasn’t going quite well, and I was stressed the entire time. Afterwards I thought to myself – I don’t really enjoy doing surgery, it’s not for me, maybe i shouldn’t do it anymore. I posted as such on my Noobie Dentist Instagram page. A surprising thing happened then; a dentist from the US sent me a DM, calling it procedural PTSD, which I thought was an interesting perspective. He recommended that if I want to get over this quickly; I need to get back on the horse right away.  He told me that I need to grab the next opportunity I get to do this particular surgical procedure, and just work on not making the same mistakes I did last time. 

I thought to myself, well, that’s great advice. A lot of dentists, myself included, have the propensity to give up or feel defeated whenever we encounter a small difficulty. If something doesn’t go well the first or the second time, we feel like there’s something wrong with us and we stop trying. Instead of reflecting WHY we make the same mistakes again and again, we become frustrated and self-critical.  

Turn Your Setbacks Into Life Lessons 

Don’t let your setbacks bring you down! Use your mistakes to push for learning, progress, and better clinical outcomes. Don’t shy away from failure. Only when you fail do you realise how badly you want to succeed. Accept responsibility for your mistakes. But move on from it by asking yourself tough questions; take time out and analyse why things didn’t go well. Why did these complications arise? Where did I go wrong? How can I stop myself from repeating this in the future? Perhaps write down a list of all the reasons you wouldn’t want to commit the same mistake again. Once you have some answers, work on a plan that will help you avoid similar mistakes in the future. The plan should be detailed but flexible enough to accommodate further changes. Your reflection period is futile if you do not come out with an actionable plan at the end of it, so make sure you have one. 

This “pain and reflection” technique can be very useful for reconditioning the mind to deal with setbacks within the clinical setting as well as in different walks of lives. 

In short, the 5 simple steps you can follow to deal with setbacks better are: 

  • Own the narrative – 

Accepting a mistake you’ve made doesn’t make you weak. In fact, it makes you stronger because it shows that you are in control of your narrative. Acknowledge present shortcomings so you can work on them, later on. 

  • It’s not the end of the world – 

Don’t get too worked up about mistakes you make or setbacks you face. A few months later or even days later, when you look back at these moments, you’ll realise how tiny they really were. 

  • Focus on the learning – 

Failures or setbacks in work are part of life. They don’t necessarily speak about who you are or who you can be. Make as many mistakes as you want, but make sure you learn something from every mistake.

  • Utilize your resources –

Dig into those dental textbooks, research papers and clinical manuals. Speak to a colleague who’s really good at the procedure you faced a setback with and figure out how you can improve. Don’t be afraid to take help if required and utilize the resources around you to create actionable plans for the future. 

  • Move on – 

In the end, it’s important to realise that what’s done is done. You can’t go back and change what happened. It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of overthinking but there’s absolutely no good that can come out of that. Spend some time trying to resolve the matter, if you will, but shifting your focus on a new goal is the only way to move on. 

That’s it for this week. If you enjoyed this blog post, be sure to hit the subscribe button! 

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