Dr. Joel C. Small discusses the need to develop critical thinking as a means to defining and creating our preferred future
“Average performers tend to believe truth and fact are the same. The world class knows there is a difference. Champions use their critical thinking skills to make clear distinctions between truth and fact. Fact is reality. Truth is our perception of reality, and perceptions are subjective.”
Secrets of the World Class
We have all seen this scenario — it’s a hot summer day, and we see a fly beating its wings against a window pane in a futile effort to get outside. The fly sees where it wants to go, but the glass serves as an invisible barrier that ultimately frustrates and defeats the fly. The fact, or reality, is that the glass is im-
penetrable, but the truth, as the fly perceives it, is that the invisible barrier is blocking the fly’s only path to freedom.
Our initial response to this scenario is to acknowledge that the fly lacks the necessary mental capacity to visualize the obvious alternative paths to freedom that we see so clearly. We say, “How unfortunate. If only the fly was smart like us.” And yet we exhibit the same behavior as the fly on a regular basis.
Albert Einstein famously stated, “We can’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” This quote has meaning at so many levels. Take the profession of dentistry for example. Over the past 20 years, we have needed to evolve from the cottage industry that defined our past. We can no longer assume, as in years past, that simply putting out a sign and practicing in a secluded environment will guarantee our comfortable retirement. Too much has changed, and it has immutably altered the environment in which we practice. We are being challenged on many fronts, and yet we have been slow to respond to these critical challenges. Why? I would submit that we choose the course of inaction because we remain with the same mindset that prevailed from years past. In reality, change is inevitable and necessary. We are, however, hindered by our perceived truth that the same process from the past, one that required little thought or action on our part, will somehow bring us the same results in the future. We are like the proverbial frog in hot water. Our truth is the water is warm. The fact is the water will soon boil and cause our demise.
Marshall Goldsmith, author of the bestselling book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, would say that dentists are highly superstitious. Superstition, according to Goldsmith, is simply the confusion of correlation and causality. As a result of this confusion, we tend to repeat any behavior that is followed by positive reinforcement whether or not the positive reinforcement occurred as “a result of” or ”in spite of” the behavior. So if we are able to experience a degree of success in spite of our habitual inaction and mindlessness, we tend to assume that the same behavior will provide future success. This is our truth, but as Goldsmith states, our reality is that what got us here won’t get us there.
When I started my endodontic practice 38 years ago, “Yelp” was something that happened when you stepped on a dog’s tail, and defending our reputation was something that took place after school at the bike rack, not online. What was “online” anyway? So much has changed that has altered our existence. Even this old dog has had to learn new tricks.
The time has come for dentistry and dentists to develop the necessary critical thinking skills that will allow us to distinguish between truth and fact. It is time for us to align our truth with the facts, so we can see our world as it truly exists. Is fee-for-service a dying concept? Will corporate dentistry overwhelm traditional dentistry? Solutions to these and other critical issues will require a different type of thinking. The solutions require action as opposed to our habitual inaction of years past. I truly believe that creating dentistry’s preferred future depends on our willingness and ability to develop our critical thinking skills. If dentistry as we know it is to survive, future dentists must be true entrepreneurs with the same, or better, critical thinking skills as those possessed by corporate non-dentists who seek to forever change our profession to meet their own needs. Once we discard our old way of thinking and learn new critical thinking skills, we will begin to see the alternative paths that take us where we need to be.
So how do we acquire these vital skills? One obvious way would be to include this training as part of the dental school curriculum, but I fear that we are a long way from seeing this become a reality. Another way would be to create a highly skilled team of professional advisors and use their counsel as a guide for entrepreneurial endeavors and decision-making. Some dentists have even chosen to return to school to study business and organizational development.
In conclusion, learning how to think is just as important as learning what to think. This is a process of challenging our truths and aligning them with facts. By removing barriers that diminish our clarity, we are able to see and deal with reality at a whole new level. With the help of advisors or professional coaches, we can learn to cast away subjective self-limiting beliefs and assumptions that keep us tied to the status quo and prevent us from finding the alternative paths to success.