Dream big. Set distant goals. Don't let negativity stop you from achieving even seemingly impossible dreams.
That was the message Wednesday morning (October 24) at MGMA12 from Ben Carson, world-renowned brain surgeon and bestselling author, during a rousing last-day keynote speech in San Antonio.
"When you introduce something new into a tradition, there's going to be resistance," he told the audience. "That's why it's incredibly important to be persistent and to know which risks are the best ones to take."
Carson, the chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore, has made a career of introducing new things to old traditions, and has met resistance each time. As a young neurosurgeon, he said, he was confronted with the case of a girl with a rare brain condition that caused paralysis. He thought she was a good candidate for a risky procedure, but a more senior colleague disagreed vigorously. The older surgeon lobbied
hard against the procedure and the case lingered.
"But then he made a mistake," Carson told the packed audience. "He went to a conference in Italy, and I said, 'This is my chance.'" Carson performed the procedure and it was successful. Yet if the procedure had failed — if the girl had died — Carson's young career might have suffered badly. Why did he do it?
Because he'd come to assess risks by applying a simple four-question test: What's the best-case scenario if I do something? And what's the worst case? What's the best-case scenario if I do nothing? And what's the worst case?
"When I asked those four questions, I realized that the only chance for a decent outcome for that little girl was if I did something," he said. "It was her only chance."
Even earlier, after a difficult first year at the University of Michigan School of Medicine, Carson's adviser suggested that he drop out and do something else with his life. "'You seem like a bright young man,'" Carson recalled the professor telling him, "'but you're not cut out to be a doctor. Let us help you find something else to do with your life so you don’t waste another year.' I was devastated. Becoming a doctor is the only thing I ever wanted to do." After thinking about how he had been most successful in the past, he realized that he did best in classes that required a lot of reading, and worst in classes that included "a lot of long, boring lectures." So he "made an executive decision" to start skipping lectures and instead spend those hours reading text material.
"After that," Carson said, "medical school was easy."
Years later, when he returned to Michigan to give the commencement address to the medical school's graduating class, Carson said, "I was looking for that counselor, because I wanted to tell him: 'You're not cut out to be a counselor.'" When the laughter from the audience subsided, he added, "Some people are just negative, negative, negative. They're always ready to tell you why something won't work."
He told the audience in San Antonio that he learned to overcome obstacles growing up poor in a rough Detroit neighborhood. When his mother, a housekeeper, realized that her son was doing poorly in school, she made him stay inside to read instead of going outside to play, and then turn in book reports on what he had read. Within a year, the boy who'd been nicknamed "dummy," and who was "always the butt of any joke about someone being stupid" had become the best student in class. His classmates started asking him for help. When he was later teased for being a nerd, he'd tell his tormentors, "Let's see what I'm doing in 30 years, and what you're doing in 30 years."
Thus began a life of accomplishment — reaching the highest rank in junior ROTC in high school, a full scholarship to Yale, medical school, Johns Hopkins. Yet he credits much of it to his mother, who would tell him, when he complained about a seemingly impossible problem, that if he had a brain he could think his way out of it.
"She cleaned other people's houses, but she never developed a victim mentality and she didn't let her kids develop one, either," he said. "When people stop accepting your excuses, something happens pretty fast: You stop looking for excuses, and you start looking for solutions."