Paragone - aspiredental


One of the driving forces behind the Italian Renaissance was a belief that to see and thence appreciate art’s real significance, you had to pit one creative talent against another. This idea had its own name: Paragone (painting vs. sculpture vs. architecture).

Paragone began with social discussions about pieces of art but developed into open debate, and in the halls of the Medici, for example, rooms were arranged so that rival paintings would face each other. The idea was that people would directly compare the works, forming and expressing opinions. Predictably such competitions shifted the focus from the art to the artist. If one painting was better than another, you needed to know who the artist was so that you could hire them again. Which artist is better, which dentist is better, which dental course is better?!

That men prey on other men is a given. Sometimes it is with their hands – other times it is with knives, guns and bombs. In such a context, people are often quick to project attributes and values onto such objects and tools. (You only have to glance across the Atlantic to see Presidential campaigns to either ban or endorse gun ownership. Fundamentally if men didn’t prey on other men, guns would not be needed but just as equally neither would a ban – therein lies the sum total of the 2nd amendment arguments)

So the Renaissance artists were to compete with each other, outperform each other and strive to succeed so others fail. I think, dear reader, you may recognise some similarities in the dental world today!

Yet the Italians taught us something significant. Artists benefited from the Paragone arrangement even if they didn’t win. The competition COULD be beneficial for all.

They learned where they stood in comparison to others, both artistically and socially. Not only did they understand the gap, they learned how to close it or change the point of comparison.

Da Vinci himself believed artists thrived under such competition.

He once wrote:
“You will be ashamed to be counted among draughtsmen if your work is inadequate, and this disgrace must motivate you to profitable study. Second, a healthy envy will stimulate you to become one of those who are praised more than yourself, for the praises of others will spur you on.”

Sounds lovely, Leo – I wonder where we are going wrong right now? Your comment is slightly ‘one size fits all’ and echoes the mentality of someone who has little doubt that in the end they can win. Wouldn’t it be lovely if when we saw our dental colleagues outperforming us we had a clear method to bridge the gap, upskill, and perhaps match or even outperform them.

Dentists frequently want to know where they stand in relation to not only the external competition but to the people they work with every day. Humans have evolved as a being which is inherently envious and is DNA-coded to compete. (we would also compete furiously against other species too if they dared challenge our position of absolute total utter global superiority and dominance. Historically some species occasionally did. They are all very dead now).

So why, we may ask, is dentistry in the UK so primed and ready to turn on itself and have us rip into each other, to create a them and us, to try to elevate ourselves at the expense of less worthy churls?

Well, because you are humans and have evolved with this in your very core… and because you can do it online… and because exclusivity and superiority feel nice (and you are unaware of the hurt you may cause) and lots of people then want to join my special little club and then I get to go to posh places with beautiful people and you don’t go there.

Notwithstanding the bewildering rude behaviour the anonymity and remoteness social media can bestow, nor its enormous financial potential and ability to sell via the eternal base values of sex, exclusivity and scarcity, these types of behaviour aren’t new.

At the moment, I cannot go a day without seeing pictures and Instagram feeds of pretty people at parties I wasn’t invited to, or some ‘stars’ and ‘awards’ events full of sycophantic acolytes tilting their heads to a well-rehearsed angle, pouting and going for the unilateral leg pose so every photo of them is identical and accurately depicts how they want to be seen through MANY hours of training in the bedroom mirror. I am well aware I would not be invited to said events and I wouldn’t enjoy even one second of it and they would want prettier and younger people than me there so in truth they are happy and so am I. So why am I moaning? We are both doing what we equally want to do so why get your feathers ruffled? Good question actually!

The truth is, if you met any of these people in a dental or preferably non dental context I expect you/I would get on well, they would be kind, possibly shy and quite funny. I expect our smiles would both be completely genuine and I hope we would generate some good memories. If we sat down for coffee I am sure we would find some threads of commonality and decide that we actually like each other. Or not, if they are Bright Young Things, perhaps you are a Dull Old Thing.

The Bright Young Things if, under attack, reply they are just happy upbeat people trying to spread a positive message.
Ok…..maybe some of it is positive. Some of it,.. but not all.
Your glamour and success and adoration flaunted so colourfully and widely isn’t just about being positive. You know it and so do I. It may be mostly positive, but not all of it.

Some of it is divisive, self-promoting, self-congratulatory, exclusively for an egocentric privileged group who mask their clearly segregated superiority with motivational messages and platitudes.

Some gaps between us as professionals are inevitable and some can be bridged. Enlightened leaders encourage this gap to close, for the mutual benefit of all.

Dhru Shah is a gap closer, no doubt about it. Humble, honest and lovely.

Some people however post frequent reminders online about how big the gap is for them and their echo-chamber of friends. Their posts are created, at least in part, to highlight their lofty social positions. But, most worryingly and unknown by them, the message comes across as propaganda so the unwanted peasants are reminded of their place and only get to glimpse things which they cannot have.

It only really gets under the skin (of some) when the gap is highlighted by someone selling their wares via previously mentioned base values, or at least conflates their positive message with an alluring veneer of glamour and social a sprinkling of exclusivity.

Gaudy displays of wealth have always been distasteful and crass. They have become normalised by a few. And if one DARES comment anything other than applauding positive affection, you become labelled a ‘hater’ and people refer to you in the third party trying to explain your limitations. Perhaps you are too old, too negative, either way you are to be held in contempt and blocked and banned and shunned and shut down.

I genuinely still feel most people are mostly nice. Face to face. In a crisis. If you are sad or lost or alone nearly everyone you meet will try and help.

I’m right. I know it. Most people are nice.

Also, lots of people enjoy dressing up and gliding into social events where everyone is dressed up and that is brilliant. If this arrival is displayed from wall to wall on every social media feed humanly possible, the message gets changed from ‘lovely night out’ and self promotion and egoism can come across.

This is as opposed to the joy of presenting yourself as well as you can and enjoy yours and others fleeting bloom of youth before age parenthood and true responsibilities become the usual thread of your social media posts. No-one actually minds seeing others have a good time, or seeing them make a ton of money, but waving in others faces, intentionally or not, is vile and you should park it somewhere else.

The Bright Young Things mean no harm, but they can cause it. They don’t like to be told they can cause harm as they are just the Bright Young Things and they are just loving everything and everyone and always everything is perfect and shiny and beautiful and lovely.

The Dull Old Things mean no harm, but they can cause it. They are realists and spot folly and know the transience of youthful beauty and despite themselves cannot help but see it has to be a depreciating asset.

Take away social media and have a discussion face to face. You may not be best buddies but you will probably have some threads of commonality.

What I mean is that the gaps between us aren’t real. We are all people. We are all trying, all at times scared, at times positive. We all at times have to deal with crazy patients (there is a thread of commonality right there – in fact I wonder if we had a congress on ‘Crazies’ and we had presenters tell twenty minute stories about their maddest patients – well, I bet the room would be completely aligned in unity as this is a cross we all bear)

Social media and ego can highlight the gaps between us. While you might know there is a gap between you and your coworker, you don’t know what the chasm looks like. It may be tiny. And if you don’t know what it looks like, you don’t know where you are in relation. And if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know how to close the gap. It’s a weird sort of self-sabotage our profession has decided on.

Not everyone responds to competition the same way. Pitting people directly against one another can invigorate some and shrivel others. This doesn’t mean the shrivellers aren’t amazing; they just don’t like the perception of competition.

Back to the Italian Renaissance. Michelangelo once abandoned a competition with Da Vinci to flee to Rome. He tried to quietly put in some effort as a result of being competed against – and we have only to look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to know how he fared.

Can you imagine if Da Vinci was a British dentist in 2019 and had a social media feed. My God, I’d weep a bit and then become a florist.

A lack of competition can breed laziness in a lot of people. Worse still, that laziness gets rewarded. It’s not intentional. We just stop working as hard as we could. We coast.

Consider the proverbial office worker who sends out a sloppy first draft of a presentation to 15 people for them to “comment” on. What that person really wants is the work done for them. And because of the subtle messages organizations send, coworkers will often comply because they’re team players.

Consider the competition to make a sports team. The people on the subs-bench make the starters better because the starters know they can’t get complacent or someone will take their job. Furthermore, the right to be on a team, once granted, isn’t assured. Someone is always vying to take any spot that opens up. That’s the nature of the world.

Competition has to be a thing, as it’s who we are.

I’m not suggesting that all UK dentistry promote a professional sport-like mentality. Cohesiveness and a collective striving for excellence is a good thing. Models of excellence are equally good. I am suggesting that man’s competition against man is innate and inevitable, so suck it up. I’m suggesting you think about how you can harness competition to give people the information they need to get better. If they don’t want to get better after they know where they stand, you now know something about them you didn’t know before. I’m not also blindly advocating using competition. It has limitations and drawbacks you need to consider (such as the effects it has on self-preservation and psychological safety).

At Aspire we encourage you to compete – not against me or your colleagues, but against a future version of yourself.

If I live prep, restore, RCT in front of a large audience (we do this at EVERY session), chances are there is a small or large skill gap. We will reduce that gap for you then and there. I hope you close it entirely and then you go on to outperform me. Just don’t wave it in my face too much when you do!

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