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It is said that when you graduate from dental school, you are just barely “not dangerous”. In a way, that diploma is merely a learner’s permit. Those who embrace a consistent commitment to learning something new every year of their career just seem to do better. That learning is in no way limited to just clinical performance and services. Each of us should be refining our education in practice management, finance, communications, leadership, organization, and life skills. There seems to be a basic misunderstanding about the journey from incompetence to mastery.

There is a hierarchy of learning. There are four levels that we all must pass through to attain mastery. To become truly competent at any endeavor, we must pass through each of these four levels of learning.

1. Unconsciously Incompetent: You just don’t know what you don’t know. Each of us started our first day at dental school at this level. All of us realized that nothing we had done before really prepared us to understand what we needed to learn to succeed at dentistry.
2. Consciously Incompetent: Day two of dental school. Now we “know” we don’t “know”. With this knowledge, we realize that we will be taking the next four years to become competent. So, the journey begins. Some of it is pretty easy. Just memorize and regurgitate. Next comes the actual doing. We move on to clinical, and again we are faced with incompetence honed in our labs and on the floor practicing what we will need to graduate, but more importantly, become competent.
3. Consciously Competent: Four years have passed and we are consciously competent about the basics of dentistry. As we said in the first paragraph, we are just barely not dangerous. We certainly have not become proficient at everything. But at graduation, we probably have the basic skills to execute most common procedures with an “average” result. It is at this point that we slip out from under the protection of a teaching institution and move away from the watchful eye of a clinical professor into a world of self-accountability. A little bit like the first semester of college with no one looking over your shoulder. How did that work out for most of us? I am thinking we all could have done better that first semester. It is at this point in your learning curve that you make a commitment to lifetime learning and excellence in your chosen field. Or you don’t. So, what does “don’t” look like? For most of us it becomes just showing up and putting out fires. It means life happens, and 30 years down the road, we never really reached true competence or mastery.
4. Unconsciously Competent: This is the goal of learning. You have saturated you mind with knowledge and great results but you are still learning. You don’t have to observe, ponder, reflect, research, and then act. You simply “do” the work. You feel confident to have anyone review your work, and your patients think you are the “it” dentist in town. Unconsciously competent is a destination and it is also a level too far. The more you know, the more you realize that there is always more to learn.

This article is a reminder that too many of us have “settled” for less. We are fine with average. We have moved on to other concerns. We have stopped striving for excellence. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes the argument that people at the top of their game spent 10,000 hours perfectly practicing their chosen field. There is a difference between repetition for 10,000 hours and learning, applying, adjusting and learning more. There is a saying that “practice makes perfect”. This statement couldn’t be further from the truth. Practice makes permanent, only perfect practice makes perfect. This is how you Summit.

Michael Abernathy, DDS
972.523.4660 cell
[email protected]

PS. I will be speaking at an event here in the DFW area later this month (April 27).  For more info just visit: