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Five after 20

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A long time ago at recess, we had this thing called a "do over" while playing games like kickball and football. There were no referees or parents around to resolve our conflicting viewpoints. We argued about if something was illegal, and this usually got us nowhere. So, someone would inevitably say, "Let's just play it over — do it over." It’s been 20 years since I started dental school, and there have been several instances where I wish I could have called out, "do over" both in my personal life and in my professional life.

Here are five recommendations I would like to offer after my 20 years in practice. I hope you will have less of a struggle or lower stress levels by learning from my experiences.

1. Pick the right life partner. Having a supportive life partner (if you so choose) can contribute to your success or failure. Many people do not have the support from a significant other to do great things. When your partner has difficulties taking care of him- or herself, you may have a feeling you must do everything in the household on your own. Balancing a career on top of those duties makes it extremely hard to own a practice or carry on a strong professional life. However, there are work-arounds in that situation. You can hire people to perform a lot of household tasks, and you can hire child care if desired. So, it’s not impossible to make a relationship like this work, but it does seem to be easier if both people in the relationship help each other and support each other.

2. Recognize that no one has all of the answers. The sooner we recognize our weaknesses, the faster we can remedy situations. We must ask for help along the way. It may be relationship counseling, business consulting, or clinical help. Burn out can happen faster if we choose similar pathways again and again, yet expect different results. We often need to change our systems so that we can change behaviors. Take the risk to change. You can always go back to a previous way of operating.

3. Manage stress in healthy ways. My increased stress levels used to lead to undesirable outbursts and regrettable actions. We have to learn to manage our stress in healthy ways. Drinking in excess, taking drugs, overshopping and overeating are not healthy ways to deal with the incredible amount of pressure we encounter in our profession. It is hard to please patients, understand accounting problems, market to our communities and lead others without feeling overly taxed at times. Stress management may include saying, "no" more often. It may require us to learn mindful coping mechanisms. It may even mean stepping away from a practice or working fewer hours to create a more balanced lifestyle.

4. Have an optimistic attitude. Even if a situation is bad, find a way to see something positive in it. Doing so will help you find more peace in your life. Learn from mistakes. Forgive yourself for making mistakes and let go of the negative talk in your head. Make sincere apologies when necessary. Move forward.

5. Be able to fire a family member, an employee or a close friend if needed. It’s never easy. Use kindness. Be gentle even if someone is unkind or even belligerent to you. You do not need to put up with aggressive threatening behavior, but you will not regret being more kind, less clever or less sarcastic in a serious, difficult situation.

Dentistry is full of nonclinical moments that require expertise beyond our knowledge base. Those moments require that we make split-second decisions, and sometimes those decisions are made under high amounts of pressure. Although there are no longer any grade school "do overs," we can still apply the same concept when things don’t go well or when things seem unfair. We will make mistakes and so will those around us. Allow or call for a "do over" when necessary. The most important thing we can do is make a situation right for someone else if it wasn’t done right in the first place.

Dr. Knowles is a national speaker, health educator and practicing dentist in East Lansing, Michigan. For more information or to schedule her for your next speaking event, visit or email