Posted by: 2thdocbob | 12 May 2015

Famous Last Words, or The Last Lecture

Clinical faculty, staff, and administration at Western University College of Dental Medicine were invited to share thoughts and advice with our graduating class of 2015 on April 28, 2015. When we were invited to speak, I had a flood of ideas. However, we were given strict time limits (which I observed). This gave me a new appreciation for blogs, because this allows me to share all my thoughts.

Here is my “Last Lecture,” had I been given an hour to deliver it.


Greetings, colleagues, and congratulations! It is a privilege to call you that. In August 2011, we assembled in this room, and I gave you your first lecture. We discussed professionalism and ethics, if you don’t remember. Now, some 3 years and 9 months later, I stand before you for the last lecture.

If you are not familiar with the “Last Lecture” concept, at many universities, respected faculty members are asked to speak at special gatherings and give their last lecture, in response to the question “If this were the last lecture you gave on earth, what would you want to say?”

That is a somewhat morbid thought, especially as I consider that in the last four years I delivered eulogies for my grandmother, my aunt and my mother. This is not my eulogy. Or yours. I am thinking that “Famous Last Words” might be a better title.

In order to address that, let’s go back to some of your first words here. And I was privileged to interview some of you, so I think I heard some of your first words.

Nearly five years ago, each of you was interviewing for dental school. A common question, for generations, has been “Why do you want to be a dentist?” and I’m certain you responded to that one here, as well as in other schools. Try to remember your answer. (And I think you might have repeated that same question as you struggled through the early going here: something like “why in the world did I want to do this?”) Let me pose the same question to you now: “Why do you want to be a dentist?” I hope your answer isn’t the same as it was five years ago.

So what changed? Well, you have. Yes, we have aged you a little. And you have aged us a little as well. You have experienced some significant life events, which may have included births, deaths, marriages, breakups, and the list could go on. As I mentioned to Group 1, we watched each of you make the transition from an excited freshman to a tired sophomore, then you entered the clinic as scared new juniors. At some point, we saw a visible change as you became professionals. You walked differently in the clinic. You showed more confidence in your own abilities and judgment, and the thought of being out in the world was no longer frightening to you: in fact, you began to anticipate it.

What changed? Your experiences in serving others; in relieving pain, and in becoming a healer helped you to recognize the intangible benefits of serving humanity: the smiles and expressions of thanks, and sometimes even the tears of gratitude. Or just the feeling that you have made things better for an individual. This probably wasn’t exactly what you expected in 2010 when you said you wanted to change the world.

You are not the same people who entered these doors in August 2011. I you are, then you, and we, have failed. And I hope you recognize that.

My advice will not include:

Don’t violate biologic width!

Recapitulate and irrigate!

Don’t leave unsupported enamel.

Remember to walk your patient to the front and collect the fee at the end of your appointment!

No aqua boxes!

You will not hear that from me!


Remembering that free advice is worth what you pay for it, if I could give some final words of advice to each of you, it would be these:

Step out of your comfort zone. We have pushed you out of your comfort zone many times since you came here. That is that is how you grow and learn new skills.

When you leave the shelter of these walls, we will not be there to push you. You will have to take the initiative. There will be many uncomfortable moments in your career. This may include difficult procedures, unpleasant experiences, giving bad news, or even firing an employee. These moments, properly managed, will make you stronger. And don’t overlook preparing for the unexpected challenges.

Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. This leads to my next point.


Jump into life with both feet. You have spent a long time preparing for a great career. You will have many frightening moments. Remember your local anesthesia activity, or the first time you worked on a live patient. Think of how far you have come.

There will be many times in your life when you find yourself standing on the high-dive watching the people down in the pool having a good time. Will you hesitate, or will you jump in?

Granted, some dental procedures require careful preparation, but most things in life demand that you simply jump in and start.

Approach life with boldness.

Include God in your plans. You may not believe in the same God as I do; that’s fine. The important thing is to make God your business partner. That doesn’t guarantee that everything will go smoothly, but with God on your side, things always go better.

I have prayerfully approached all the major decisions in my life. I have also prayed as I faced various challenges and struggles, and the help and inspiration I received was invaluable. Don’t turn your back on a valuable resource.

Keep your priorities straight. Keep a balance in life. Recognize what is most important in your life. Set your priorities and honor them. Of course, life doesn’t always cooperate, and sometimes you have to temporarily shift your priorities in order to maintain your balance. But don’t go it alone.

A wise friend said: “If you take care of the big things, the little things tend to take care of themselves.”

I have learned above all, that sacrificing your family or your faith in order to have success in your career is too high a price to pay. I know some prominent dental speakers who have done just that. When I caught on to the pattern, I lost some respect for them.

My own priorities are God, family, myself, then dentistry. You may decide to prioritize things differently, and that’s fine. But take some time to seriously consider what is most important to you. It will help you keep focused when challenges arise.

Family and friends are where true wealth comes from.

Don’t forget your roots. None of you were dentists when you began your education. Some of you may have been the first college graduates in your family. Some of you may be the first doctors in your family (I am). Nearly all of you are here because your family sacrificed and supported your efforts.

Your roots are important. I am descended from British coal miners and carpenters, Scottish shipbuilders, Irish and Dutch farmers, and even some royalty. I am a product of many great individuals who have shaped who I am. And I am proud of all of them.

Always act in a way that will bring honor to your family and their heritage. Celebrate their sacrifices that brought you to where you are.

Wherever you came from, don’t forget your heritage!

And in connection with that, ask yourself: what will your legacy be? How do you want to be remembered?

This is an important question to ask. Your legacy comes from your character. It is built moment by moment through your words and your actions. One major incident can destroy your reputation, and that cannot easily be restored.

I remember a dentist in our community who spent an evening in a bar, got his blood alcohol up to .16%, was involved in a police chase, and was shot to death when he tried to run over an officer when he had been cornered. He was a good man, but he will be remembered most for his last hours.

How will you be remembered? How do you want to be remembered?

Choose your paths wisely. We are free to make choices, but we are not free to choose the consequences.

Enjoy life – enjoy working! Life is meant to be a joyful experience. Enjoy your life! Enjoy working, enjoy your family, and enjoy fulfilling your responsibilities. Above all, take time to enjoy the pleasures life has to offer you.

You may feel discouraged at times, especially when you consider your financial burdens. But consider, you have skills that will allow you to work almost anywhere and earn a living. Sure, you will have to work hard, but that will also bring satisfaction to you.

Dentistry is a rewarding profession. The things that bring you joy are relieving someone’s pain, improving someone’s smile, helping someone eat better, or just the joy of a good outcome. And these are all non-taxable benefits!

In Boy Scouts of America’s Order of the Arrow organization, we pledge to “seek to preserve a cheerful spirit even in the midst of irksome tasks and weighty responsibilities.” That’s a great life philosophy.

And another reminder: The time to get out of dentistry is when you stop having fun.

Find a cause; and be passionate about it. Reach out and be a part of something bigger than yourself. Make the world a better place by combining your efforts with others. And don’t do it with the intent of publicizing what a good person you are. That is a direct violation of our professional codes of ethics.

Your passion for a cause will influence others, because you are a doctor.

It may be as simple as donating blood (very anonymous). Perhaps coaching a youth sports team or coaching youth in other areas where you have talents. It may be Scouting, or your church. You might help out with marching band. There is no limit to the contributions you can make.

It may be a community cause; it may be on a larger scale. But find something!

I even have some friends who have turned their passion to politics. Bill Emmerson and Sam Aanestad served in the California legislature, and Jim Woods serves there now. And Paul Gosar represents Arizona (and dentistry!) in the U.S. House of Representatives.

You definitely should be a part of your dental organization’s charitable efforts, as in CDA Foundation and other similar organizations.

Make sure you support a cause that you can embrace fully.

You get what you pay for. If you were going to have open-heart surgery, you wouldn’t look for the low bidder to do the job. You would seek out the services of an experienced surgeon.

You didn’t go to the low bidder for your dental education.

While it is important to be thrifty and try to save money, don’t try to do everything on the cheap. In many cases it will cost you more.

Always express sincere gratitude. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. It will carry you far in life. Learn to express gratitude from the heart. Be thankful for the small things as well as the bigger things. Expressing gratitude to your spouse or significant other is an important key to a happy marriage. And thank your children for their efforts. This will teach them to be appreciative and thankful people.

Sincerely thank your staff. Treat them politely and they will become fiercely loyal to you. Thank your patients: they are contributing to your successes.

People need to feel appreciated. Your expressions of gratitude and appreciation could change lives. Including your own.

Be a mentor: don’t keep your wisdom to yourself. You know the value of a good mentor. You have had them in school, and you have had them in other key points in your life.

There will be many times in your life when you have the opportunity to teach someone a life skill or give them some kind of help or encouragement. As a professional, you are obligated to help others. You may be the only person that treats some of your young patients with respect, and that goes a long way.

If you ever have a teenage patient who asks you if life is really worth living, you will suddenly feel that burden. Some of your patients will subtly ask you to throw them a lifeline. You will need to be aware. And be encouraging.

Other patients will ask more positive questions. Like the kids who ask how long you have to go to school to become a dentist. When you answer, let them feel your passion for the profession. It is a priceless moment when you hear a patient say “I want to be like you.” Believe me, these comments make the struggles worth it.

A song in your heart will keep a smile on your face. I find that I continually have music in my head. It’s good music. It keeps me sane. That is one reason I love the blues. It makes me happy. It makes me feel good.

I will never forget the anxious patient who was having some extractions. She started to laugh in the middle of the extractions. I had to stop and ask her why. She told me to listen to song that was playing (Twist and Shout by the Beatles). She asked if I had thought about the words. I had not, at least not in connection with dental work. But thinking about Paul singing “twist and shout … come on baby, work it on out” was enough to relax her for what might have been a miserable procedure. That has been my extraction song ever since. And you will never hear that song the same way again.

Dr. Friedrichsen told me of a similar experience while numbing a patient to the old standard I’ve Got You Under my Skin.

There are other songs that belong in my dental repertoire as well. Comfortably Numb is my favorite. And how about Hurts So Good? Or Hurts So Bad?

Even without a dental connection, music influences our moods. I have written about that. Go for the tunes that make you feel good.

Keep a sense of humor, but don’t take yourself too seriously: we don’t.

Humor can grease the wheels of life and help difficult times to go better. I don’t recommend crude or offensive humor; that is unprofessional. But a little humor makes the day better.

One caveat: some patients do not want humor when they visit the dentist. You’ll learn to switch it on and off.

Appropriate humor will also make family life more fun.

And don’t take things personally: we all have bad days – and good ones. When I have a bad day, I like to remind myself that even trash collectors have bad days. Even Eric Clapton hits a bad note on occasion, but he always recovers quickly.

And a bad day in some careers is far worse than a typical bad day in dentistry.

Set goals. You might feel as though you have been on a runaway freight train as it races full speed ahead for the past few years. Now, as you look ahead, you are still moving at full speed, but you don’t see any tracks ahead! You have reached the point in your lives where you will have to lay the tracks yourself; you will have to determine your course. Otherwise, gravity will do it for you. And gravity always takes you downhill.

During the next few weeks, many of you will have more down time than you have ever had as adults.

If you are wise, you will use some of this time to sit down in a quiet place and take stock of your life. Start with questions like “where am I? where do I want to be in 5 years? in 10?” Write your thoughts down. Organize your thoughts into solid goals. Don’t discard a goal because it might seem to take too long or require too much effort.

Then set some intermediate goals that will help you to reach that destination. Again, write it all down. Organize it. And put it all where you can see it frequently.

Be sure to include continuing education in your goals. This will help you improve in some of your weak areas. Don’t leave it to chance.

For example, paying off student loans early (and some of you will do that) will not happen by accident. Those who achieve that will do it because they made a plan and carried it out.

Your biggest challenge may be that all your plans led up to May 20. Your pursuit of that has been in a very structured world. Now you must determine the structure of your future. If you don’t, life will just happen and you may not get anywhere.


Be true to the trust placed in you, as a person and as a professional. Society has entrusted you with great responsibilities as healers, as scholars, and as professionals. You have been granted privileges that few others enjoy. You may just think of the privileges included within your scope of practice. But it goes beyond that.

You will also be respected because you bear the title “doctor.” In matters both dental and non-dental, your opinions will be highly respected. They may be given more weight than you think is appropriate. Choose your words carefully.

Always give your best efforts in whatever you do. Do your job the best you can. Not just in your practice but in your life outside your practice as well. People will form impressions based on what they see. Be consistent.

Be a person of integrity. Be a trusted, reliable person. Like it or not, you are role models. That obligates you to be a good example.

Be a good neighbor. Be kind to others, especially to those who seem least deserving of kindness. In the end, your caring demeanor will mean more to you patients than your ability to cut a perfect prep.

Never stop learning: Be curious about the world around you. You have spent the last four-plus years focused on dentistry and the health sciences. You will now have the freedom to look into other areas as well. It has been said that if you choose the right five books on a subject, you can become an expert on that subject.

Some of the subjects I have studied in depth include computers, constitutional law and the Supreme Court, weather, plate tectonics, marketing, religious studies, and many others.

Gaining knowledge outside of dentistry makes you a better citizen of the world. And you will find it easier to converse with your patients.

Of course, you must also continue your study of dentistry. We are part of a rapidly changing profession. If you don’t make an effort to keep up to date, you will quickly become an old school dentist and find it difficult to compete. Take time for continuing education!

And by all means, look at the history our profession. This has not been a part of our curriculum. But understanding where we have been can help you appreciate where we are going. And there are some fascinating characters in our history.

Your most valuable asset is not your hands or your eyes: it is your brain! Keep it active; keep it healthy.

Never stop learning!

Give back! The first words of advice I received as a new dentist were from Dr. John Brown, from Claremont, who told me “Welcome to dentistry. Make sure you give back.” At point, I wasn’t sure what he meant. I wasn’t sure I had received anything. But I took his remarks to heart. I took advantage of opportunities to serve my colleagues in the dental organization in small ways. One thing led to another, and I was asked to serve in leadership positions. I had opportunities that I could not have imagined, and I have friends around the globe. Because I chose to give back, I had the opportunity to join the faculty of a fledgling dental school in Pomona. You have seen the results.

Giving back doesn’t apply just to your profession. Give back to your community, to your church, to other organizations that have helped you along the way.

You will have many opportunities to serve. Serve as your circumstances allow, and to the extent you desire. But serve.


This is an amazing time to become a dentist. The profession has an exciting future. They told us that when I was graduating. It was true then; it is true now. Sure, there economic pressures and challenges from outside the profession. The real rewards are those of being a healer, an artist, and a creator of smiles. As technology develops, there will better ways to do what we do. Things that we can’t even imagine right now.

One warning: you are now condemned to be hearing voices the rest of your life. I think most of us can hear particular faculty members saying things repeatedly. That will be a good reminder to you all. For me, it has been Doctor Tom Watkins, in his South Texas accent, reminding us to make our class V preps roundy-roundy, with an outline form like hot dawgs or smiley faces.

So just take a deep breath, and do what you know how to do.

So, I wish you all great success in your personal and professional lives. We are proud of what you have done and will continue to take pride in your accomplishments. We live in an extremely connected world, so be sure to share!

I deeply appreciate the opportunity I have had to work with most of you in some capacity, and the opportunity I have had to touch your lives. Please know also that you have touched my life, and changed me.

And one final last word. My teaching philosophy can be summed up in three words: “dreams to reality.” I am grateful beyond words for the trust you have placed in me, and in my colleagues, and for the privilege of assisting you in making your dreams a reality.

Thank you.

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