I’m Not Going to Make That Mistake Again

April 4, 2017

One of the most difficult things about being a new orthodontist is the staggering number of mistakes you make.  Unless you are a raging egomaniac or totally clueless you will find you are screwing up on an almost constant basis.  I can remember my first few months as an associate and my first few years as an owner.  The parade of errors was unrelenting and varied from clinical to management to personal.

  • Forgot to explicitly tell the assistant that, yes, we are continuing the upper powerchain with those class II elastics
  • Botched the explanation of IPR to mom, now she thinks I’m a butcher who wants to grind away her kid’s teeth
  • Gave a staff member a hard time only to find out later they in fact had a medical condition I was not yet aware of
  • Told my financial person to be more aggressive with an overdue account and ended up with a bad review online
  • Allowed our staff meeting to descend into a vortex of complaining and negativity

The list goes on and on and on.  The frustrating thing is that as orthodontists, we think we are the best and the brightest.  Decades of educational winnowing have convinced us that we are the bee’s knees.  At the very least, the simple fact that we have gone to so much school must surely count for something?

In the presence of so much congratulatory self-talk, all of these mistakes seem particularly jarring.  I have spoken with many orthodontists who have felt overwhelmed, frustrated and even close to tears at the end of some days.  How do we reconcile the fact that we have all of the best training and all of the best intentions and yet can’t seem to string together an entire day without failing at something?  Beating ourselves up doesn’t help but on the other hand we obviously can’t ignore our mistakes because we desperately need to learn from them.

Over time I developed a very simple and effective technique to deal with and learn from my mistakes.  First, when I felt frustrated or upset with something that had gone wrong I tried as hard as I could to see how I had contributed to the situation.  When I was honest with myself, I found that most often I was at least partly, and more often mostly to blame.  If you have a hard time with self-assessment, I would encourage you to read the book Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Lief Babin, which I reviewed in an earlier podcast.

The second step was that after I had recognized my mistake and taken responsibility for it, I would repeat the following phrase in my head: “I’m not going to make that mistake again.”  Instead of unproductive moping, I turned my error into a learning experience by simply saying: “I’m not going to make that mistake again.”  Sometimes I still felt like an idiot and wanted to beat myself up, so I would remove judgement from the situation by telling myself “I’m not going to make that mistake again.”

This simple little mantra wasn’t just to make me feel better, I really meant it.  I would focus my mind on all of the little details that contributed to my mistake.  I would literally visualize myself back in the middle of the problem situation.  I could see myself in the clinic.  I could see the patient.  I could see mom sitting there on the bench with that look on her face.  I could see the patient’s teeth.  I did this to be sure I would recognize the same set of circumstances when they presented themselves in the future.  This really works.  Because of the nature of our work, I often find myself back in the exact same sticky situation a few weeks or months or years later.  Like a quarterback seeing the game slow down, I realize that I have been here before and I know where the landmines are buried and I say triumphantly to myself, “I’m not going to make that mistake again!”

I know you are trying your best.  There is so much to learn.  Stop beating yourself up and be grateful for the opportunities you have every day to become a better orthodontist and a better person.  Whether you are a new or seasoned doctor, I hope my little mantra can help.

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