We are all creatures of habit, and like most, I like structure and routine. What time we wake up, what to eat for lunch and even our dog walking routes follow some form of organized structure.
When it comes to our dental careers, we also strive to organize things around a structured routine we can control. However, when attempting to plan our future, many of us oftentimes feel our lives are dependent on other people and outside factors. Our boss, our company, our family and other variables all work together to determine our future and push us in a specific direction whether we want it to or not.
Though that can be true on some level, the reality is that we have far greater control over our own careers and future than we think, depending on how we decide to approach things. There are two primary approaches we can consider. We can either set our goals from the start and work in reverse, or go with the flow and move forward in increments. Each approach has its pros and cons, but the best avenue for dental entrepreneurs might involve a combination of both.
The concept behind the first option is to plan your life in reverse, to have an idea of what you want your future to be from the beginning and work towards that goal from the start. This approach allows you freedom to think about the big picture and to script your ideal world. What would your ideal work schedule, salary, and lifestyle be five years from now? What about 10 and 20? Do you want to travel the world often or build a practice? Do you want to pay back loans aggressively or invest that money differently?
Ask yourself important questions and make a plan, no matter how outrageous some of your ideas may seem. Then break each idea down into parts, calculate the relative costs, brainstorm how you could make the timing work and see what steps are necessary to make it happen. The results may surprise you.
If your goal is to work four days per week and travel consistently, then buying a large practice shortly after graduating and falling into massive debt makes that a difficult task. But having that same goal for 10-15 years from now is attainable if you put in the hard work on the front end. It just depends on your individual plan and endgame. The best part is that there are no wrong answers and you can dream as bold or conservatively as you want.
Not every decision has to be a life-changer either. For example, I noticed early in my career that some of my days at work would be slammed, while others were far lighter, creating an inconsistent and inefficient schedule. I thus set a goal of maximizing my efficiency across the multiple practices I worked at over the next five years.
Through this process, I found I could reduce my availability at multiple practices, therefore increasing my demand, and increase my overall daily and monthly production. As a secondary result, that opened up valuable extra days I could use working on other projects or in additional practices, or just having extra time off! The point is, once I set the goal, I was able to take concrete steps to make it happen. Thus, working in reverse can be a great approach to take for many situations.
The alternative option to consider is “going with the flow” and taking things as they come incrementally. It’s certainly the easier and less stressful approach on the front end, and it goes against everything option one preaches. Option one proponents may see option two as another form of laziness; it’s easier to “go with the flow” and see what happens than to be proactive. However, there are also benefits with this approach, many of them illustrated in David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.
One aspect he shows is that long-term planning can actually hinder your overall progress, as it sets us on a linear and rigid path that we then feel we can no longer stray away from. Our priorities and opinions will change with time, therefore by being more flexible and testing ideas often through trial and error, over the short term, we can actually learn valuable lessons that help shape our path and improve our long-term outcome. Put differently, we are so goal-oriented and focused on a final product that we may miss a lot of great opportunities and experiences along the way by not keeping our eyes open to what’s in our periphery. Don’t forget to smell the roses!
This is why entrepreneurs often stress the need for multiple “iterations” for any idea. Test often in the short term, learn, adjust your strategy and build on it as you go. To prescribers of this approach, there is no “wasted” opportunity. You will learn something from each experience, and by testing often you will adapt quickly. Of course, our definition of short-term as dental professionals will vary from freelancing entrepreneurs, but the concept and process should be similar.
Going back to my prior example with my work schedule, the same process can be seen in action. I started my schedule change with one office, cut back a day as my test, confirmed/denied its effectiveness, and then did the same with another practice, each time making adjustments and moving forward. The opportunity cost was minimal. If I found the approach wasn’t working, I could easily add the day back. I didn’t go for the big change up front, but rather in gradual iterations, so my risk was also minimized. Food for thought.
Another insight the Epstein found worth mentioning is our own natural bias in decision making. He explained how compared to someone in the exact same hypothetical situation as us, we believe we will have a better outcome. This is not because we are arrogant, but rather because we have familiarity with our own situations. For example, you may know three other colleagues trying to build a dental office from scratch, but because of the familiarity of the details in your case, you will believe your office build-out will be completed quicker, at a lower cost, and look better overall. We simply have a natural bias and give ourselves too much credit! This could lend itself to arguing for more experiences at smaller increments. It may be too late to reverse course with the first option if you realize things aren’t going to plan.
So what is the best way to go? Should we work solely in reverse, or go with the flow? Like everything else in life, I tend to see things in shades of grey. Having the end goal in mind from the beginning is paramount. It gives us direction, purpose and a fixed reference point. However, being overly fixated on that singular path without being open to straying off course, ideally in short bursts, will also result in missing out on valuable experiences and opportunities which will surely help shape your thinking. After all, entrepreneurs are characterized as risk takers and dreamers who set a final goal and work towards it from every possible angle. So take the best from both worlds and make it your own! Dr. Sam Shamardi earned his DMD at Tufts University and his Periodontal certificate at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a Diplomate of the American Board of Periodontology and Implant Surgery and practices full-time while teaching part-time at the Harvard Dental Division of Periodontics, and is a member of the Catapult Education Speakers Bureau.