Life Choices // Dr. Ben Carson shares his amazing journey from poverty to neurosurgery, and then to the Trump White House

Considered a pioneer in the field of neurosurgery and the recipient of numerous honors and national merit citations for his work, including more than 60 honorary doctoral degrees, Dr. Benjamin Solomon Carson Sr. (born September 18, 1951) became the director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in 1984 at age 33, the youngest person at the time to ever have that distinction. His achievements include performing the first separation of conjoined twins joined at the back of the head. He was later a professor of neurosurgery, oncology, plastic surgery and pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

After retiring from medicine in 2013, he gained national fame after delivering a speech at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast that was perceived as critical of the policies of President Barack Obama. In May 2015, he announced his campaign for the 2016 Republican nomination for president, performing strongly in early polls. After Trump’s victory, Trump asked him to serve as the 17th US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He occupied that position from 2017 to 2021 and also served on Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force.
I had a wide-ranging conversation with Dr. Carson via Zoom earlier this month.

Out of all the political leaders I’ve had the privilege to interview, you are unique. When I talk to them about their lives, their biographies aren’t usually linked to their message. By contrast, I believe your biography is your message to a very great extent.
There is no question that I’ve had a very interesting life, but it is also one that I think can encourage people and help them recognize that the person who has the most to do with what happens to you is you, other than the fact of G-d’s providence. If you connect yourself with that, it gives you a powerful advantage.

Then I guess you’re a big believer in the concepts of self-determination and free will.
Absolutely. Very much so.

So your message is that while everyone is born into particular circumstances, he or she can overcome them.
We are all created equal. We all have opportunities. Some of us choose to utilize them, while others choose not to. One of the things that I believe distinguishes America from other nations is our philosophy that we want to give people equal opportunities but don’t necessarily guarantee equal outcomes, which has a lot to do with the individuals themselves and what they choose to do. As a youngster, I would hear a lot of people saying, “You can’t do this and you can’t do that. The system is against you.” But in the other ear I had my mother saying, “You can do anything. Don’t listen to those people.” I chose to listen to her.

You’ve made a lot of important choices in your life, which led to you becoming a famous person. I’d like to ask you about one choice in particular, which was to go from a life in medicine to a life in politics. You were already a very successful and respected physician when you decided to run for president and later served in the Cabinet. Looking back, are you happy with that choice?

Yes. I’m very happy. Years ago, I had predetermined when I was going to retire from medicine. In the course of my career I had known a lot of neurosurgeons who died, so I wrote down the names of the last ten who had passed away and found that their average age of death was 61. I then determined that I would retire at that age if I were still alive, which I was. I was also asked to give the keynote speech at the National Prayer Breakfast that year, which I thought was a very strange thing because I had already done that in 1997, and I wasn’t aware of anyone who had done it twice. I found out later that there actually was another person who had done it twice: Billy Graham. I said, “That’s pretty good company.” Then I said, “L-rd, why do You want me to do this? I really don’t know what I’m going to say.” I didn’t even know until the morning of the speech, but it resonated with so many people that the next thing I knew they were all saying that I should run for president, which I thought was totally absurd. I thought that if I just ignored these people they would all go away.

What was the basic message of the speech?
It was that we the American people aren’t each other’s enemies; that we have responsibilities to each other and to mankind; and that we shouldn’t be seeking some kind of political advantage and control over other people’s lives. It made a lot of people very happy, and it also made a lot of people very angry. Everywhere I went there were people with placards saying, “Run, Ben, Run!” Over 500,000 people signed a petition. I really had no intention of going into the political arena, but I found myself saying, “L-rd, if You really want me to do this, then You have to give me all the things that a person who runs for president has.” By that I meant a lot of money and all the key Rolodex contacts and so on. The next thing I knew, I had all those things. I had an organization that brought in more money than the RNC. It was ridiculous.

You made an interesting statement before that I want to ask you about. You said that the average age of death of the neurosurgeons you knew was 61. What’s the connection between being a neurosurgeon and having a shorter lifespan than is typical?
I think it’s the stress of constantly having people’s lives in your hands, knowing that if you make even one small mistake you can kill someone or ruin his life. There are also all the threats of lawsuits. It’s a lot of pressure. I didn’t really feel it until I stopped, and then all of a sudden I said, “Whoa! No one’s life is at stake. This is a strange feeling.”

That’s fascinating, because when one is president of the United States, a lot of people’s lives are at stake, especially if there’s a war, G-d forbid. You would have been going from the frying pan into the fire. You were ready to take on a different type of stress, but I guess you were excited about it.
I was willing to do whatever G-d led me to do, quite frankly. For a long time I’d been looking forward to just retiring and learning to play the organ and becoming really good at golf, but I saw that it wasn’t going to happen.

Do you mean that you weren’t going to retire or that you weren’t going to become good at golf?

The greatest Jewish physician-philosopher was Maimonides, who was both a practicing doctor and a jurist and theologian. Inasmuch as he was a man of medicine, he also said that helping others as a political leader is the ultimate in emulating G-d.
I wouldn’t equate myself with Maimonides, but I would heartily agree with him that the truth is the truth.

Speaking as an outsider, to me it seems like there is a certain purity and nobility to a life in medicine, whereas politics is often filled with contention. You said that being a doctor is actually quite stressful, but how did you deal with the adjustment from medicine to politics?
What I tended to do was focus on our goals and not be swayed by the political atmosphere. My goal in moving to politics was to try to enhance programs that promote self-sufficiency, because for many decades our government has been promoting programs that make and keep people dependent. That was not G-d’s intention for mankind. His intention was that they should use their G-d-given talents to flourish and to help the people around them flourish. That’s why we created a lot of the programs we did and worked very hard to put people in an atmosphere where they weren’t fighting each other. And that’s what we are continuing to do with the American Cornerstone Institute.


President Trump has a very abrasive style and can be very rough in dealing with his opponents. During the primaries he said some negative things about you. But you were somehow able to make peace with that and eventually became a member of his Cabinet.
As we got to know each other on the campaign trail, we discovered that philosophically we were very similar. Personality-wise we’re on completely opposite ends of the spectrum, but we’re very compatible philosophically. We even agreed that whoever won, the other one would be part of his administration and try to help. He’s a very nice person when he isn’t being attacked, but unlike me, he doesn’t necessarily let things roll off his back. I prefer to be more focused on what I’m trying to do.

This really proves the point you made about free will. Your backgrounds are so dissimilar, yet you say that you are very compatible philosophically. That means that people truly do have the freedom to choose the path they wish to follow.
That’s exactly right.

And you believe, as Trump does, that America is a wonderful place.
I would encourage everyone to visit and look at all the op-eds, interviews and various programs that exist, including Little Patriots, which tells the true history of America, warts and all, but in a way that you appreciate the place in which we live rather than hate it.

Are you bothered when you see statues being toppled?
It isn’t helpful, because history gives you your identity, and your identity is the foundation of your beliefs. That is the reason why when ISIS and al-Qaeda go in and conquer a place, the first thing they do is destroy its history. We are in the process of doing that ourselves without ISIS, and that isn’t very wise.

We’re rewriting and erasing history in many ways.

I gather that you’re opposed to the entire “woke” phenomenon.
I think it’s not a wise thing, because you tend to be more focused on how someone says something than what he is saying.

It’s very important that your perspective should be heard, even if not everyone agrees with you. Are you frustrated that your views aren’t as popular as they should be?
I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. In fact, I always say that if two people agree about everything, one of them isn’t necessary. We all have different experiences and different brains, so why should we all think the same way? Nonetheless, there are certain principles that we can all embrace, such as life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, decency and fairness. Why would anyone be at odds with those things? We need to be able to sit down and openly discuss them. That’s one of the things I did as secretary [of HUD]. I went into lots of different cities, including places like San Francisco, and I sat down for roundtable discussions with people from both sides, put the facts on the table and said, “Let’s discuss solutions based on the facts, not on your ideology.” That’s how progress is made, particularly when you live in a multivariant society.

I’m sure you get pushback from various sectors because there’s an expectation that as an African-American you think a certain way, both from people who are themselves African-American and those who aren’t. Not only did you enter politics, but your choice of conservatism requires a certain amount of courage. Would you agree?
There’s no question about that, but so does freedom. You can’t be the land of the free if you’re not the home of the brave, meaning that you aren’t willing to stand up for your belief system. I espoused a traditional liberal philosophy for a long time. I grew up in Detroit, which is a very liberal city. From there I went to New Haven, which is also very liberal, then to Ann Arbor and later to Baltimore, which are also liberal places. It wasn’t until later, when I was as a young attending neurosurgeon and seeing so many able-bodied, capable people being so dependent on the government, that I said, “There’s something wrong here.” And I set out to try to change that.

As I understand it, you’re saying that the problem of being dependent on the government isn’t political, it’s that being dependent on it isn’t what G-d wants. By that I mean that it’s detrimental to those who are dependent, even though they’re getting support.
Right. You wouldn’t have the kind of brain that human beings have if you were supposed to just sit around and wait.

You were in the administration at the start of the pandemic and you are also a doctor. Did you ever have the urge to leave HUD and help the country cope with the coronavirus because you were the only Cabinet member with a background in medicine?
Well, I was on the Covid Task Force, and we did meet regularly to talk about it.

The past few years are probably a unique phenomenon in history, as they have seen the convergence of politics and medicine.
Sadly, that is the case, because medicine has generally been objective and based on science, and when you begin to base it on political ideology it becomes contaminated and confusing. I think a lot of people have lost an enormous amount of trust in the CDC, the NIH, and the government as a whole over this issue.

I had the opportunity to interview both Dr. Fauci and Peter Navarro, so I got two very different perspectives on what the government should do. You were on the task force together with both of them. In which camp were you?
I wasn’t in any camp. I was in the camp of “let’s be objective and not go down any political pathway.” I wanted to push for everything to be looked at, including therapeutics. There were some systems in place that precluded that, and they were stupid systems. For instance, you couldn’t get emergency-use authorization for the vaccine unless there were no other viral treatments. But that doesn’t make any sense. We should be exploring every avenue that exists. Even now we’ve had the promise of the new Pfizer antiviral drug, which is a protease inhibitor that prevents the replication of the virus and decreases the incidence of hospitalization and serious effects by 89%, but we are not yet emergently pushing that forward. We have therapeutics, and this is the direction in which we need to be going. We’re never going to solve this with vaccines, and we’ve already seen that they don’t even prevent the disease although they may moderate it. When we have effective therapeutics, there is absolutely no reason to be engaged in mandates and controlling people’s behavior. We have what we need; we just need to use it.

To what do you attribute this lack of willingness to utilize therapeutics?
I’ve thought about it a lot. Why would anyone do that? I think it has to do with the insatiable appetite that some people have to control things and to control other people. This has been a problem with mankind since the beginning; it’s nothing new. That’s why our system of government—the democratic republic—was considered an experiment. Could this actually work? Could you actually have a people-centric government that would be successful, or would it eventually turn into a government-centric country? Right now, we’re in the process of becoming government-centric. Remember that it was Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev who told President Eisenhower that “your grandchildren’s children will live under communism, and we won’t have to fire a shot.” He knew that in order to change a nation like ours, which was way too strong to be overcome in any other way, all he had to do was gain control of the educational system so he could indoctrinate the kids and gain control of the media. That way, he could spoon-feed the people only what he wanted them to hear, remove faith in G-d and replace it with faith in government, and raise the national debt to astronomical levels so he could justify massive taxation, redistribution of wealth and complete dependency.

It was only five years ago that you ran for president, but the world has changed so much since then that if you were to run today, your message would probably address completely different issues. There is also a greater willingness among people to be reliant on the government and allow it to take control of their lives.
I’m not sure if my message would be any different, because the truth remains the truth throughout all the iterations of mankind. You need to do what’s right, you need to do what’s fair, and you need to do what’s logical; those things have a tendency not to change.

Can you define the central truth to which you’re referring?
I don’t know if I can encapsulate it in a single sentence, but the key thing is to develop the talents that G-d has given you and to care about others. That goes back to my core, which is to love G-d and to love your fellow man. When you do that, it completely orients you in the right direction. If you love your fellow man, there are certain things you don’t do. You’re not going to kill them, you’re not going to commit adultery, and you’re not going to steal from them. These are natural things that happen when you try to live by those kinds of laws.

I want to go back to your career in medicine. I understand that you originally had an interest in psychology, yet you chose the physical brain over the mind. Certainly, any field of study related to the mind is less scientific. But perhaps because I’m not a man of science, I find the mind more interesting. What led you to make the choice you did?
My mother had severe bouts of depression and even tried to commit suicide once. I was a psychology major at Yale, and I did Advanced Psych when I first went to medical school, but then I was just so fascinated by what the neurosurgeons could do that it captured me. When I started moving in that direction, people were saying that it wasn’t a good field for me to go into. At that point, there had been only eight black neurosurgeons in the history of the world. But G-d doesn’t distribute talent based on race, and I took to it like a duck to water. It just seemed natural. I’m still very interested in the function of the mind and psychiatry. I enjoy talking to people, looking at figures on television, analyzing them psychologically and wondering why they came to that philosophy. A lot of times when I encounter nasty people I tell myself quietly, “I wonder what happened to them in life to make them like this.”

I would imagine that someone who looks at it from a physical perspective would say that it’s because of their neurons, but as a believer in free will, you would counter that the mind isn’t completely dependent upon the brain and has its own freedom.

So your scientific training hasn’t shaken that strong belief.
No. When you look at a human brain versus an animal brain—that of a dog, for example—on the surface they look quite similar, with a frontal lobe, temporal lobe, parietal lobe, occipital lobe, cerebellum and brainstem, but a dog’s midbrain is much more developed because that’s where they react. Have you ever noticed that animals react much faster than people? By contrast, if you look at the human brain, the frontal lobes are much bigger and better developed, which is where you engage in rational thought processing. This enables us to extract information from the past and present and internalize and integrate it into a plan that can then be projected into the future. This means that we can control a lot of what’s going on, whereas animals tend to react. That’s why I’m so opposed to things like critical race theory, which says that we should look at a person, and depending on what color he is you can determine whether he is an oppressor or victim. That’s just garbage. That has very little to do with the human brain.

This sounds like something you’re very passionate about. In fact, it seems to violate everything that your life stands for.
That is why so many on the left hate me, because I’m antithetical to all they are preaching.

I’m curious. Why did you decide to become a pediatric neurosurgeon rather than one who operates on adults?
I could have also gone into private practice, but I chose academic medicine. As far as the kids are concerned, I just naturally migrated towards them. You can do much more radical things for children because of the phenomenon known as plasticity, which means that the neurons haven’t decided yet what they want to do when they grow up and can be recruited to do other things. That’s why it’s possible to do an operation like a hemispherectomy, where you take out half of the brain in order to stop seizures. Additionally, if you’re successful with children the reward may be 80 years of life, whereas with an old person, he might die in five years or less. So there’s a much bigger return on the investment. There’s a lot of potential there.

I would assume that the stress factor is much higher when operating on children as well.
There’s no question. It’s a double-edged sword. But the reward is truly so much greater. Even today, when I travel around the country, I frequently run into former patients who are now adults. As secretary, I remember once talking to a FEMA group. There must have been about 1,000 people in the audience. Afterwards, someone came up to me and said, “Hey, Doc, do you recognize me? You operated on me when I was a kid.”

I’m very curious about how you felt after you separated the brains of those Siamese twins, which was the surgery that made you famous. Was that the most euphoric moment of your life?
I’m just as euphoric when I go out and see a family and tell them that their kid had hydrocephalus, but we put a shunt in and he’s doing fine. Just because it didn’t receive a lot of media attention doesn’t change that. To that family, it is very much a central and important feature of what is going on right now.

You’ve stated that you weren’t a bright student—although I find it hard to believe—which is also a very encouraging message to young people who aren’t getting good grades. They’re going to want to know how you overcame that.
A normal human brain has billions of neurons and hundreds of billions of interconnections, with the ability to process more than two million bits of information in one second. A brain cannot be overloaded. If you learn one new fact every second, it will take you more than three million years to challenge the capacity of your brain. Some people say, “I’m not good at math,” but if you have a normal brain you’re good at math; you just haven’t been taught the right way to do it. When I didn’t think that I was bright, when I didn’t think that I could learn, I approached things with an attitude that reinforced that. But after I started reading, that was really the key. I read about all kinds of people—philosophers, explorers, entrepreneurs, surgeons—and when I read those life stories, I began to understand that the person who has the biggest influence on you is you. You make the choices. You decide how much work you want to put into it. You decide what you want to understand and what you don’t want to understand, what you want to believe and what you don’t want to believe. That shapes who you become. If you have a normal brain, you don’t have a physical limitation.

So it’s all in your mind?

What do you think is the most important lesson we can learn from the field of medicine?
What is the most valuable thing that you possess? Your life. If you had a choice between having a billion dollars and being quadriplegic or being penniless and perfectly healthy, which would you take? Most people wouldn’t have to think too long to answer. But sometimes we don’t act that way. We don’t exercise, we don’t eat the right kinds of food, we don’t engage in the right kinds of activities, we put harmful things into our bodies and do things that are harmful to ourselves and others. We have control; we aren’t victims. That’s why G-d gave us these sophisticated brains.

Aside from being a physician and politician, you are also interested in other aspects of the human experience, including art, music and religion, all of which have informed your life in various ways.
There is no question that these things expand your horizons. G-d blessed us with an appreciation for beauty, and He gave some people real talent for creating it on a canvas. Certain people have an incredible capacity to create music that touches your soul. As far as religion is concerned, it might shock you when I say that I’m not a very religious person but I have a very strong relationship with G-d. In other words, I don’t get super-involved in the traditions of man, but the principles that G-d has put forth are absolutely crucial and vital, and they give me strength and courage. G-d is the source of all wisdom, and I think that He also has a sense of humor because I had a very violent temper in my youth.
As you may have read, I actually once tried to stab someone, but the knife blade broke because he was wearing a large metal belt buckle. As I was contemplating that, locked in a bathroom, I realized that I would never realize my dream of becoming a doctor with a temper like that. I picked up the Bible and started reading the Book of Proverbs, which was written by Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived. From that day on, I have started every morning of my life by reading from it. Interestingly, my middle name is Solomon. Also interesting is that at the beginning of his reign, Solomon became famous for his wisdom through his method of discovering the rightful mother of the baby when the two women claimed him as their own, which was to tell them to divide the child in half. That’s what I became known for as well.

So both G-d and Ben Carson have a sense of humor. I understand that you grew up as a Seventh Day Adventist, which means that you have something else in common with Solomon in keeping the seventh day holy.
Jews and Seventh Day Adventists have a lot in common.

What do you believe is your most important message?
My main message is that the person who has the most to do with what happens to you is you, and that we Americans are not each other’s enemies. We need to be very wary of people who try to make us believe that we are.

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