The Success Formula by Dr. Andrew Sarpotdar

The Success Formula

Use your core values to chart a better path toward self-improvement

by Dr. Andrew Sarpotdar

I’ll never forget the day I decided to give up on my first startup practice. I was pumping through an elliptical workout in my home gym, sweat stinging my eyes as I tried to distract myself from the overwhelming feelings of despair welling up while Papa Roach’s “Scars” tore through my earbuds. Slowly, my legs began to give up as I relented to the inevitable conclusion: I was failing. I shakily dismounted the machine, lay on the floor and waited for the tears to come.

I had started my practice about three years before, with little more than a dream and the naive hubris of the uninitiated, and since that time things hadn’t gone well. I wasn’t losing money—in fact, I was making more of it than at any other point in my life—but from what I was reading on online orthodontic groups, I was far behind my colleagues and losing ground every day. As my mind searched for excuses—too much competition? the wrong demographics? graduating at the wrong time?—a sort of catharsis (perhaps enhanced by the endorphins) began to wash over me. I was done, but not with my practice: I was done with the thoughts and emotions that were making me give up.

That moment represented the start of a journey toward success I have committed to every morning since. We all want the kind of success that comes from wealth, recognition and mastery, yet each could leave us wanting if not obtained in the service of something greater. What good is wealth if not spent in the pursuit of satisfaction? What good is recognition without love? Of what use is mastery over a skill that doesn’t improve your life? Absent a purpose behind such substitutes for success, we become trapped in an endless loop of wanting and achieving more. Like Sisyphus, we roll our boulder up the mountain every morning, only to  nd ourselves at the bottom by the evening.

Instead, I propose a different path, based heavily on the philosophy of stoicism, that I call “The Success Formula.” It’s time to learn from Marcus Aurelius (pictured above).

Step 1: Assess
“External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.” — Marcus Aurelius

Assessment begins with a recalibration. For a moment, forget the rules about success that you’ve been taught and consider your core values. OK, I get it—you’ve heard this one before—but I’m not talking about obstacle courses and trust falls here, I’m talking about what actually matters to you about you.

To start this process, think of three or four people you truly admire. For each, make a list of the top traits that draw you to that person. Look for traits that are within their immediate control, such as “being honest,” and not those contingent on external factors, like “being the best.” Now look over the list and highlight the traits that repeat among them, which represent your ideal version of yourself and are descriptive of the person you wish to become.

Translate these into principles and you have your core values—the foundation upon which all you do will be built and your success will be judged. From now on, your material wealth is only as good as it is able to serve these values. Your relationships will be founded upon a mutual respect of these values. These are your purpose in life, and fulfilling this purpose is what will bring you meaning and, ultimately, satisfaction.

Now ask yourself, “How well do I currently embody these values? Where is there room for improvement?” Educator and author Stephen R. Covey’s second habit of highly effective people may be to begin with the end in mind, but for self-improvement, you must have an accurate assessment of where you currently are. This is the new benchmark by which to compare yourself and measure your progress.

At this point, your self-assessment should be uncomfortable, difficult to accept. Discomfort is the seed of progress; come to terms with it and let it transform you. What you’re feeling is all the insidious anxiety of your unrealized potential coming to the surface. Don’t bury it!

Step 2: Plan
“If it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it.” — Marcus Aurelius

From A to B by when? Every plan must start with just such a road map, where one specifies actionable steps that will bring them to their chosen destination. To do so, you must come up with a plan that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely (collectively commonly referred to as a SMART plan).

One of my core values is excellence, which I define as achieving mastery and applying it to every meaningful pursuit I put my mind to. Perhaps I recognize that I have potential to improve my case finishes. To fit this into the SMART template, I could declare that I will attend a course in aesthetic gingivectomy (specific) and perform eight gingivectomies per month over the next year (measurable, attainable, timely) to improve my patients’ smile aesthetics (relevant).

When forming your plan, it’s important to prioritize effectively. Using the example above, if the value I’m serving is excellence, is performing gingivectomies the best way I can improve from my current state? Perhaps my practice is inundated with broken brackets, causing delays in treatment along with patient burnout that forces me to accept compromise at debond. In this case, perhaps a more relevant goal would be to focus on bonding technique or the materials I’m using, until such a time when this is no longer the greatest deficiency in my pursuit of excellence.

Prioritization is fundamentally saying no to lower priorities to favor the most important ones. One simply can not accomplish everything; accept this and focus on the most important first.

Step 3: Implement

“In your actions, don’t procrastinate. In your conversations, don’t confuse. In your thoughts, don’t wander. In your soul, don’t be passive or aggressive. In your life, don’t be all about business.” — Marcus Aurelius

So many of us stop after changing our mindset and forming a plan. The first two steps will provide a mental relief from our initial discomfort, and it is tempting to rest there.

This is why “follow your passion” is such terrible advice. Passion is such an unsustainable force for consistent change, often causing us to deviate from the plan our cooler self has put into place. Instead, embrace the discipline of process. Focus yourself, in this moment, only on the next step of the plan and will yourself to follow through. Each time you do, you will be reinforcing the image you have of your ideal self, convincing yourself of your potential while moving toward it. Allow this to become a positive feedback loop and soon you’ll become addicted to the process—even coming to love it.

Expect to experience setbacks; you will fail at times or become frustrated with lack of progress. When this happens, continue on anyway. Fall down six times, get up seven. You are defined not by a single moment but the aggregation of all moments over time.

When I was lying on the floor of my gym, ready to throw in the towel on my career, I came to recognize the value in focusing on the present and getting back on the horse. Instead of focusing on what I could do now to improve my circumstances, I was allowing myself to become demoralized by the futility of how far behind others I felt.

We are not entitled to any outward measure of success; in fact, it is not guaranteed, even if we do everything “right.” The only reward we are entitled to is the satisfaction of resting our heads on our pillows at night knowing we have fully spent ourselves in pursuit of our values—that we have “left it all on the field” no matter what the final scoreboard says.

This is the kind of satisfaction we should seek from our efforts: the perpetual reward that leaves us not wanting for more stuff but energized for more battle. It is a purposeful pursuit rather than meaningless materialism. It is sustainable, infinite, hopeful and the entire point of our existence. Never stop improving.

Step 4: Reassess
“Think of the life you have lived until now as over and, as a dead man, see what’s left as a bonus and live it according to Nature. Love the hand that fate deals you and play it as your own, for what could be more fitting?” — Marcus Aurelius

Periodically, you will want to revisit and refine your core values and the goals you’ve made to pursue them. While it’s unlikely for core values to change much over time, growth will bring new perspective and a fuller view of what lies ahead; the path forward looks different from the summit than it did from base camp. New opportunities are revealed that we are better equipped to pursue with the strength we have earned.

Pride is also a common pitfall of the successful, in which we become entitled to the fruits of our success. Pride allows our egos to dominate, creating a heroic narrative of what got us here as opposed to the unglamorous reality of incremental change and fortunate opportunity. We begin to feel invincible and neglect the habits that bolster our position. As written in Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

More reading and listening
If you’re interested in learning more about stoicism, Dr. Andrew Sarpotdar recommends the following books and podcast:

The Obstacle Is the Way, Ego Is the Enemy, Stillness Is the Key and Discipline Is Destiny, all by Ryan Holiday
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson

The Daily Stoic, Ryan Holiday.
Reassessment provides a necessary check to the interruption that both fortune and misfortune can cause to our growth. In his book Ego Is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday describes an “equal, plus, minus” system that I find to be an excellent foundation for reassessment. While you are aspiring, surround yourself with equals who will push you. When you achieve success, reflect on someone beyond your current position to maintain your humility. When you fail, look to those with less than you to assess your failure objectively and to mine it for the lessons it carries.

Ultimately, reassessment replaces pride, idleness and despair with humility, energy and hope. It keeps you from standing still, from the tragedy of complacency. Success, after all, isn’t a destination at all—it’s a state of being that must constantly be pursued. It is, as the stoics would say, amor fati: the love of one’s fate.

Author Bio
Dr. Andrew Sarpotdar Dr. Andrew Sarpotdar is a board-certified orthodontist in private practice with his wife, Dr. Jenny Sun, in the greater Phoenix area. He attended dental school at UCLA before earning a master’s degree in orthodontics from Columbia University in 2013. Sarpotdar is a co-founder of the Orthodontic Pearls Facebook group, along with its corresponding annual meeting, the Mother of Pearls Conference, and is a strong advocate for collegiality and shared learning within the profession. In his free time, he enjoys traveling the world with his wife, working out and spending time with his twin puggles, Chief and Lexi.

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