The good doctor: Dr. Benjamin Carson proves that with determination and confidence, anything is possible.
"Your attitude determines your disposition," says Carson, "and your disposition determines the enthusiasm with which you approach your work and everything else you do." Sounds simple enough. For Carson, it was anything but.
Raised in a single-parent family in gritty, inner-city Detroit, Carson was fueled by a foul temper-and scarce self-esteem. At 14, his attempt to stab another boy to death was foiled by an oversized belt buckle, which broke the knife blade.
If this was a lucky break, the rest of Carson's story is pure determination.
In 1984, at age 33, Carson was named head of pediatric neuro-surgery at John Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore. He credits his mother-and his faith-for his amazing turnaround. It was Sonya Carson, herself illiterate at the time, who forced Ben and his brother, Curtis, to read, assigning them two book reports a week.
Today, Carson is a successful brain surgeon and the founder of the nonprofit Carson Scholars Fund, Inc., Towson, Maryland, which recognizes students who demonstrate academic excellence by providing them with funds to assist them with college. Parents around the world, their children in need of a miracle, seek him out.
It's easy to say that Carson shouldn't have survived childhood, much less prospered in adulthood. But he did. And, in doing so, he proved nearly everyone wrong. Except his mother. And himself.
In this interview with ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT, Carson shared his views on boundless human potential and how association executives can rely upon it to advance their organizations.
ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: You've taken on some huge issues: making education a priority for children and health care reform, for instance. Leaders of nonprofit organizations often face difficulties that don't have easy answers. What things do you recommend and practice to keep from being discouraged when progress seems slow?
Carson: As a brain surgeon, I recognize that we have incredibly complex brains with the ability to integrate all kinds of information and form it into plans. The vast majority of people don't do that; they simply react to what's going on. What a leader has to do is capitalize on those enormous resources and then create mechanisms that will bring the masses along. That becomes incredibly important, because most people just don't think. So what you have to do is actually go about creating the solution in a small way and demonstrating that model.
If you don't try, you definitely won't succeed. Thomas Edison said he knew 999 ways that a light bulb did not work.
ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: What is the role of an effective leader, and where should association executives be focusing their energy right now?
Carson: An effective leader has to define goals and define values, then show people how to get there, it's as simple as that. It has to be someone who thinks deeply and thinks beyond the surface, beyond the fluff, and beyond the sound bites. If they can't do that, then forget about leadership. But once you can do that and you can grasp what your goals are, then you're two thirds of the way there.
And the other third that gets you there--after you know what your goals are--is the value system that allows you to accomplish your goals. If you have no values, you can still accomplish your goals perhaps, but it will cost.
ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: What do you feel are your responsibilities as a role model for African-American youth, and what do you see as the responsibilities of others who adopt such a role?
Carson: First of all, recognizing that, particularly in the African-American community, we have a crisis with young males: more black males in jail than in college and the incredible homicide rates, especially in the inner cities. And it's not getting better; if anything, it's getting worse. So one of the things that I try to accomplish--and I do this through books and public appearances--is helping young people recognize that the person who has the most to do with what happens to you is you. It's not someone else, it's not an outside influence, it's not the environment.
That's why we have brains, so we don't go with the flow and do what everybody else is doing. That's the point I try to get across. I make it clear to young people that I've been there, too. I grew up in the inner city, in the ghetto--in dire poverty with poor self-esteem and horrible grades--with all the things that are supposed to lead you the wrong way.
But there came a point when it became very clear to me that this is something that I can control. Once I knew that, I began to put the pieces in place to allow me to control my future. I'm still doing that now. I'm looking out there and saying, "We don't have to go down this road ... as a community [or] as a nation." There are alternatives. Let's discover what they are, and let's create an environment that allows people to understand that and move in that direction. You can do it on an individual level, and you can do it on a societal level.
ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: When you and your wife founded the Carson Scholars Fund to facilitate change at the societal level, what skills and experience did you look for in potential board members? And what advice do you have for association executives for attracting a culturally and professionally diverse board that together can realize a grand goal?
Carson: Recognize that a lot of people like to sit on boards because it's prestigious to say, "I'm on this board or that board." Those people you want to weed out. You need people who understand the mission of the organization and are committed to working toward it.
You're hoping in the process of doing that that you're going to be getting a cross section of society and you're going to have appropriate diversity. And you might not, particularly in the beginning. But if you want to get your organization going, it's more important to have people understand [the organization] than to have diversity; that's not to say that diversity is hilt important. After you have what you need, then you start concentrating on diversifying your board within the parameters that you dictated. You have hi gel file vehicle moving down the track, [then] modify it appropriately so that it picks up even more speed.
ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: How can nonprofit organizations help youth establish a more positive self-image?
Carson: Recognize that everybody is a sphere of influence and that every nonprofit organization has a sphere of influence. [We] need to define what that sphere of influence is. Then, within that sphere of influence, we need to create programs that encourage self-reliance. We need to teach people business principles and values. If every nonprofit in this country said, "We're going to sponsor an event and get to three of these people each year," I think it would have a tremendous impact. Because communities are being bombarded with negative stuff constantly, [people] only get the positive stuff now and then.
ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: You've been quoted as saying that when you were in the fifth grade, you thought you were stupid, so you conducted yourself accordingly. By the seventh grade, you thought you were smart, so you acted and achieved like a smart person. You've asked, "What does that say about human potential?" How would you answer your own question, and how do yon instill that power of human potential and self-awareness in others?
Carson: [For] individuals, there is enormous potential to achieve, on the positive side of the ledger, if they think they can do it. Self-esteem is the most important ingredient for a young person, and it dictates which way they move and which kinds of people they gravitate to and what their expectations for themselves are. And people tend to live up--or down--to those expectations. So it's totally a matter of self-esteem.
The way we create that positive self-esteem is by giving [young people] kudos for the good things they do and not just tearing them down all the time for the bad things. That's particularly true of rely young people who are in the process of formulating their self-image.
I was looking at an interview Peter Jennings was doing with a 17-year-old who was in prison for life. Jennings asked, "Did anybody ever say to you that it you lived the right kind of life and if you worked hard, you can get out of this type of environment, and you can go on to do great things?" And the guy said, "Yeah, yeah, people told me that. But I never saw anybody do it." That's the critical issue. It isn't that there aren't people or books that say that, but a lot of people aren't going to read a book. You have to put [the example] in front of them, and you have to do it more than once.
ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: Does the Internet and its 24/7 access fuel or diminish the kind of curiosity that led you to achieve at the level you have?
Carson: I think the Internet is a wonderful tool for a mature learner, and I think it's an incredible distraction for those who are young. Look al the tremendous explosion in attention deficit disorder that we have now. Why is that? Because as soon as they're able to sit up, we stick [kids] in front of a TV set. They get a little older, and we give them the controls for the Sega or the Nintendo.
When they're a little older, we give them the mouse.
Then we send them to school ... where there's a teacher up front not [constantly animated and] changing into something [new] every few minutes. [The kids] are not going to pay attention. They're in this world where they have to be entertained and things have to change. The Internet caters to that, so it's not the best place to learn to be a disciplined individual.
ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: How do you maintain your busy pace, and what recommendations do you have for association executives who wish to take on so many responsibilities?
Carson: I always say if you need to get something done, then you need to get somebody who's busy, because people who are not busy news have time to do anything because it takes them all day to do nothing. It's really a matter of efficiency. You have to learn to use your time efficiently, and you can't do it alone. You have to have dependable people to work with. I would never be able to do all the things I do without having a significant number of people who I can depend on who will keep me informed [about] the right kinds of things and who will take care of my patients appropriately. Those are truly key factors: efficiency and having a support system.
ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: How do we, as organization executives, get the message across to our members and others that learning is a lifelong endeavor?
Carson: I look at my mother, for instance, who didn't know how to read when we were growing up. After we were off to college, she learned how to read, got her GED (General Educational Development), and went to college. She subsequently got an honorary doctorate degree. [She accomplished] all of that in her later-adult years.
Recognize how your actions are modified every day by something you just learned--by a speech you heard or a book you read. This is not something that only happens to young people; it happens to older people. And as I say, the more you know, the less you know, because you recognize that there's so much more that you can acquire--and you can never overload the human brain. Our brains are so sophisticated that they actually create new pathways every day. There are hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of neuropathways. These can be modified by new information, and there's no way you can overload the circuits.
One of the things that really has inspired me and pushed me on is learning about the human brain and recognizing the incredible potential that lies there--but also recognizing how few people use it.
Douglas Vaira, ASAE's manager of electronic newsletters, is a contributing editor to ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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|Date:||Oct 1, 2003|
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