CNN's Sanjay Gupta on Building a Successful Career
By: Dan Schawbel, Forbes
I recently spoke to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the multiple Emmy-award winning chief medical correspondent for CNN. Gupta, a practicing neurosurgeon, plays an integral role in CNN’s reporting on health and medical news for Starting Point with Soledad O’Brien, Anderson Cooper 360°, CNN documentaries, and anchors the weekend medical affairs program Sanjay Gupta, MD. In addition to his work for CNN, Gupta is a member of the staff and faculty at the Emory University School of Medicine. He is associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital and regularly performs surgery at Emory University and Grady hospitals.
He holds memberships in the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, Congress of Neurological Surgeons, and the Council on Foreign Relations. He serves as a diplomat of the American Board of Neurosurgery, is a certified medical investigator, and is a board member of the Lance Armstrong LiveStrong Foundation. He is the author of three best-selling books, Chasing Life (2007), Cheating Death (2009) and Monday Mornings (2012).
In this interview, Dr. Gupta talks about how he’s built his career at CNN, how he’s able to manage everything that he’s working on, his top three pieces of career advice, and more.
When you originally started out on air at CNN, were you nervous? When did become comfortable being in front of such a large audience?
As a neurosurgeon, I have spent years training my hands and my mind to be cool under pressure. If an aneurysm ruptures, the clock has started ticking, and there is no time to be nervous. Still, the first time I was on television, I certainly had the jitters. The butterflies were in my stomach right before the live segment and I knew this was a big audience. I wanted every word neatly planned, and a message that was pitch perfect. It was not that long after that I realized it was possible to “over-think” things in television.
So, the first lesson was to simply be myself. While that sounds awfully simple, if you watch television closely – you will see many personalities that are completely different on screen vs. off screen. While the audience doesn’t always recognize what the problem is, in those situations, they do detect a lack of authenticity. For me, what made it click was another lesson that came from my wife. “Try and think of the camera lens as a patient,” she told me. That worked. When I speak to patients in the hospital, I want to make sure they understand what I am saying. Pick words people can understand and deliver them in a conversational manner. Also, speaking slowly projects confidence and quiets my nerves as well.
How do you manage your time and out of everything you do, what do you most enjoy?
I still enjoy being a doctor the most. Perhaps because it was my first love, or because there is a certain tangible nature about it, I am not sure. On my medical days, I have a very clear sense of purpose when I jump put of bed in the morning, and I have realized over the years how hard that is to replace. Nowadays, after ten years of evolution, I have my life right where I want it. I split my time around 50/50 between medicine and media. I still operate every week, see patients in the office and teach neurosurgery residents and medical students. My media work consists of television reporting for CNN and 60 Minutes, and also writing books.
My latest book Monday Mornings is a novel, which was a departure for me, but an enjoyable one. David E Kelley is now developing the book into a TV series. As a practical note, I didn’t have a precedent when I started my dual career. There were no other neurosurgeons doing regular media work. I had long, candid and honest conversations with my bosses at the hospital and the network. I was very realistic in terms of what I could deliver with the schedule and responsibilities and set thorough and clear expectations. After more than ten years, it has worked better than I could have expected.
What was the most interesting world event you’ve covered and why?
Over the last twelve years, I have covered every major world event, ranging from wars to natural disasters. I have covered politics and of course, every significant medical and health story. A front row seat to history is how it is often described. Iraq in 2003, though, was the most memorable for me personally. While I was there as an embedded reporter, around four weeks into the assignment, I was asked by the Navy doctors aka the Devil Docs to take off my journalism cap and put on a surgical one.
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