As learned by Mary-Jeanne’ Davidson
Prior to helping my husband open his orthodontic practice, I considered myself a fairly resilient person. I grew up on a ranch where hard work was your birthright, I earned three degrees, uprooted our family 7 times in 12 years with the Navy, and delivered two out of our three children without an epidural. But truth be told, NOTHING had prepared me for the daily emotional colonoscopy that comes with starting a practice from scratch. The level of mental toughness and grittiness required for this kind of endeavor makes taking a white hot poker to the eye a preferable option at times.
In the process growing our practice, I have been told no more times than I care to admit. Although no is only made up of two letters, the power behind it could rival that of a nuclear bomb. One side of the no coin has the power to plunge you to such emotional lows you need a spelunker to help you emerge from the cavernous depths. On the flip side, those same two letters can catapult you to stratospheric heights of joy. Consider for example, “No, we are not going to refer our patients to you” versus, “No, we want to refer all of our patients to you!” Complete polar opposites of the emotional spectrum.
No and I are now bosom buddies and I have also become intimately acquainted with its cousins can’t, didn’t, won’t, don’t, shouldn’t, couldn’t and wouldn’t. No has pecked at my confidence like a vulture on a carcass, made me question everything I thought I understood about life and its natural order and left me with the bravado of a middle schooler who just got picked last for a team in PE. But each no has forged my character, deepened my gratitude, and honed a vision for my life and our practice more than any single yes ever could.
One of my first lessons was, “There is NO elevator to the top—you are going to have to take the stairs—JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE.” Now this concept is certainly not new, but I think many of us hold the false expectation that we are going to be an exception to this rule. Completion of an orthodontic residency does not entitle you to some sort of Fast Pass to the front of the success line. It also does not lay out a lucrative career on a velvet jeweler’s cloth for you. I thought that our first year in business might be a bit patchy, but soon after I could start looking for beach front property and selecting the interior package I wanted for my Range Rover. I had no inkling that our flow chart of monthly starts would look like more like a heart monitor reading than a reflection of steady, upward growth. My husband had made hard academic choices and served our country. We had a vision and a mission statement—we even had a hashtag. How could it be that some orthodontists were out there killing it and I felt like we were standing on a street corner singing a bad karaoke version of the Judd’s hit, “Why Not Me?” The reality is we all owe every minute of our 10,000 hours—no exceptions. Paying your dues is a step that you do not get to skip and you absolutely SHOULD NOT—it is humbling, defanging, and character shaping. And here is a hot tip- whoever it is that keeps track of this phantom time sheet is savvy and notes all flaccid payback attempts accordingly.
I like to refer to this next bit of wisdom as There are No Post Production Edits in Life. I remember a particularly bleak streak of not being able to close starts during our first year. We were watching our savings drain, with no end in sight to the dry spell. One day, an eval called that looked promising on paper. In my head I had already deposited the check and felt the tide begin turn. After the consult, my husband shook his head and said, “No. She was close and I probably could have started treatment, but I am not going to do anything that prevents me from putting my head down on my pillow at night.” I wish I could go back and edit that moment with a cinematic eye and cue the soft cam lights and thematic music, have a fan blowing through my hair and my face radiate with pride, because I’d married a man of integrity and honor. The truth of the matter is, my reaction was more like the stricken figure in Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream. But deep down I knew he was right. If you take a magpie-like approach to the shiny shortcuts, it will get paid back with a load of buckshot in your integrity. Somehow, someway, that bill always comes due. Do the hard thing but the right thing every time, because there are no post production edits when it comes to your character.
The next lesson is simple. Don’t Even Try to Out-Lobster Your Competition. We had the tightest marketing budget imaginable, so to stretch a dollar, I baked cakes, cookies and pies I thought were worthy enough to be state fair entries. I glued brackets on carved pumpkins for Halloween, drove around ice cream in the blazing summer sun; customized, bedazzled and personalized darn near everything in hopes of building referral patterns—even if founded on nothing but sympathy. On one occasion, I whipped and spread buttercream icing into perfectly swirled peaks on cupcakes that could rival the Magnolia Bakery in New York City. As I triumphantly took these beauties around to dental offices, I was noticing that they were received with the same level of enthusiasm as an epic baking fail on Pinterest. Come to find out, a competitor had made the rounds earlier that day and presented each staff member in every office their own 2 pound Maine lobster with their initials monogramed on the claws. I realized that day that as hard as it is to be patient, it is imperitive to strive for relationships that are based on mutual, professional respect and not the size of your claws. You will always be outgoodied—a lobster can be trumped by a Lamborghini in the blink of an eye. Sand is sand and not “faux stone” as much as we might want it or need it to be. Relationships built on sand will always crumble. Relationships built on stone take longer to build, but that stability is so worth the wait.
One final bit of wisdom, You’ve Got This – often presents itself as The Struggle is Real. The current landscape of orthodontics with all of the different factions, schools of thought, orthodontists, dentists and orthodentists practicing the craft, reminds me of the first time I saw the bar scene in Star Wars. I’m mesmerized and creeped out all at the same time. I mean, just as we are starting to get into a rhythm and our feel our feet underneath us, the future of the specialty is under siege. There is the very real possibility that braces, a staple of the orthodontic world, could be going the way of the phonebook in the near future. Clear aligners and teledentistry are going to change the topography of the industry with post-Ice Age like outcomes. Let’s face it, 75% of my friends don’t see the difference between their dentist and an orthodontist. I even had one friend explain to me the reason they weren’t choosing us was because their dentist was much more qualified. “You see, he can do everything and not just orthodontics.” I was so dumbstruck that the only reaction I could muster was, “Bless your heart.” Social media, ad words, and SEO are blurring marketing lines and enabling us to fish in each other’s streams, eroding at the gentility of the profession and causing us wax poetically about the past. I have been embracing this reality with lukewarm enthusiasm and find myself curled up in the fetal position with a pint of Ben & Jerrys if I think about it for too long. In one such instance, I reached for my phone to find a song to download as an anthem of my misery. As I scrolled down the screen, I remembered that we used to go have to go to Tower Records to buy music and now we have learned to buy it on an electronic device—we survived the adaptation! We’ve got this!
I recently asked a friend of ours, a heavily decorated Navy SEAL, if he has become immune to fear. I mean, how does he go on a mission when told there is a 90% chance he won’t come back alive, remain calm as his helicopter is going down, or put a wounded buddy back together with a stick of gum and blade of grass and haul him like a Sherpa to safety through enemy territory? Without missing a beat, he said that he absolutely feels the fear, but then just flips his mind to believe he can handle it. That’s when I realized I had learned the most important lesson of no to date. No, backwards, is on. I just need to channel all of the wisdom and lessons that I have learned so far and apply it to the new world order of orthodontics. I will continue to be told no and I welcome it. It makes me a better person and keeps me grateful. But I will no longer let it drag me through Dante’s levels of Hell. I am adaptable, I am resilient, I am gritty. I’ve got this and it’s on!