The Will of the Underdog—How Dr. Carl Hart Went From the Streets to the Laboratory

Carl Hart woke up to screams from his parents’ room.

Minutes earlier, his mother heard his father talking on the phone with the woman he was having an affair with, and she chose to retaliate by boiling a pot of maple syrup and flinging the burning hot liquid at him.

She then sprinted out the front door as her screaming husband sought to get revenge of his own. Luckily, he slipped on the wet grass outside giving her precious minutes to escape. 7 year-old Carl and his sisters were relieved. They knew if he caught her, he would’ve killed her.

After that day, Carl and his sisters bounced around different homes. Neither of their parents were fully capable of taking care of the children on their own, so they lived with various relatives on the mean streets of Miami. 

Carl's neighborhood was not too far from the tropical paradise of South Beach. But he may as well have been in an entirely different world. 

His world was filled with crime, domestic violence, and even days when there wasn't enough food in the fridge for Carl to eat.

And when Carl entered high school several years later, things seemed to get even worse—because crack cocaine hit the streets

Crack was a drug rumored to be so powerful that it caused people to become extremely violent, and could make a person addicted in a single hit. So as the drug hit the streets, so did the police. They were going to crush this epidemic through force.

The Streets

Drugs were all around Carl. Crack cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, all of them. He ran with a tough crowd who used and sold these drugs regularly. 

Like all kids, Carl and his friends cared about one thing: being cool. That was their purpose. And in their neighborhood, being cool was defined by how tough you were, how many girls you had, and whether you sold drugs.

However, while his friends were able to achieve high status through drugs, Carl found something else that gave him the same sense of purpose—becoming a top athlete.

He was a star basketball player at his high school and, even though he used drugs, he soon realized they would inhibit his performance as an athlete. So he experimented, then declined. His friends accepted this decision as they saw how important his performance was to him.

His status as an athlete was also what led Carl to do well enough in school to get into college. He fully admitted that he didn’t care about schoolwork; but he was determined to earn a scholarship to play college basketball. 

Unfortunately, though, Carl was small for a basketball player and his coach made little attempt to get schools to recruit him. So he didn’t receive the scholarship offer he dreamed of, and he was crushed. His dream was dead.

What was he going to do now? He’d been bragging about getting out of Miami and going to college for years. If he stayed, he would have lost pride and status amongst his friends. So without the financial means to go to college, he enlisted in the Air Force. [1]


When he entered the Air Force, Hart was lost. He'd never thought of doing anything but be a professional athlete. So as he went through basic training, through time stationed in Japan, and through time stationed in England, he was searching for a new purpose for his life.

In England, he started the first college courses provided by the Air Force.

He was far from studious going into his classes, but for the first time in his life, he actually enjoyed learning. He was able to fully immerse himself in his schoolwork and his instructors started to see potential in him. His confidence as a student began to grow. 

After a year of study, Hart returned to Miami in 1987 on leave and was horrified by what he saw.

He saw more guns in the hands of teens. He heard stories about the turf wars over crack. And he saw the escalation of police force: leading to more harassment, more arrests, and more children who would grow up with their parents in prison. 

Things had changed. And Hart, like the rest of the nation, blamed crack cocaine. He saw clearly that the reason he was in college while his friends were in prison was because of the drug. He never got hooked on it, so he avoided its downward spiral. 

His new purpose became clear to him—learn the cause of addiction, and save his community.


This new purpose helped Hart fight through his huge learning disadvantage.

Even though he'd been accepted into college, his high school's standards were still far below the norm of what his college classmates were used to. But, despite being behind his classmates in some critical thinking skills, Hart's professors noticed the potential in him. 

They encourage him to fight through his struggles by teaching him one of the most important lessons when it comes to science—you don't need to be a genius to be a scientist.

The best scientists, they claimed, were those who had the willpower to persevere on a problem, to keep digging deeper, and do all of the boring testing and research.

This motivated Hart. He knew he wasn't a genius, but he'd also proved he was capable of working hard. And the prospect of saving his community gave him the "want power" to fight through frustration and find the root cause of addiction.

Then, after 10 years of slow, consistent, determined progress, Hart got his Ph.D in neuroscience and psychology. In the process, he earned several research grants to begin studying the science of addiction.

He made it. He was now in position to fulfill his purpose and learn how to save his community. What he discovered, however, was not what he expected. 

As I sum up in this article, Hart discovered that what he thought about addiction was completely wrong. Crack was not a "one hit and you're hooked" drug. In fact, only 9% of people who use crack actually became addicted. The 91% of others were usually normal, healthy people.  [2,3

And the reason why some became addicts has less to do with the drug itself, and more to do with why they are using it in the first place. 

Which led Hart to wonder...what was the real reason he was in a lab instead of a prison cell?


When we look back at Hart's story, we can see that he had little shot of ending up in a laboratory.

His parents couldn't take care of him.

His living situation was terrible and constantly changing. 

And with a C average, he wasn't exactly a genius destined to become a scientist. 

However, he did have one thing that separated him from his peers—his purpose.

He found a purpose outside of drugs, and his friends found their purpose with drugs. While he was practicing, doing drills, and doing well enough in school to earn a scholarship; his friends were working to make their way up the gang hierarchy.

The fact that crack hit the street was actually irrelevant to Hart. He was bouncing around homes 7 years before crack. Neither of his parents were addicts, yet they still couldn't take care of him. And to keep his athlete status, he would have stayed sober with or without drugs available.

It was this status, too, that motivated him to leave Miami and join the Air Force. If he'd stayed, he would've been embarrassed by the fact that he wasn't good enough to live up to his talk of leaving. That hit to his pride would've been too much to handle. 

Then when he enrolled in college, he was able to learn in a world free of the distractions of his old neighborhood. Then, slowly but surely, he grew his confidence as a student until he found another purpose worth fighting for—solving drug addiction.

Step-by-step he began unraveling the science behind addiction, working towards his purpose, while also earning his Ph.D and the respect of scientists everywhere. And after all this work, he became the first black tenured professor ever at Columbia University. 

And today his purpose is speaking to people around the world sharing the real science behind addiction. 


In a piece by CNN on a heroin epidemic taking place in New Jersey, they challenged Dr. Hart on his findings. They did a story on teenagers who were addicted to heroin and the terrible state they were in.

“What do you say to one of these 12 year-olds who are addicted to heroin?” asked the reporter.

Hart responded by saying, “I assure you, if you have a 12 year-old who is addicted to heroin, heroin is not the problem. There are clearly a lot more issues that the 12 year-old is facing. I need to know a lot more information before I could tell you to do anything.

If someone gives you a simple response to how you deal with that 12 year-old’s heroin problem that’s focused on the drug, they are a quack.”

A 12 year-old heroin addict has more problems going on than heroin. There are societal, parental, and psychological factors that led to this kid using heroin in the first place. And those are much more important than the pharmacological effects of the heroin itself. 

But when we see a story like this, or we hear about crime rising in Carl Hart's neighborhood, our brain wants to find an easy answer. We watch stories like these, and place all of our blame on drugs, rather than seek a deeper understanding of why the problem is happening in the first place.

This is the same reason we seek easy answers to solving our goals. 

The world is complicated. And in order to not be overwhelmed with all of it's complexity, your brain is wired to find simple, easy answers. That's why we search for the 8-week ab program or the 90-day diet, rather than seeking the reason why we are struggling with health in the first place. [4]

Whatever your goal, you must avoid this temptation and force yourself to dig deeper. Your willpower is much better used when it is spent finding "the cause of the disease" rather than "treating the symptoms." 


The human brain is literally wired to seek an easy answer to a difficult problem. 

We see crime, we see violence, we see poverty, and we instantly blame a drug because it is a simple solution that seems to make sense. It doesn't require us to confront the brutal facts about why those people are turning to drugs in the first place. 

And because we don't dig deeper to find the root of the problem, we don't learn why the Carl Harts of the world are able to overcome adversity, avoid joining a gang, and even push the human race forward by advancing our understanding of addiction.

Even my deeper answer of "purpose" is too easy. There were other young men on the basketball team, too, did they say "no" to drugs and crime as well? If so, did they become successful? Why or why not?

I don't know the answers to these questions. But the Carl Hart story shows that whatever problems we face as a society or as individuals, we need to avoid the temptation of the simple solution. We need to dig deeper—even if we may find some ugly truths buried underneath.