Behind the Curtain: Don’t Leave the Parking Brake On by Dr. Chad Foster

Categories: Orthodontics;
Behind the Curtain: Don’t Leave the Parking Brake On 

by Chad Foster, DDS, MS, editorial director

There have been many challenges—big and small, internal and external—on my orthodontic journey, but I will reflect on one specific one in this column in hopes that it connects with some of you. That would be my struggle at different times and in different forms with self-limiting beliefs.

Looking back, it is clear that self-limiting beliefs have played a significant role in driving me forward from one stage to the next in my orthodontic journey. When I was an undergrad, I worried that I wasn’t a good enough student to get into dental school. In dental school, I didn’t think I could do well enough to get into an orthodontic residency. Years ago, as a new graduate practicing in corporate dentistry, I believed that I didn’t have what it would take to make it in the competitive world of solo private practice.

Even before I graduated from my residency at USC, I thought about the more well-known and thriving orthodontic offices in Arizona, where I grew up and wanted to practice, and those orthodontists might as well have been superhuman. They were so far beyond me in the skills of running a practice that even the thought of entering a competitive environment with them would be ridiculous. So, I promised myself that I wouldn’t. If my career was a car, my self-limiting beliefs made moving forward like driving with the parking brake on.

Settling for safety

Solo private practice orthodontics scared the crap out of me, and I genuinely believed I could make no worse decision. Other than the threat of competition from the many orthodontists who I assumed already had it down more than I ever would, there was also the huge and ever-expanding presence of corporate dentistry. Arizona, by many metrics, just happens to have the largest corporate dental presence in the country.

The agreement I had firmly internalized was that I was not enough to make it on my own, so my plan was to find a pediatric dental practice to buy into and partner with. In this situation, my referrals would be guaranteed and I would never have to face the competition that I considered to be well above me. In that way, I could find success despite not being enough and not being worthy of it. I wouldn’t even need to face down my self-limiting beliefs; I could just work around them! I just needed to hitch my wagon to a pediatric dental practice that was already successful.

And so over a few years, while also working corporate gigs, I entered into negotiations or associateships with multiple pediatric dental practices. Three or four years into this search, I finally found the perfect situation: a successful practice that had two large, mature offices and had just added two additional state-of-the-art startup offices. After numerous meetings, calls and emails, I was invited to be an equal partner with the two existing owners of the practice, who were both pedodontists. I had made it! I had managed to hitch my shabby wagon to a high-speed gravy train. And thank God, because as I had already internally agreed, I wouldn’t make it on my own.

Losing the fear of failure

Let’s fast-forward a bit: Six months into our preliminary working arrangement, the partners sat me down and kindly explained that they believed it was best for their long-term growth goals to think bigger, and to merge practices with a very large, multioffice orthodontic practice. The purchasing orthodontist would be their partner and I was invited to be his employee/associate.

Boom. If only I could have melted in my chair, pooled and flowed out to my car, and reanimated to drive home like the bad guy in Terminator 2, the world’s most awkward and humiliating dinner could have ended faster and more mercifully.

After a handful of “close but not quite” similar opportunities that had preceded it, this was the final dream crushed. Once again, and in grand fashion, my hope for a fortunate situation to provide for me that which I believed I was not capable of creating myself fell flat. I was again left with nothing but my self-limiting beliefs (and a bruised ego).

Let’s fast-forward another six months: I now had finalized the purchase of a solo orthodontic practice that had been on a slow and steady, decade-long year-under-year decline because the older seller—an amazing orthodontist and now great friend—had been operating in semiretirement mode. Yes, after years of running from it, I decided to bet my future on the practice model that I had been sure would be a failure. After all that running, avoiding, hoping and coming up short, my tolerance for failure had grown. The prospect of further failure had become less intimidating.

Shedding self-limitations takes work

Now, as I write this column 5½ years (to the day, as a matter of fact) into ownership and operation of that practice, there are many smiles, scars and lessons learned since. One obvious pattern is that, for me, success is often tied to facing my own self-limiting beliefs and appreciating them in their realistic proportions. Facing down the old familiar fear of failure that had pushed me throughout undergrad, dental school, and residency with action instead of inaction is exactly what has continued to drive me forward in my successful operation of a solo orthodontic practice.

With time and effort, I have learned that my capacity to drive forward is still fully present and available, even when my awareness is able to shrink my fear and self-limiting beliefs down to their much smaller, true and realistic proportions. I have come to understand that the totem of my self-limiting beliefs is not my necessary companion. I do not need to carry it with me. I find that the car can go just as fast, and the ride is actually much more enjoyable, without it.

The output required to carve out my measure of success in a solo orthodontic practice in Phoenix is no small task and should not be sugar-coated. But on this drive down a road I swore I would never take, I have found more personal, professional and creative freedom than I ever thought possible. With more regular, deliberate and conscious thought given to when and where I am unconsciously leaving my parking brake on, I also find that I don’t have to red-line my engine just to accomplish my to-do list and the bigger goals on my plate.

However, I find that effort in this regard must be—let me repeat—regular, deliberate and conscious. Not a week goes by where my own self-limiting beliefs don’t make an appearance. When we are so focused on the road ahead and maintaining a fast pace, it can be tough to remember to check that parking brake—the brake that so often seems to turn itself on, unbeknownst to me. But there is freedom on the other side of that effort, my friends, and that is exactly what I most wish for those who can relate to these words from behind the curtain.


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