A Voice in the Arena: Keep the Train on the Tracks by Dr. Chad Foster

A Voice in the Arena: Keep the Train on the Tracks  

by Chad Foster, DDS, MS, editorial director

Operating an orthodontic practice as clinicians and business owners demands that we keep a steady fire burning. The payoff for maintaining this sustained effort is a type of freedom, lifestyle, service to others and creative expression that in my opinion is second to none. Lucky are we to still be in a profession where “effort equals results,” as the late, great Dr. Wick Alexander so wisely put it.

In a previous editorial, I discussed that in my experience, when the fire burns high, the good things in life are never scarce. That being said, something I struggle with at times is burnout, which for me is most often when “little external fires” (situational frustrations) come at odds with my internal fire (drive), resulting in a mixed state of irritation and ineffectiveness.

Some mornings when my spirit is not quite right, as I sit in my car in the office parking lot before heading into work, frustrations of previous days and uneasy anticipation of challenges that may lie ahead can take over my mind space. I get caught up in envisioning the “little fires” that will need to be put out that day. Oh, how the images take shape and fixate my attention: the petty team drama du jour, a referring doctor requesting help with a troublesome aligner patient, our recently serviced X-ray machine acting up again, a five-paragraph email from a certain helicopter mom ... the list is as varied as it is long. The more my head is occupied as I prepare for these little battles that may or may not come (usually they don’t), the more I invite their reality into my day and the more my energy drains even before I step foot in the office.

You can’t go off the rails

I’d like to share an analogy that offers a bit of perspective and levity: Sometimes when I identify this kind of burnout creeping in, I picture myself as a train engineer— the old-timey kind with a striped hat, dirty overalls and soot on my face. While there are others on my team, I am the one who is ultimately accountable for fulfillment of all operational and safety duties aboard the train. To put it simply, my job is to do whatever it takes that day to keep the damn train on the tracks. It also requires me to be resilient enough to handle the inconveniences that are absolutely, undoubtedly and 100% inevitable.

Throughout the fulfillment of my duties, my attitude and my response to external stimuli are completely up to me. If my happiness requires a day filled with perfect luck, no unanticipated challenges and only delighted crew members and patients, then happy days will come around as often as solar eclipses. With such irrational expectations, I’d deserve to experience happiness that infrequently. Visualizing the myriad odd jobs, quick thinking and physical demands these engineers must deal with usually helps get me out of my own head and back into proper perspective and gratitude.

Another piece of advice along the same vein is to not treat a “clinic work day” like a “nonclinic work day.” A clinic day is meant for full speed ahead. A nonclinic day is a great time to slow down, digest previous clinic days, recalibrate, rework priority lists, tinker with methods and generally sharpen your ax. I do not go into clinic days with any of those nonclinic-day priorities on my mind, and this most often results in a much more enjoyable busy clinic day.

As you head into the practice, I hope you can strap on the old striped hat and challenge yourself to whistle while you work throughout whatever this gift of a day may bring.

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