Benedict Carey: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

CareyBenedict J. Carey is a science reporter for The New York Times who focuses on brain and behavior topics. He writes about neuroscience, psychiatry and neurology, as well as everyday psychology. The territory includes the large and the small, memory molecules and group behavior, narcissism and nostalgia, drug uses and drug addiction. From 2007 to 2010, he was the Mind columnist for Science Times, where he wrote about pranks, binge drinking, boredom, regret, perfectionism, study habits and Super Bowl anxiety, among other things.

Carey joined The Times in 2004 as a behavior writer. Previously, he worked at The Los Angeles Times, writing about health, medicine and brain science, where he won a University of Missouri Lifestyle Journalism Award for a story on drinking water. Before that, he was a freelance magazine writer, and a staff writer for Health magazine in San Francisco. He began his career at American Shipper, a trade book in New York covering the shipping trade. He writes frequently for the Review section of the paper and has written two books, both science mysteries for middle-school aged kids: Island of the Unknowns (previously titled The Unknowns in hardback), a math adventure; and Poison Most Vial, a murder mystery involving forensic toxicology due out this spring. His latest book, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, was published by Random House (September 2014).

Here is an excerpt from Part 1. To read all of it, please click here.

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Morris: Before discussing How We Learn, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Carey: Personally, it’s my parents, my siblings, my wife and kids (I have two daughters, 17 and 22). I also find the movies of Alexander Payne, and the classic Muppets in Space have been helpful in times of doubt.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Carey: My many editors along the way, for sure, including Michael Gold and Susan West, Rick Flaste at The New York Times and Erica Goode, also at the Times. Also, to some extent, Russ Rymer, a book writer.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Carey: I was a math and physics student in college who saw at some point that I didn’t have the chops to make a real impact in those fields. A physics teacher – can’t remember his name – handed me a magazine called (at the time) Science ’80, put out by the AAAS. I devoured that and decided then that I could write about science. That’s how it started.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Carey: It has been mostly of secondary importance. I never had a mentor-like teacher, and no one really advised me specifically (the physics teacher was handing out those magazines to a lot of people). It was my travels on my own – in Ireland and Spain, mostly – in which I discovered what my strengths could be.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Carey: I wish I’d known something, anything about the business world. I knew nothing and am still learning. I believe economics/ business classes should be part of all regular curricula, from early on. Sales, marketing and basic economics are all critical components of what I do – pitching stories is sales.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Carey: Jeez, very tough one. Tin Men is good and Glengarry Glen Ross, although these are highly stylized and not strictly ‘business’ movies. Margin Call is also excellent. Those all lay out the importance of sales and forging relationships – in person.

But I’ll take any recommendations.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Carey: Well, I have profited to some degree from Ayn Rand’s books (The Fountainhead, mainly), tho I am not a Rand acolyte. Also, for sure, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker about Robert Moses and the making of modern New York. That’s all that come to mind, at this moment. Which are your choices?

Morris: There are so many. Here are three plays, none of which is strictly about business: Sophocles’ Antigone, Shakespeare’s King Lear, and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. All three address key issues about loyalty, authority, and — to paraphrase Dante — not preserving neutrality when in a moral crisis.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Carey: Love that. That’s what I try to do in the book.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Your response?

Carey: Execution is damn hard, Robert, and rarely lives up to the vision. I think Mr. Edison is holding the bar too high and being too dismissive of Vision. Execution needs Vision, and to the extent that hallucination (un-executed Vision) prompts “some” real work and original thinking, it’s success of precious kind.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Carey: Not necessarily. More often yesterday’s dangerous idea fizzles out. I love Dawkins but he’s being grandiose. His comment only applies in retrospect, to those dangerous “pearls” than do indeed play out.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Carey: Dead correct.

Morris: From Derek Bok: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

Carey: Yes

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Carey: Yes – but it’s not always clear what should and should not be done!

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Carey: I think that’s probably right, yes. That’s why we value instinct in leaders: no one has all the information, no matter how good their advisors.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Carey: Love that. You have to make bets, and you’d better make ones that will be valuable even if they fail spectacularly.

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

To read my review of How We Learn, please click here.

Ben cordially invites you to check out these websites:

The How We Learn Amazon link

New York Times link

NPR interview link

Scientific American review link

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