How to Move Toward Independence in Dentistry (Part 2)

August 3, 2021 Barry F. Polansky, DMD

Mastery sits atop L. D. Pankey’s Ladder of Competency. The question is how does one achieve mastery? Once again it has been reduced to “Just Do It.” But there is more science.

In his 1953 paper, The Achievement Motive, Harvard psychologist David McClelland wrote an original thesis about mastery. Psychologists Deci and Ryan (authors of Self-Determination and Intrinsic Motivation in Human Behavior) acknowledged that this thesis may have described an intrinsic driver even more important than autonomy. They called it competence, but it is now known as mastery.

The pursuit of mastery has been the subject of numerous scholars and authors from Theresa Amabile and Robert Greene to George Leonard. Most agree that mastery is the desire to get better at what we do. It is the need to continually get better, to improve, and to make progress. It is the royal road to growth and flourishing and the opposite of languishing and drudgery (the low rung on Pankey’s Ladder of Competency).

The Process/Progress of Mastery Is Pleasurable

Working toward worthy goals is pleasurable. Making progress produces the neuro-chemical dopamine. According to Dan Pink, author of the popular book Drive, the single biggest motivator by far, is making progress in meaningful work.

At my lowest point in dentistry, I felt stuck…hopeless. My work had lost its meaning. Today we call that burnout. Remember those Thursday mornings I mentioned in Part 1 of How to Move Toward Independence in Dentistry? Those Thursday mornings turned on the light of hope.

We need the freedom to chase mastery. That freedom comes from autonomy. Without the intrinsic driver of autonomy, it is difficult to sustain the drive necessary to achieve mastery. This is based on our biology, not just some story, fairy tale, or business myth.

So, after scheduling Thursday mornings to practice autonomously, applying the Pankey Institute lessons I needed to learn and make second nature, I slowly put the complex elements of comprehensive, relationship-based dentistry together. I started with the comprehensive examination and built on that by learning all the components from mounting of models to the nuances of advanced occlusion. It took time…but driven by dopamine and progress, slowly I was installing my model practice.

Behavioral Skills and Technical Skills Are Both Important

In time I came to realize that learning the softer behavioral skills were just as important as the technical, so I learned about case presentation. Through the years I learned new skills like digital photography and PowerPoint. This is the essence of mastery. I am retired now. Looking back, I see how that the moment Dr. Becker suggested implementing the “Pankey Morning” changed my life.

There Is a Way to Enjoy Dentistry

Today things are different than when I was a young. There is pressure to go right into corporate dentistry or practice in a way that is built on extrinsic motivators. Many of the newer models of practice are an assault on autonomy, and many dentists don’t realize the root of their unhappiness for years.

My new book, The Porch, is a fable about a dentist who is losing his autonomy and breaks down. By finding a mentor and keeping his eyes on the ultimate prize, he goes from despair to hope. The book provides lessons the young dentist learns along a path of mastery, with the leadership and support of other colleagues.

Pankey Institute instructors, mentors, and colleagues inspired and encouraged my personal path. As I recall, many of them started on their personal fee-for-service journey, like I did, with focus on changing and mastering a new approach to patient examination, education, and leadership — one new patient at a time, one morning per week.

Our constantly growing Pankey Institute community has stayed “on the porch” of conversation, like the Stoic philosophers under the stoa, to grow in shared wisdom over 50 years. This wisdom is never outdated, even as dentistry has changed. There is a way to enjoy dentistry. My mission is to keep writing and awakening hope.

Related Course

E1: Aesthetic & Functional Treatment Planning

DATE: January 23 2025 @ 8:00 am - January 26 2025 @ 2:30 pm

Location: The Pankey Institute

CE HOURS: 39

Dentist Tuition: $ 6800

Single Occupancy with Ensuite Private Bath (Per Night): $ 345

Transform your experience of practicing dentistry, increase predictability, profitability and fulfillment. The Essentials Series is the Key, and Aesthetic and Functional Treatment Planning is where your journey begins.  Following a system of…

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About Author

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Barry F. Polansky, DMD

Dr. Polansky has delivered comprehensive cosmetic dentistry, restorative dentistry, and implant dentistry for more than 35 years. He was born in the Bronx, New York in January 1948. The doctor graduated from Queens College in 1969 and received his DMD degree in 1973 from the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine. Following graduation, Dr. Polansky spent two years in the US Army Dental Corps, stationed at Fort. Dix, New Jersey. In 1975, Dr. Polansky entered private practice in Medford Lakes. Three years later, he built his second practice in the town in which he now lives, Cherry Hill. Dr. Polansky wrote his first article for Dental Economics in 1995 – it was the cover article. Since that time Dr. Polansky has earned a reputation as one of dentistry's best authors and dental philosophers. He has written for many industry publications, including Dental Economics, Dentistry Today, Dental Practice and Finance, and Independent Dentistry (a UK publication).

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How to Move Towards Independence in Dentistry (Part 1)

July 12, 2021 Barry F. Polansky, DMD

Happiness for me in dentistry was always doing my best for patients who appreciated and wanted the best dentistry. When third parties began to heavily impact the care patients wanted and my ability to do my best, my happiness disappeared, and burnout set it.

Independence to me meant removing myself and leading my patients away from insurance dependence. The Pankey Institute showed me the way to do this, and I was able to start restoring my happiness one patient at a time, until I was finally once again “fee for service.” Whether you can do this in part or in whole, you will achieve more dentistry and have a greater impact on more lives.

I first attended The Pankey Institute in the late eighties. I was at the lowest point of my career. Admittedly times were a bit easier for a young dentist back then, but in many fundamental ways they were the same. On the first morning at the Institute, I remember feeling overwhelmed. I was focused on the herculean task of creating the practice of my dreams. Every moment of that first week tested my competence and potential to succeed. I kept comparing myself with other students as I paid attention and diligently took notes.

Later in the week, Dr. Irwin Becker was discussing how to schedule patients so we would have time to practice what we were learning. I returned home and secured every Thursday morning for practicing “the Pankey way” which included a lot of new techniques for me and my staff. Dr. Becker was more correct than he even knew when he recommended that we “just do it.”

The Science of Motivation

About the same time, during the eighties, two psychologists, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan from the University of Rochester were beginning to formulate their now groundbreaking Self Determination Theory of Human Motivation. Their advice also came down to “Just Do It.” Years later, while studying positive psychology, I was gratified that I took Dr. Becker’s advice; otherwise I may not have had an accomplished and fulfilling career.

Deci and Ryan defined motivation as the “energy required for action.” How many times do we attempt to accomplish a worthy goal but run out of steam? We need drive. Installing a fee-for-service practice is difficult…if we dare to do it. It requires resources like drive and energy.

Deci and Ryan noted extrinsic drives are the material rewards we are all familiar with, as well as status and recognition. The intrinsic drives are passion, curiosity, and purpose. They found intrinsic motivation is more effective in every tested situation, except when basic needs haven’t been met (think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). They also found that autonomous work overrides controlled work because autonomy is aligned with our intrinsic drives.

Autonomy as an Intrinsic Driver Works

When we are the masters of our own destiny, we are also more focused, productive, optimistic, resilient, creative, and healthy. In retrospect, this is what I found on those Thursday mornings. When I was focused on doing a comprehensive, relationship-based new patient exam, to the best of my ability and focused on leading the special person before me to greater understanding and health without thoughts about personal gain… putting another first and giving them the gift of my time… I felt most alive and well myself.

I started with the comprehensive examination and built on that by learning all the components from the mundane mounting of models to the nuances of advanced occlusion. For those of you starting to implement a fee-for-service practice model, success can be measured one morning a week and one patient at a time. Your intrinsic motivation will carry you forward to expand your “Pankey style” approach to a greater and greater percentage of your patients.

Beyond Scheduling One Special Morning…Return to “The Porch”

My latest book, The Porch: A Dental Fable, tells the story of a young dentist who is led in mentoring relationship — by a retired dentist and an expanding group of encouraging colleagues who meet regularly on a porch. He discovers and practices a new philosophical and behavioral approach to practice that transforms his life. I’ll keep blogging on this theme, but between blogs, you might want to pick up the book and discover the richness of a life in dentistry based on intrinsic drive. If you have sampled The Pankey Institute offerings and been inspired, then stay on “the porch” of its philosophical approach, courses, study clubs, and collegial gatherings. Continuously sharing and supporting one another is what put me on the never-ending, meaningful, highly satisfying Road of Mastery…and never again to experience burnout.

Related Course

E1: Aesthetic & Functional Treatment Planning

DATE: October 16 2025 @ 8:00 am - October 19 2025 @ 2:30 pm

Location: The Pankey Institute

CE HOURS: 39

Dentist Tuition: $ 6800

Single Occupancy with Ensuite Private Bath (Per Night): $ 345

Transform your experience of practicing dentistry, increase predictability, profitability and fulfillment. The Essentials Series is the Key, and Aesthetic and Functional Treatment Planning is where your journey begins.  Following a system of…

Learn More>

About Author

User Image
Barry F. Polansky, DMD

Dr. Polansky has delivered comprehensive cosmetic dentistry, restorative dentistry, and implant dentistry for more than 35 years. He was born in the Bronx, New York in January 1948. The doctor graduated from Queens College in 1969 and received his DMD degree in 1973 from the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine. Following graduation, Dr. Polansky spent two years in the US Army Dental Corps, stationed at Fort. Dix, New Jersey. In 1975, Dr. Polansky entered private practice in Medford Lakes. Three years later, he built his second practice in the town in which he now lives, Cherry Hill. Dr. Polansky wrote his first article for Dental Economics in 1995 – it was the cover article. Since that time Dr. Polansky has earned a reputation as one of dentistry's best authors and dental philosophers. He has written for many industry publications, including Dental Economics, Dentistry Today, Dental Practice and Finance, and Independent Dentistry (a UK publication).

FIND A PANKEY DENTIST OR TECHNICIAN

I AM A
I AM INTERESTED IN

VIEW COURSE CALENDAR