Dr. Ben Carson: A Man Worth Listening To

In the midst of year-end craziness — taking care of my organization’s year-closing business and doing Christmas shopping — I didn’t anticipate that I’d find time to read a new book. But when I saw Dr. Ben Carson’s, "Take the Risk: Learning to Identify, Choose, and Live with Acceptable Risk," I couldn’t resist.

I spotted the slim volume while gift shopping in a bookstore. But it wasn’t the catchy title that caused me to pick it up. It was the author. I already knew Ben Carson’s remarkable story. I read his first book "Gifted Hands" 10 years ago. After I read it, I gave it to my kids and insisted that they read it.

Carson is director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and a professor of neurosurgery, plastic surgery, oncology, and pediatrics. He also sits on the boards of several major corporations and is a noted philanthropist.

He is also one of a handful of black pediatric neurosurgeons in the world. He grew up penniless in the slums of Detroit and Boston, raised by a single mother who worked as a domestic, often working three jobs at a time.

As a young kid, as Carson tells the story, he was a failing student and earned the name "Dummy" from his classmates.

His mother saw what was happening and out of fear that her two sons would lead the way into yet another generation in poverty, she took action. She told her boys that she would pray for the wisdom for what to do.

Her prayers were answered, but the boys weren’t particularly thrilled to hear their Mom’s new-found guidance. They were told that the extent of their television watching each week would be three shows of their choice. And, that each would read two books a week and give her a written report on both.

This was the beginning of a change that set young Ben’s life on a new course.

One thing Ben and his brother didn’t know. When his Mom looked over and checked off their weekly book reports, she wasn’t actually reading them. Ben’s Mom’s education stopped at the third grade and she couldn’t read.

Carson went on to become one of the world’s most sought-after pediatric neurosurgeons, known for his boldness and creativity.

He has written a number of books in which he shares both his story and philosophy. He is a man of deep faith who believes in both individual responsibility and individual uniqueness. As he sees it, these elements are crucial for individual success, but also to maintain the greatness of our country.

I believe that Carson’s message is particularly powerful and relevant to the challenges facing Americans today, poor and rich, white and black.

Here are a few snippets I’ve extracted from a lengthy interview done with Carson by the Academy of Achievement, in which he was inducted a number of years ago:

Growing up poor and "at risk": "Once I recognized that I had the ability to pretty much map out my own future based on the choices that I made and the degree of energy that I put into it, life was wonderful at that point. I used to hate my life up until that point because I hated being poor."

Personal responsibility: "My mother was a person who would never accept an excuse from my brother or myself. It didn’t matter what the situation was. If you came with an excuse, she would also say, ‘Do you have a brain?’ After a while it became clear to us that no excuse was acceptable, so we became pretty creative."

Family: "The more solid the family foundation, the more likely you are to be able to resist peer pressure. Human beings are social creatures. We all want to belong, we all have that desire. If the family doesn’t provide that, the peers will, or the gang will."

Priorities: "The most important thing to me is taking your God-given talents and developing them to the utmost, so that you can be useful to your fellow man."

God and America: "(God) has become an essential part of my life and my being. … When we created this nation, we believed in God. … .I believe that’s one of the reasons … we got to be so great, so quickly."

In his new book, Carson discusses his approach to dealing with risk, a core issue for exercising personal responsibility. He has a simple but effective approach that amounts to examining the best and worst outcomes that can result from a given course of action.

Carson’s story and message lays bare what makes Americans and America great and makes clear what we need to focus on to stay this way. It’s worth checking out.

Happy New Year.