Resilience is when you can’t imagine anything else except a positive outcome. Resilience is not intrinsic to a person, it is situational. Resilience is why unknown Buster Douglas could overcome an undefeated Mike Tyson a month after Douglas’s mother passed away. It is why Hellen Keller became the first blind-deaf person to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Dr. Charles Sutera is a national leader in high-profile smile makeovers, TMJ treatment, and IV sedation dentistry. Since graduating from Tufts School of Dental Medicine, he founded his practice Aesthetic Smile Reconstruction in the Boston Metro region, and established a patented dental product called The Exact Contact used by other dentists across the globe. He has completed training with the top specialists in their respective fields including TMJ training at University of Kentucky with Dr. Jefferey Okeson, IV sedation training at Montefiore Hospital in NYC, direct mentorship with renowned anesthesiologist Dr. Kenneth Lee in Los Angeles, and cosmetic training with porcelain veneer pioneer Dr. Larry Rosenthal. With a unique skill set, Dr. Sutera has established himself as an expert in revision of botched dental procedures, and as a powerful dental expert witness for law firms across the USA and Canada.
Thank you for joining us! Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Iwas a bit of a renegade. When I graduated dental school, I had this belief that someday I would be the best in the country at helping patients.
Nearly all of my classmates went immediately into residencies or specialty schools — except me. I wanted real world experience and lots of it. I moved to Maine, one of the most underserved dental communities in the country.
Those first few years of my career I worked more hours than I ever did in my life. It was also the first time I ever made a significant income. What I did with that initial income is what truly primed my success.
I became obsessed with learning, and learning from the best. I began reaching out to all the top specialists in the country, writing hundreds of emails, making dozens of phone calls, and numerous inquiries to the biggest names in dentistry. I had a very simple request: I wanted an opportunity for direct mentorship either in their practice or one of their courses.
I shamelessly reached out to all the heavy hitters in the dental industry, the actual founding fathers of modern dentistry, and published authors of the textbooks we learn from in school.
Surprisingly, many of these leaders were open to mentoring a young, ambitious dentist. Just weeks after graduating, I flew to Salt Lake to train with one of them. It was like the education equivalent of rocket fuel. So I did it again. And again.
For years, I reinvested everything I earned into flying around the country to train with the most renowned dentists in their respective specialties. If they were a top specialist in the country, I was probably directly mentored by them very early on in my career. No other young dentist trained like this.
What do you think makes your company stand out?
I don’t think there’s anything worse than being ordinary.
There are 200,000 dentists in America. Each of them is talented in their own ways, yet even if a patient loves their dentist, most patients probably consider their dentist interchangeable. It’s just a service business right? Not for me. To me, dentistry is an identity business.
So how do you create an identity in dentistry?
First, I worked hard to develop a skill set that is unique in the industry. I completed post graduate education programs in the fields of dental anesthesiology, smile aesthetics, dental implantology, TMJ and oral surgery. I believe that multidisciplinary expertise and knowledge allows for the highest level of dental treatment, reconstruction, and maintenance.
Second, our mission is to inspire joy and hope. You’d be surprised how many patients feel intimidated, judged, or not heard when they go to their dentist. In my practice, we want every patient to feel comfortable, well cared for, and understood. We listen with compassion and learn about our patients, their fears, their hopes so that we can make them as comfortable as possible.
And, third, we feature a concierge-type dental experience: We offer freshly brewed tea or coffee, weighted blankets, and even the patient’s choice of movie to watch in our cinema-style operatory during their procedure. Because we recommend them, we give every patient a sonic toothbrush to take home instead of the cheap traditional toothbrush every other practice hands out.
So what’s ordinary in the business of dentistry?
Dentists opening multiple locations. Increasing revenue by capturing patients from neighboring towns; that’s ordinary. A phone call on a Tuesday morning from a patient willing to fly across the country to see you. That’s extraordinary.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
I have been blessed with a family that has been my beacon of hope. If there was ever a time where I would lose faith in what I was doing, my family would be right there with positivity providing the spark I needed to keep moving forward.
How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience is when you can’t imagine anything else except a positive outcome. Resilience is not intrinsic to a person, it is situational. Resilience is why unknown Buster Douglas could overcome an undefeated Mike Tyson a month after Douglas’s mother passed away. It is why Hellen Keller became the first blind-deaf person to earn a bachelor’s degree. And resilience is why a black man from Atlanta who suffered from depression most his life could inspire a civil rights movement that changed the course of history in the 1960s. It has everything to do with the investment into a greater purpose. When a person is truly committed to achieving a particular outcome, any pain during the process of getting there becomes irrelevant. That’s how magical things happen. Resilience is not inherited. It is acquired.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
My father and my family are incredible models of strength and resilience. When I was 7 years old, my dad was diagnosed with acute leukemia. At that time, there was only a 5 percent chance of survival. For my family, the process was nearly hopeless, but in our minds, the only outcome we could consider was positive. That’s what resilience means to me. Resilience is when you can’t imagine anything else — -except a positive outcome.
In the end, my dad beat the odds, and I later found myself working at the same hospital where he was treated. Everything came full circle
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway?
You know, there really haven’t been people in my life discouraging me. When you’re trying anything new, seeking extra opinions can cloud your thinking. I tend to filter out distractions and just follow my heart.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever?
I think many people would see my father’s fight with leukemia when I was a child as a setback.
Can you share that story with us?
For three years while my dad was fighting leukemia, I would watch him make work calls from a hospital bed to try to provide for the family, and I would do homework with other kids in the hospital only to mourn their passing a few months later. That experience taught me so much about life in general. I developed a different mindset compared to most my friends. Schoolwork was the most simple part of my life. How could I complain about being in school when I saw other kids suffering with leukemia who never complained?
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
When I was 7 years old, there was a career day at my elementary school. I enthusiastically proclaimed that I wanted to become a dentist. It was love at first sight, and I was hopeful, committed, and excited. I still have that school project framed on my desk, but that same week, my dad was diagnosed with acute leukemia. My life changed in an instant.
If you are fortunate to never visit a leukemia ward for a loved one, you are lucky. From age 7 to 10, I lived in one. It was the most remarkable example of hope and empathy I had ever seen. In a cancer ward, there are no personal agendas, there is no selfishness — the whole focus is on healing and caring for others. It’s a beautiful appreciation of life that should be replicated across all careers. Those are the principles that would become so powerful for me later on. That is where I feel my career began.
Those days permanently branded me. I realized being a dentist wasn’t enough. I wanted to push the boundaries. I dreamed of revolutionizing dentistry with comfort, empathy and complex treatment possibilities the field had never seen before. When your childhood is spent wondering if your loved ones will make it through their next medical procedure, you build a tolerance to the complex and a hope for the best.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Become less impressed with how things are and more involved with how things could be
- I always go back to the fear and uncertainty around my father’s leukemia. At the time, the way things “were” was very bleak. But we didn’t focus on the 5% survival rate; we focused all our energies on what “could be.” We believe he could beat the odds and he did.
- Become obsessed with the things that inspire you
- It doesn’t matter what it is. You never know where that inspiration and obsession may take you. Did people expect 7-year-old me to actually become a dentist? Probably not, but here I am.
- Become obsessed with the outcome of those things
- Process is important and has its place, but your focus should be on the outcome. Don’t get so focused on the “right” process that you lose sight of the end goal. My goal was to become the best and offer patients something more than standard general dentistry. If I had followed the standard process, I would either have gone into practice as a general dentist after completing my residency or gone on to a single specialty residency. I wanted to bring together several specialties and I wanted to learn from the best, so I did. There was no process for doing that, but it didn’t matter. I knew what I wanted to achieve, so I created my own roadmap.
- Appreciate yourself, respect others
- Everyone struggles. Everyone has doubts. That’s just the human condition. Appreciate what you have and what you have to give. When you do that, I think respect for others follows naturally.
- Believe. In yourself, in possibilities, in hope. It was a risk reaching out to the best dental specialists in the world for further training instead of going into practice like most of my peers. But I believed that it was the best way to achieve my goals and went for it.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
My first impulse is to say: “smile again.” I’m not only talking about the physical act of smiling, though, of course, I specialize in reconstructing smiles. It’s so much more than that. People carry a lot of shame and anxiety around dental problems. You can see it when they come into the office, head hanging down, even their posture telegraphs low self-esteem. And for some people it’s a real “Catch-22” — they’re ashamed of their dental problems and, at the same time, they’re ashamed of thinking about doing something for themselves. They don’t think they deserve it because their self-worth has suffered so much. But reconstructive dentistry doesn’t only repair your smile; it can improve your health, your confidence, and your ability to thrive. So, from that perspective, I say to patients…you’re worth it, and more importantly you deserve it. I love seeing patients after treatment, head held high, projecting a level of confidence that was just missing before.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Roger Bannister. In 1954, he became the first person to run a 4-minute mile — a feat that had previously been considered impossible. And then here’s what happened: within a few years, 20 more people ran a 4-minute mile. I love that story because it shows that you just have to believe you can do it, and you can. Roger Bannister showed the world that it could be done and pretty soon, others were doing it. So often, it’s not impossible; it’s just that people believe it’s impossible.
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Thank you for all of these great insights!