Blog, Dentist

The Road to Mastery – Your Hands and Your Head are Not Enough

by Dr. Scott Cairns – PDS®-supported owner dentist at Fountain Modern Dentistry and Orthodontics in Fountain, CO

In his book, “A Philosophy of the Practice of Dentistry”, by L.D. Pankey and William J. Davis, Dr. Pankey describes a ladder or hierarchy of dentistry and the road to mastery. As is true in any endeavor created by human hands, there exists a continuum of skill. Identifying where you are and where you want to be on that continuum can be a useful exercise. Remember being lined up shortest to tallest when you were in grade school? It was always easy to sort out where you belonged. Unfortunately, knowing where we belong as dentists in our community is not as simple. If you’re like me, the thought of this is actually a little uncomfortable. Where will we end up? Truthfully, I will never know. But I am clear about where I want to arrive in time. The good news about our individual rankings is that our position is not solely dependent on our hands.

Dentist hands workingIt takes more than great hands to be a great dentist!

Dr. Pankey describes the ladder as “2% Mastery, 8% Adept, 36% Students and 54% Indifferent”. He makes an excellent point that our hand skills get us in the game, but with our hands we are only laborers. In dentistry and medicine, we also have to use our heads – our knowledge.  Laborers who use their heads elevate themselves to craftsmen. I would guess that the indifferent majority are straddling the line between laborers and craftsmen. To want to move up to students of dentistry and medicine, to become adept or even to realize mastery requires another key ingredient: your heart, or in other words, the values that you bring to your work. The joining of head, heart and values allows us to become artists within our profession – and if we work hard enough, masters.

I have some concern that fewer dentists and doctors today put their heart into what they do – not because we are not good people, but because it is so much harder today to move up past “security” in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Today, there is no doubt that there are a variety of pressures that create an environment that is difficult to navigate. Some of these pressures are institutional, some are cultural, and others are self-imposed. I know I have struggled to tear through these pressures. My guess is that those of you reading this have struggled as well. My goal is to help dentists and doctors who have an affinity toward mastery, those whose heart pushes them toward greatness – not just for themselves, but for the fortunate people who have entrusted their health to their care.

I want to be a positive force for those moving themselves from being indifferent toward mastery – it starts as a student. Not only a student of dentistry, but of business and most importantly of people. Please join me on this journey toward a world where William Mayo’s quote, “The best interest of the patient is the only thing to be considered”, is not just a nice saying on a wall, but a mantra toward something better. Start today by considering where you want to stand in line and ask yourself what you will do in the days ahead to move toward that place.


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About Scott Cairns, DDS

Dr. Scott Cairns earned a Bachelors degree in Philosophy before attending the Creighton University School of Dentistry. He is guided by Dr. Mayo's quote: “the best interest of the patient is the only interest to be considered…” Dr. Cairns is owner dentist at PDS®-supported Fountain Modern Dentistry and Orthodontics in Fountain, CO.