The Long Journey Home
This is a guest post by Neal Kravitz, who is the newly appointed editor in chief of the Journal of Clinical Orthodontics. This is a very honest appraisal of how humility changed his practice.
Homer’s The Odyssey is considered to be the world’s first novel. The epic poem, written around the 8th century BCE, tells the story of King Odysseus’s tumultuous 10-year journey home following the 10-year Trojan War. During this decade, Odysseus battles mystical creatures and gods provoked by his excessive pride. When Odysseus finally arrives at his kingdom of Ithaca, he finds his palace in disarray and overrun with suitors. Ultimately, The Odyssey is a moral allegory about hubris and its consequences.
What I wish I knew sooner
Over the past few years, I have begun sharing my own stories of humility. I usually end my lectures with a few reflective slides, contrasting my exuberant delivery style. At the 2020 Annual Meeting, I even dedicated an entire lecture to the subject of “What I Wish I Knew Sooner.” When not in front of an audience, I constantly talk with my associates or residents about my many mistakes. My professional Odyssey, so to speak, has been humbling.
Don’t believe me? Well, I barely survived my residency. In my practice, I have caused extreme root resorption by failing to prophylactically extract canines or premolars, ankylosis due to poor mechanics and unnecessary early treatment, pulpal necrosis after causing a traumatic occlusion, unintended tooth loss by treating periodontally-compromised patients, severe occlusal wear by using abrasive material for turbos—and the list goes on. I have made every possible clinical error, and I carry immense regret.
My problem was overconfidence. I was convinced that I was better than the orthodontists around me, including those with considerably more experience. As a result, I judged others with a harsher eye than I judged myself. Furthermore, I even lectured on obnoxious business topics such as collection goals and aggressive marketing. Looking back now, I am embarrassed by this behavior. I simply had no idea what it meant to be an orthodontist. Oh, I wish I could go back 20 years and talk to that kid coming out of dental school.
After my lecture at the 2020 Annual Meeting, my moderator, Kelton Stewart, who serves on the JCO editorial board, asked me when my behavior changed? The truth is, at some point, I simply ran out of excuses. It wasn’t entirely the patients’ genetics or compliance or even because I started my career at a dental corporation. Instead, I realized that my repeated failures were happening because of me. Like Odysseus, I was the reason for my success and the source of all my problems.
Then, something wonderful happened after taking a more realistic view of myself: I improved as an orthodontist. Importantly, I realized that I did not have all the answers, so I asked colleagues for advice. I took more frequent clinical records and caught my errors quicker. I slowed down and scheduled fewer patients per day. As a result, I focused on case-finishing rather than daily collection. Above all, I discovered that orthodontics was a science and not a business, and hubris was in opposition to science.
The Odyssey has endured because it is also a redemption story. In the climactic scene, Odysseus, who is back in Ithaca and disguised as a beggar, strings his great bow and shoots an arrow through a row of axes to reveal himself. He proceeds to fight off the suitors and restore his kingdom as a stronger and wiser king. Through Odysseus’s journey of self-discovery, Homer taught us about life. That is, our pride will lead us astray, but our humility will bring us home.
I am humbled to begin this new journey as the Editor-in-Chief for the JCO.
This text originally appeared as an editorial in the JCO. I have published this because I thought that it needed a wide audience. Kevin O’Brien’s orthodontic blog has no affiliation with the JCO and we do not receive any funding from the journal or any affiliated organisations.
Donations for this Blog
I would like to thank everyone who has generously donated to support the running costs of my blog. I am very pleased that we hit our target for funds over the weekend. As a result, I do not need any further funds to support the blog. Thanks very much for your great support. We can now continue to provide information at no cost to readers.
Emeritus Professor of Orthodontics, University of Manchester, UK.
Have your say!
I am a General Dentist, but for some reason I read Neal Kravitz post. What a post! I felt that I identified with all that he wrote. I am an older dentist seeking new employment and whilst I read advertised posts I wonder if I am a suitable candidate – when I had my own practice I had the opportunity to do things my way which at times was not financially successful. I now find myself seeking employment in an environment that is predominantly driven by daily collection at the expense of other motives and I feel as if I am a square peg trying to fit into a round hole! Thank you fo writing your post – I am not sure how things will turn out but perhaps I should take a good look at my pride and set it aside.
Great post and many congratulations to Neal on his appointment. The profession is in safe hands with him.
Nice one Neal.
A great honest post. I think we’ve all been there!
It’s not common nowadays people admit their mistakes and praise humbleness. JCO is on a good trajectory!
Wonderful message from Dr.Kravitz. It is so important to think of where we are in time as we slowly evolve. It is tempting to think that we are very sophisticated and knowledgeable today about so many things – but the reality is that if we could view ourselves from the future, we would realize how primitive we really are at this point. This is a good message because it allows us to question almost everything that we do.
I think that it is a very sad fact that we so often learn more by our mistakes than we do from getting things right. Humility from The Good and Great is perhaps, the best lesson of all. Congratulations on your new post. I am certain you will continue your learning, and that we can continue to learn from you.
Great personal journey, Dr Kravitz. I would add a caveat to the line “Homer’s The Odyssey is considered to be the world’s first novel. The epic poem, written around the 8th century BCE” to read; “In the West, Homer’s The Odyssey is considered to be the world’s first novel. The epic poem, written around the 8th century BCE” – since in the East one might say; “Valmiki’s The Ramayana is the ancient Indian/Sri Lankan epic, composed some time in the 5th century BCE”. It’s interesting to consider that the Western word “Odyssey” appears to be a homophone of the Sanskrit word “Udassi” with both having the same meaning; and both stories have similar underlying moral values. It just shows that human nature is the same wherever you go – perhaps it was encoded in the human genome?
Having never made any clinical mistakes, I have no idea what Neal is saying… if only this were true 🙂
Near the end of his dental career, my father told me that he was a great dentist because he had made every imaginable mistake. I think perhaps being a prolific reader of everything dental and healthcare, attending every Pankey and Dawson course at least twice, and being naturally talented and ingenious may have helped him as well… as similar traits have helped a humble Neal.
Well said Neal! You continue to impress me with your commentary and insights.
Neel thanks for candidly being open to sharing your roadblocks. We talked during the last AAO about how hard this is but how useful is to share our conflicting journeys to help our peers realize we all have our ups and downs.
A phrase that I hope guides me every day:
“I will forever remain humble because I know I could have less. I will always be grateful because I know I’ve had less.” – Anonymous
Neal, great post and congratulations on your new position!
Best wishes on the journey ahead.
Best wishes on the journey and challenges ahead.
Your post is enlightening . I think everyone sees himself there. Thank you for sharing with such humility.
We just met for the first time at AAO in Miami, and then a few days later, I read this. I keep thinking about your journey. I cannot stop thinking about it until I write! So here I am!
It takes a while to experience life and then really discover who you are. After all these experiences, it takes reflection about how you feel from that life, that experience, to then identify who you want to be for the rest of your life. For some reason, you were arrogant as a young person. Lots of people are arrogant, often because they have made a lot of money, and think that measure of success will make them happy. It doesn’t. In fact, when you have a lot of money, people are after you all the time for your money, rather than after you just to be with you.
Ultimately, for most people we just want to be liked. We want to be treated with respect, too. You have learned from your past, now let it go. You have been brought to this new experience of guiding the JCO to be a journal that will help others in a better way. You are ready for this future and we are waiting for your vision to inspire us to be the best that we can be when we are given the trust of others. I am sure you will do a great job!