|Learning From Our Mistakes - Dr. Benjamin Carson|
Dr. Benjamin Carson
Excerpts from his book, AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL
Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great
A #1 New York Times Bestseller
Dr. Ben Carson, Emory University Commencement, 2012
Lindsay House Publishing
Chapter 8, Learning from Our Mistakes pp.111-115
EVERY PERSON MAKES MISTAKES, so it should come as no surprise that every nation of the world has made mistakes as well. Talk with a German national about the hope their country placed in Hitler's rise to power on the heels of the Great Depression. Or consider our own nation's internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and you'll agree that the question is not whether a nation makes mistakes; the question is whether a nation learns from its mistakes, builds on that knowledge it gains over time, and grows in wisdom. Those nations who learn from their mistakes will become wise, while those who repeat the same mistakes over and over again, expecting a different result, are foolish.
I certainly experienced my share of mistakes growing up. Because of the racial and socioeconomic injustice I experienced as a boy, in my anger and frustration I began to retaliate by going after people with baseball bats, rocks, and knives. One day a boy pushed me too far. I told him to back off, but he wouldn't quit pestering me. Finally, I pulled out my knife and lunged at him, striking him in the abdomen. He fell back, and for a moment I thought I had killed him, but just then my knife blade fell to the ground. It had hit his belt buckle and snapped in two.
I ran into the bathroom and locked myself in, terrified that I had just tried to kill someone -- and over something so trivial. If his belt buckle had not been there, I would have seriously injured or killed him, and I would have been on my way to reform school or jail, following the path of so many around me.
All of my life I had attended church services, and I knew -- at least in theory -- that God could radically change a person's life for the better. I also knew that I had tried to gain control of my temper time after time with repeated failure. Although I was only fourteen years old, I was familiar with behavioral modification therapy from reading Psychology Today -- but I was also acutely aware that we had no money for behavioral modification therapy. By that time I was a straight-A student, yet I recognized that I would never achieve my dreams of becoming a physician as long as I harbored an uncontrollable temper.
So I fell to my knees there on the bathroom floor, pleading with God to remove my temper. There was a Bible in the bathroom, and I opened it to the book of Proverbs. Verses about anger and the folly of a fool's actions all seemed written to me and about me. Other verses encouraged me, such as Proverbs 16:32, which says that mightier is the man who can control his temper than the man who can conquer a city. I stayed in that bathroom for three hours, reading, contemplating and praying. My selfishness had made me so angry inside, and it dawned on me that if I could just step outside myself and look at things from someone else's point of view, I might see the world differently and not feel so persecuted.
My new, God-given perspective worked like a charm. He became very real to me that day, and I have never had another angry outburst of uncontrollable temper since then. There would be other tests, of course, and I would make my share of mistakes. But that, after all, is how we learn and grow.
My high school, Southwestern High School in Detroit, was not particularly well known for its academics, but it was a football and basketball powerhouse. It won several state basketball championships, and you reached the pinnacle of respect among your peers if you were a starter on one of the varsity sports teams. The only other way to gain recognition was to join a successful singing group. Since we were located in Motown, students always expected one of the groups to make it big.
I was definitely not one of the cool guys, however. They always wore the latest fashions, knew the latest "jams" on the radio, sported a nice car, and had three "chicks" on each arm.
They also had a distinctive walk known as "the Detroit strut" and an ever-changing lingo that denoted how "hip" they were.
I, on the other hand, was a total nerd, complete with stacks of books, thick glasses, a slide rule, and clean but dated clothing. I had neither a car nor a girlfriend. Nevertheless, I was certain I would make my mark in the world, because I was going to be so smart that everyone was going to have to take notice of me. But all I really got during my freshman year was ridicule, and I began to feel very out of place. By the time my sophomore year rolled around, I was ready to abandon my nerdy appearance and become one of the cool guys. I began to play basketball late into the night, and more disturbingly, I began grumbling constantly to my mother about my "uncool" clothing. My mother was very disappointed that I had lost my way and was heading in the same direction as all the people she characterized as losers. Despite her arguments, I complained incessantly.
One day, during one of our arguments, she thrust at me all the money she had made scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets and said in frustration, "You pay the bills, you buy the food, you pay the rent and take care of all the other necessities. With all the money you have left over, feel free to buy all the cool clothes you want."
I was thrilled, because I figured I was finally going to have my way and become one of the cool guys. As I started allocating money for all the expenses, however, I quickly ran out. I soon realized that my mother was a financial genius to somehow keep us fed and sheltered. I felt like a total fool and sheepishly returned the money to her. I never complained about my clothing again.
Fortunately, having read the Bible over the preceding years, I quickly recognized that my desire to be part of the "in crowd" was more characteristic of a fool than a person of accomplishment. During my slide into foolishness, my grades had slipped precipitously, and I was horrified as I looked in the mirror and realized what I was becoming. I immediately corrected my course, abandoning any desire to be one of the cool guys. I once again became a diligent student, and my grades dramatically improved. From that day forward I was never again tempted to abandon my long-term goals for the sake of momentary acceptance.
The excitement I had experienced as a freshman in high school was nothing compared to the exhilaration I felt at becoming a "Yale man." Going from inner-city Detroit to the ivy-covered walls of Yale was certainly a culture shock; rich wood paneling covered the dining hall walls, the plates were real china, and the eating utensils were real silver. Works of art adorned the walls, and Oriental rugs covered the hardwood floors. I had gone from dire poverty to the lap of luxury overnight -- and I intended to enjoy every minute of it.
Obtaining top grades in high school had been a snap. The material was so easy I could study for half an hour before an exam and still get an A. I naturally assumed I could do the same thing at Yale, so I took judo classes, played ping-pong and table soccer, watched television, attended live entertainment events, and generally had fun. I thought I had corrected my academic flaws in high school, but academic success in a high-powered university obviously required significantly more correction that I had accomplished. By midterm, I began to worry a bit because I wasn't doing well in some classes, including freshman chemistry, which was a prerequisite for those planning to go to medical school. My concern wasn't enough to stop me from having fun, but it did dampen my enthusiasm.
By the time final exams rolled around, however, my grade in chemistry was so low I would have failed the course even if I had gotten an A on the final exam. In an act of great compassion (or sadism, I'm not sure which), the chemistry professor offered to give anyone who was failing the course double credit for the final exam -- which gave me one last glimmer of hope. I suspect he believed that people like me had no chance of passing the final exam if they had done so poorly throughout the course of the semester; therefore, there was little or no risk in making such an offer.
The night before the final exam I sat in my room with my thick chemistry textbook, a barrier to all my hopes and dreams. I poured out my heart to God, asking forgiveness for squandering such a wonderful educational opportunity. I asked him to show me what he really wanted me to do with my life, since I obviously wasn't going to get into medical school. Preferably, I asked him to work a miracle. As I tried futilely to memorize my entire chemistry textbook, I fell asleep and entered a dream.
During that dream I was the only student in a large auditorium, and a nebulous figure was writing out chemistry problems on the chalkboard. I awakened early that morning with the dream so vivid in my mind that I quickly consulted my chemistry textbook to corroborate what I had seen in the dream. When I opened the text booklet the next day during the chemistry final exam, I was flabbergasted when I recognized each of the problems in the booklet as one of the problems that the nebulous figure was working out on the chalkboard in my dream. It felt like I was in the twilight zone as I hurriedly scribbled down the answers, afraid that I would forget them if I waited too long.
I knew the moment I finished the exam that God had granted me my miracle. I promised God that he would never have to do such a thing for me again and that I would become a diligent student and make him proud of me. It was a scary lesson to learn, but it profoundly changed my attitude about my purpose in college.
The rest of my time at Yale was relatively smooth sailing, but medical school was another matter. The amount of new material that must be mastered in medical school is equivalent to learning several foreign languages simultaneously, and many students flunked out before the first year was over. I had learned my lesson in college and was very diligent about studying and attending all my lectures, but I still did horribly on the first set of comprehensive examinations. As a result, I was required to see my counselor who had been assigned by the university to help me get through medical school. He told me that I should simply drop out of medical school since I obviously wasn't cut out for medicine. Of course I was crushed, because the only career I had aspired to since I was eight years old was that of a physician.
Following that meeting, I returned to my apartment and again poured out my heart to God, begging for wisdom. As I prayed, a thought occurred to me. What kind of courses have you always struggled with, I asked myself, and what kind of courses have given you no difficulty? It dawned on me that I did very well in courses that required a lot of reading, and I struggled in courses in which the material was communicated through boring lectures. Unfortunately, I was being subjected to six to eight hours of boring lectures every day in medical school. Right there and then, I made an executive decision to skip the boring lectures and to spend that time reading. It was a risky move but if it didn't yield results I would have been in no worse shape than I was in already. It turned out to be a fabulously successful strategy, and the rest of medical school was a snap.
That traumatic episode taught me how important it was to learn your own strengths and weaknesses from your mistakes. Over the subsequent years, I have saved enormous time and effort by understanding that I gain nothing from listening to boring lectures.
I did learn that I respond well to visual input, such as reading books, viewing images, and using flashcards.
I'm convinced that much of the success I have experienced in life is a result of learning from my failures.