The Brain, the CEO of Our Human Mind and Body. Dig deeper into the brain’s power, brain science, and how to be wired for success. We explore neuroscience, mindset leverage, why indulgence is under-rated, probability thinking, hope, and ‘possibility.’
Join Anne Pratt as she talks to Harvard-Trained neuroscientist, psychiatrist, brain researcher, McKinsey & Co Think Tank member, author, and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, Dr. Srini Pillay. Tune in to understand how your brain works and how it directs your life. Learn more about bliss & suffering, existential confidence, the adverse effects of stress & anxiety, and Dr. Srini’s new musical project “Dance of the Psyche.” Start adopting a ‘possibility’ mindset today!
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Brain Science: Wired for Success with Dr. Srini Pillay in the USA
From Probability to Hope, to Possibility
I’m formerly from South Africa and relocated abroad to attend a Harvard Leadership Fellowship in beautiful Boston in the United States of America. I’ll talk to a bold leader who joins us from the Big Apple in New York City. He grew up in a humble home in Durban, South Africa. Granted permission from his loving mother to ‘be anything at all, he is an accomplished academic and a living example of “possibility.”
In South Africa, he was the top overall medical student. At Harvard University, he was the top award-winning resident in Psychiatry. Previously, he was an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and the Director of the Outpatient Anxiety Disorder Program at Harvard Medical School McLean Hospital. He is the Chief Medical Officer and co-founder of a digital therapeutics company, Reulay, using technologies to delay the onset of cancer, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and strokes. He is an accomplished author, a pioneer of transformational neuro coaching, a member of the transformational leadership council, and has written a musical. He shares the brain’s power, brain science, and how to be wired for success. We warmly welcome Dr. Srini Pillay. Welcome to the show.
Srini, it’s such a joy. I’m excited to be having this conversation. Thank you much for joining us.
Thank you for inviting me. I always like being in a conversation where I’m not exactly sure where we’re going to go because it roots me to my truth, and then I take that train.
I’m not 100% sure because we could discover that path as we evolve in our conversation. I thought of a wonderful place to start. You’re a prolific writer and have published several very compelling titles. One of the titles that caught my attention was Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders. A fabulous place to begin is what is your definition of a ‘great leader’ and ‘neuroscience’?
My favorite definition of leadership is the definition that was given by Warren Bennis, who studied leaders for most of his life. He said that becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It’s precisely that simple and difficult. It struck me because, on the surface, it’s like, “What does that mean to become yourself?” When you look it deeply, you realize that there are many obstructions to us becoming ourselves in the world that we tend not to lead our lives. We tend to go into this process of following whom we think we’re supposed to be rather than leading from the heart. For me, leadership is about becoming yourself.Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. Click To Tweet
Neuroscience is the study of the neurologic system, which is the central nervous system. I also think of it as the study of the peripheral nervous system. Medicine, for me, has become less and less about systems and more about the entire body because the brain doesn’t stop functioning at the level of the neck. The brain wouldn’t be able to move your right foot. I feel like, at some level, neuroscience is a pointer to a study of the brain, but the brain impacts everything in the body. In a sense, some people refer to it as the CEO of the body. The body is the rest of the organization as well.
You’ve done incredible research. What does science tell us?
When I first started doing this work, people were like, “You’re going to bring neuroscience into organizations. This is not a neurology lab.” It’s quite simple. Businesses are made up of people, and people have brains. If you want to impact the business, you have to impact people. People have brains, so it helps to understand how their brains work. Someone at McKinsey looked at the importance of mindset and found that managers and leaders who pay attention to mindset, rather than the behavior or thinking, “Why is this not handed in on time,” but, “What’s going on in this person’s mind that they’re not able to deliver this on time,” gives you two times the leverage.
If you are aligned in your mindset and aspirations, it gives you 4.4 times leverage, which means that aligned leaders can move faster. Mindset has many other implications as well. If your mindset is in a state of flow, you’re locked into something. McKinsey has shown that CEOs who are in a flow state are five times more productive than CEOs who are not in a flow state.
Can you define the “flow state” for us?
A flow state is where you can be locked into your entire day of work without feeling restricted or constrained by time but allowing yourself to be in a state where you exist beyond time and external distractions. CEOs were able to be locked in that way. They can do five days of work in one day. It wouldn’t be incredible for all of us if we could say, “Let us do these 5 days of work in 1 day.” Mindset, for me, is important because it allows greater leverage and communication. It allows you to align not just in terms of the work you’re doing but internally as well.
That is part of this entire system you’re talking about in terms of the mind and the mindset, being the chief executive of the entire human being. The other thing that struck me in your reference to mindset, and I love the work that Carol Dweck has done as well about fixed versus growth mindset, is it leads me on to another great accomplishment of yours, your TEDx Talk around being Wired For Success: The Science of Possibility. In the science of possibility, we know that mindset is essential, whether it’s a growth or a fixed mindset. I’d love to know your thoughts on this distinction between ‘growth’ and a ‘fixed’ mindset and how does that impact our ability to achieve what seems impossible?
When Carol Dweck defined these terms, she distinguished between a fixed mindset where you believe that whatever your God-given intellectual abilities will get you only far. A growth mindset has to do with the fact that with enough inquiry and effort, you will be able to succeed even if you cannot see how you can succeed now. That’s the distinction that Carol Dweck made. When I talk about the ‘possibility’ mindset, I’m extending that conceptually by saying that within every one of us, there is a vision of an ideal. There is this moonshot. This moonshot is not static. It changes throughout our lives.
As humans, we can anchor to that moonshot and then let that moonshot be our guide. We are then engaged in what I call the science of possibility. The science of possibility has to do with the fact that when you believe in what that moonshot is, it changes your actual physiology. If you look at the studies on placebo, for example, we see that this kind of placebo belief like this will work even if other people think it’s not going to work.
This is the dopamine in your brain. As a result, you feel more rewarded. It increases the number of opioids in the brain. As a result, you feel more relaxed. It also increases oxytocin, so you feel more trusting. With this initial jolt of neurochemicals, you can help guide your way toward that goal. You break away from what a placebo is supposed to do, which is impossible. It is not about believing and not doing in the believing state. You can give yourself this jolt of neurochemicals to motivate you to move toward that goal.
As we both know, it’s a long journey with many trials and tribulations. What has your research demonstrated about when we get stuck? How do we re-energize? How do we get our brain and mind connection back on track?
There are many reasons why we get stuck. Probably, even many more than the reasons I’m going to mention now. When I think about when possibility thinking is interrupted, some key reasons involve burnout, feeling lost, getting stuck in old habits, worrying too much, having downer days, letting anxiety or depression get in the way, or already giving up. Do you get stuck when you haven’t even started trying or have difficulty imagining? Those seven things are essential to note and ask yourself, “Which of these things is in my way? Is it that I’m burnt out, lost, that I already gave up, or that I’m worrying?” Sequentially, try to address what that element is.
At that level, those are the generic ideas. Most people had drummed into them that they were whatever the teachers or their grades had told them they were. They exist at that level for the rest of their lives. l feel very passionately that I don’t think I was a very ambitious student. At some level, I feel like if I was that ambitious, so I can say what I’m saying now, which is that ‘grades do not define your intelligence.’
Grades simply reflect how good you are at taking a test. If you think about the wealthiest people in the world, for example, they dropped out of college. Letting go of the world’s definitions of who you are is essential. As Warren Bennis said, “Become who you are and let that becoming become the thing that guides you as a leader in the world.”Grades do not define your intelligence. They are simply a reflection of how good you are at taking a test. Click To Tweet
You mentioned noticing where you are regarding the seventh possibility of obstacles. Once you’ve noticed where you are, what would you say to people that are perhaps stuck in 1 or a couple of those 2?
The one underlying factor is people are afraid. I always like Marianne Williamson’s quote around this. She essentially said, “Your greatest fear is not that you are inadequate. Your greatest fear is that you are more powerful beyond measure.” People are afraid of their power, success, and greatness. For many reasons, success puts you in a position where other people expect you to continue succeeding. Once you go a little higher, you feel like, “If I fall, the fall is going to be even more.”
Most people keep themselves in what I call this mediocre middle. The fact this is the leading theory of worry. It’s called Contrast Avoidance Theory. It tells us that people fear the contrast between peak moments and these trough or low moments. Peak moments are when people meet the love of their lives, have children, or get the job they want. These low moments are when somebody you love dies or when you have a breakup.
They don’t want to go from having a fantastic time to suddenly having the worst news of their lives. They keep themselves in the mediocre middle so that the contrast is not that great if something terrible happens. The problem is you lose out on the peaks. Mediocrity is one of the greatest crimes against the human condition because I believe no human being is made to live in mediocrity. I mean this, not just in a Pollyannish way. I’ve met people from all walks of life who stand out in a certain way.Mediocrity is one of the greatest crimes against the human condition. Click To Tweet
Think about working in a school in Detroit. It was a school where the superintendent was going around in an armored vehicle. I go in and think, “How did I get here? What am I doing here?” The principal then sends this little boy to walk me to the place where I’m supposed to give a talk. He walks next to me. He was a Black child in America. He looked at me and went, “I’ve never seen anyone look like you.” I said, “If you go around, you might be able to see more people like me. I’m not the only person.”
As he walks around, he goes, “I got into trouble with my teacher yesterday.” I said, “What happened?” He goes, “I cracked a joke, and the whole class laughed, and my teacher said, ‘You’re going to detention.’” I said, “I understand your teacher thought you were distracting but what if you’re the greatest comedian on Earth? What if you entertain the possibility that the effect that you had might be an indication of your talent?”
He kept quiet and walked in. He folded his arms. I said, “Why? Are you going back to your class?” He said, “I’m not going anywhere.” I said, “Why?” He said, “I think you can help me.” He got up onto this ledge, and I said, “You come in, and (you have) got to go do that.” “I’m not going anywhere.” It was heartwarming to see people feel the spark of possibility within themselves. If they pay attention to it, they allow it to grow. Paying attention to your intuition is essential.
The one underlying principle is fear. There’s a common approach that I generally recommend. It’s a free download of an app that I created called CIRCA. What it stands for is C for Chunking. If you’re overwhelmed by the possibility, break it down, “What will I do in the next week or month?” I is for Ignore mental chatter, which is a form of mindfulness. Sometimes all the thinking in the world can get you somewhere, like if you sit back in your chair, close your eyes and focus on your breath. If your mind wanders, you gently bring it back to your breath like a flashlight.
It helps you think it decreases activation. One of the brain’s main anxiety centers is the amygdala. It helps calm your brain down. The reality check is you suddenly get bad news. Someone says, “I’m sorry, I turned down this investment. You’re not going to get the money or this opportunity.” There’s no way you can make that positive, but you can say, “This too shall pass,” because disappointments don’t have to live with you forever.
The second C is the Control Check. It is, “What can I control and not control? I can control applying for that job. I can control whether I’m going to get it or not. I can be the best that I can be.” The A’s for Attention shift is, “How do I shift my attention from the problem? I’m not getting anywhere. I have no money. I don’t have the place that I want to live in?” How do you shift it from that to the solution where you start saying, “Let me envision what it is I want. Let me start imagining what that solution is?” By using each of those steps, you can decrease the fear and, as a result, enhance your sense of possibility.
I’m curious about your life. You were pretty young when you started breaking barriers of circle and possibility. Can you take us back to a moment that appeared to be impossible? We are both South African born and bred. We grew up in the same town. We both lived through an Apartheid era. Could you share with us either an example from that era? Going to Stellenbosch University was also a breakthrough moment for you. Can you take us back specifically? What example? What was the context? How difficult was it for you at that time?
Memory is unreliable. The things we remember are the stories that we want to hold on to. As Roger Federer said, he can succeed at tennis because he has excellent short-term memory loss when it comes to his losses. What he does is when he has a bad time, he thinks of it and puts it aside because he’s got to open up brain space for how to win. My internal sensation about what was difficult is that, objectively, there were things that were difficult during Apartheid.
My memory of it is biased because I had such a loving family. I left South Africa and was in South Africa probably because I had a mother who led by example, which was by love. She loved everybody of every race in a very unusual way (not like regular people) which is a deeply loving person. That probably influenced me to want to lead with love. That’s not to say, “I don’t dislike people, or that people (sometimes) don’t drive me crazy.” That happens.
I think that leading with love was an essential piece of my experience. As a result, my memory of my upbringing was very positive, partly because of what you’re referring to, which are some barriers I felt I broke through. One of my early barriers happened in high school when I was the first person of color to be placed in the English Olympiad. When I took the English Olympiad, people said, “Don’t even try. There’s never been a single person of Indian descent who was placed in this.”
“Why shouldn’t that try?” South African poetry is a big ontology. They ask very unusual questions, which were not like about the poems themselves. They ask, “Can you construct a screenplay based on ten of your favorite poems?” It gave me a chance to be creative. When I was placed in English Olympiad, I remember thinking, “This is remarkable. How amazing it was?” The prize was to go to Grahamstown (University), where I interacted with everyone else who was White. It was unusual.
What was unusual about it was how well we got along with them in whatever the stereotype was of these different sides. My early experience was that the people in the world might be lazy to change a policy or blind about the effects of a policy, but people, in general, had pretty good hearts. That was one of the earlier things that I remember. I also remember, after medical school, standing at a conference at the Kruger National Park, a (wildlife) game reserve. I had been to a talk by Robin Emsley, a professor at Stellenbosch. I was swept off my feet.
He was remarkable when I spoke to him. I looked at him and had an instinct. This is another thing that I’d want to encourage people to pay attention to. I told him, “I came to your talk, and it was pretty amazing.” He said, “Thank you. I appreciate it.” I said, “I have an instinct, and I know this will sound unusual, but I have a feeling that you could say something that could change my life and if he would be willing to engage me in that.”
He laughed and said, “What are you interested in?” I said, “I’m super interested in how the brain works, the connection between that and mental health in the body.” He said, “We have a fellowship that’s due tomorrow. If you can get it to me, I’ll walk it across the street among the committee, but we’ve never given it to a person of color or in psychiatry. The chances of you getting it are very low, but if you get it, it will change your life.”
I broke a lot of rules. In South Africa, they had all these rules. You could have to line up, book the fax machine and ask for permission. I went straight in, sent everything, and it caused a big ruckus (stir). Everyone’s like, “This is not okay. But it’s not illegal. I needed to do something. I wasn’t committing a crime. I was sending a fax.” He took it across; then I got a call saying, “Congratulations and welcome to Stellenbosch (university).” I was the first person of color in that department.
What year was that in the context of Apartheid? Stellenbosch was a very unique White university primarily for Afrikaans-speaking people.
In general and temporarily disoriented, it was about 1992. That was a fantastic experience. When I went to Stellenbosch, it was all white South African people. I thought I had a very liberal diet because I ate everything, pork or beef. When I went, I saw ostrich and reindeer. My mind was blown. When I’d sit in the dining hall, everyone was speaking Afrikaans. I happen to love Afrikaans as a language aesthetically. I spoke it as a second language growing up. I quickly picked it up and decided, “I’m not going to sit in a corner by myself. Let me go up to this table.”
One day, I went up to everybody. I said in broken African, “I’m going to speak to you in Afrikaans, but please correct me so I can get better quickly.” Immediately, I made a whole lot of friends. We spent some of the most amazing days of my life (remembering that you were in Cape Town); all of them were White, but my white friends were not all my Stellenbosch friends worldwide. I made friends of other races in other places. It was a very remarkable year. That was the year I suddenly remembered that I had a professor from New York University in my final exam at the University of Natal.
I have done well in Psychiatry. He said, “You should be at Harvard.” I didn’t even know where Harvard was. I was planning to go to Cambridge at the time and was thinking, “I’ll take this year in Stellenbosch and think a little bit. If I went to England, I wouldn’t have to retake my medical exams.” One day I was sitting in my tiny dorm room. Suddenly, I thought, “What’s this Harvard thing? I should call and see.” At that time, I didn’t have a computer to access the internet. I will go to different exchanges at the university.
I got through to the Harvard University main campus, which is a very sad (South) African thing. I always joke about it. I don’t know any other country where people say when angry, in quite this way, “I want to speak to the manager.” Thinking of that, I thought, “Why don’t I speak to the head of Harvard? I’ll go straight to him and say, ‘Will you take me?’” I called, and they thought it was crazy. They eventually said that’s the Harvard University campus. They put my call through to the Medical school.
The medical school put me through to the Department of Psychiatry. Serendipitously, the Department of Psychiatry head picked up the phone because his secretary had stepped away from her desk, and he happened to be there. I said, “I’m sitting in a small dorm room in South Africa thinking, why wouldn’t it be great to be at Harvard?” I thought to myself, you and everybody else are thinking that, but I’ve done well at school. I was the top medical student. I told him my results in general and where I was at.
At the time that I, all I could do was be decent. I said, “Send me your CV and a letter. I’ll circulate it.” I’ve got this note asking if I would be willing to have an interview with Jonathan Cole on the phone. I was interviewed by Jonathan Cole, the Father of Psychopharmacology; then I got a FedEx saying, “Congratulations, welcome to Harvard.” For me, that was such an incredible revelation. There are a lot of people who do well at school, but not everybody there is to think that something is possible.
You have to do well, necessarily. Think about people whom I admire, like Tom Ford, for example. He did well but had to disguise some of his background to advance as a fashion designer. This is a lesson about it mattered to me to do well. That taught me that ‘possibility thinking’ is about anchoring to this vision. When you anchor to an individual vision and explore it, you’re either going to get it or you won’t. It’s not a disaster if you don’t. If you don’t, think again, “How else can I get to that vision?” There have been many things I feel like I’ve failed at in my life. I subscribe to this idea of having short-term memory for the things you feel so you can learn from it, move on and open up brain space to try to realize these possibilities.Practice having short-term memory for the things you've failed at. So you can learn from it, move on, and open up more brain space. Click To Tweet
There are wonderful stories and what does strike me is how your mother was such a remarkable role model, a loving person in your life who, in your words, granted you this permission to be anything you want it to be. You also alluded to the fact that you are blessed with a very good brain. What would you say to the many people who perhaps haven’t been as blessed and fortunate to have had that affirming role model and parental care in their life? What would you say to people that aren’t necessarily gifted with the same academic excellence that you have been?
I will say two things. 1) Being a psychiatrist, having worked with many children and adolescents. The literature says that adverse life experiences harm later performance. 2) They say it can be difficult if you don’t have parents who love you that way. Those things are true in general. I’ve seen many people who’ve had horrific parenting who have succeeded. I’ve seen many people who have not had the ability to respond to tests the way that I did find a way to find their special intelligence and connect it to what they’re doing to succeed in their lives. It’s important not to let your limitations dictate your success. Your limitations should signal that you need to look for where your strengths are so that you can take yourself to a different place in your life.
It brings me to the other concept I love about ‘existential confidence.’ Could you share with us what that is? How do we develop that? Have you developed that?
I want to admit that as much as I’m optimistic in this conversation and reflecting on the positive things in my life, I have lots of dark moments. I have moments where I feel doubtful and annoyed because I have an idea and feel like somebody doesn’t get it. I wondered, “Why wouldn’t they want to fund it?” I want to humanize that for a minute.
In terms of existential confidence, this is a concept John Selman and I have come up with together. By definition, existential confidence is a commitment to a possibility that is not yet a reality with all belief that you can deliver on that possibility, even if you have not delivered on it in the past. It’s a commitment to living your life in a way that does not reflect that you’re concerned that something is threatening and looming around every corner.Existential confidence is a commitment to a possibility that is not yet a reality. Click To Tweet
It might sound unrealistic to someone reading this, like, “What are you talking about? I live in a part of the world with threats everywhere. There are gunshots.” I grew up in a part of Durban, South Africa, where there was that element. I grew up in a building with 100 stairs and no elevator. Gangsters were hanging around the back stairs. I also grew up with a mother who taught me to respect everyone.
When I saw drunken gangsters heading my way, reeking of alcohol or doing something, she would always say, “Always remember that that is a human being. Whatever you’re seeing is a reflection of something happening in their lives.” As a child, I grew up with Rudyard Kipling’s “If” on my wall: “If you can walk with kings and lose the common touch.” I feel like it’s such an essential element for me to recognize that we all belong in the world.
Belonging is fundamental to existential confidence. The world doesn’t belong more to a rich person than a poor person, color, or intellectual person. You are the world. My feeling at a physiological level is not that we’re in, though. The boundaries between us in the world are pretty permeable. If we begin to feel what that is, we will allow whatever is in the world to affect and influences us. What has been genuinely magical about my life, as I don’t feel, has been due to an effort to pursue that, but it’s been an effort to surrender. It’s the kind of surrender that allows you to see the world differently. It’s a balance between that and execution. That’s part of the success that can come from existential confidence.
How do you surrender?
In a very literal way, meditation has been very helpful to me throughout my life. I like martinis. My Twitter profile is somewhere between martinis and meditation. Surrender around people you trust so you can explore the reaches of your mind. It’s a part of surrendering. Surrendering in your personal relationships, where you realize it when you fall in love, you might try not to fall in love, but you surrender to what that is, and it becomes what it is.
There are tangible and intellectual ways in which you can surrender. Part of it is knowing what you can and cannot control, then determining that the things you cannot control, you cannot control. In the way I’m talking, Rendering has a lot to do with letting your mind stay afloat and being in a state of what kids called negative capability, which is the ability to stand in chaos without the irritability reaching after fact and reason.
If you’re faced with something, and someone’s insulting you about something, you react to it. You can say, “This person is upset. I don’t understand.” I remember once when I first went online many years ago; I was publishing exciting science. I essentially was sharing with the world, “Look at this study. It’s an interesting study and intercessory prayer. It showed that it helped treatment.” This person went, “I cannot believe you’re a Harvard physician. You perpetuating this nonsense about God. You should be struck off the register. People like you are cooks.”
I remember it was my first foray online. I thought, “It’s such an unsafe place. Why is this person upset? I want to engage this question.” I said, “It’s pretty clear you’re angry. I understand you’re angry because you deeply do not believe in God. You feel I’m perpetuating this myth you deeply do not believe in. Here’s an article.” I critiqued it. I said, “The sample sizes should be larger. We probably should have more replication to understand this effect. What do you have against sharing a preliminary pilot study?”
We went back and forth. He started with incredible insults. After a couple of days, back and forth, he announced to his world. He had recruited a bunch of people to come and attack me on the site. He said, “This guy is not that bad. He’s just misled. He is trying to share what he wants to share.” I could have hit back and said, “Who are you to tell me what to believe or what?” I was listening to what he said. It’s not unreasonable to me that someone thinks something different than I think. I wish we lived in a world where people understood more that having a different political or medical opinion is not a reason to attack someone. A debate is a foundation for respectful communication. I wish our world would recover this capacity to be inspired enough to debate rather than attack.Debate is a foundation for respectful communication. Click To Tweet
You made such an important point because you’re such an incredible role model of somebody who has accomplished much. To come back to your point about humanizing, do you have a moment that has been tough where perhaps these learn skills, insights, and understandings haven’t kicked in? Is there an example that has been tough for you? What was that? What were the emotions at the time? What was that light bulb moment that helped you pivot out of that?
I have poor short-term memory for adverse events, but one got reactivated. A friend in London wrote to me about this exhibit she had been at and said, “How are you bringing in the new year?” I said, “With mixed feelings. I feel extremely excited about a metamorphosis that I’m interested in engaging in. I don’t even know what it will be, but I’m very dedicated to it. I also feel the acute loss of my mother, who died a few years ago.”
I’m only realizing that I feel a little unhinged that it is confusing because for ten years before she died, I kept worrying about what if I got up and she died. Every morning was torture. I would get myself out of that torture and move on to the rest of the day, but I was always getting up with this feeling of, “Is she around?” I hated that she had left this world when she died, but I no longer had to worry about whether she would die.
Kierkegaard said, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” The freedom of not worrying left me unhinged. I am looking to understand whether it is possible to engage in neural pruning so that I don’t just invent worries to replace that worry or whether I should give in to the fact that my mother may not be on Earth, which is never going to leave my memory and the essence of my being.
For me, feeling unhinged is difficult, especially when I want to be innovative because to be innovative, you’ve got to be a little unhinged, but you don’t want to be unhinged in a way that makes you lose your respect for your constraints. I’ve lost that many times in my life. I feel like there’s no way I would have moved through life without multiple regrets. I believe that the loss of my mother is one example that I want to figure out how to deal with because it’s not just the loss of her. Still, it’s the loss of worry about her and then living in this guilt-free zone of getting to the next level, even though I feel her around me all the time. I feel her presence in my being.
It’s up to me to figure out how to realize what I call our fundamental nature. I think of myself as polytheistic. In the Hindu tradition, one of the ideas that appeal to me is the notion that is Sat-Cit-Ananda, which translates to being, consciousness, and bliss. Our fundamental nature is consciousness. I feel suffering is a distraction from our fundamental nature. This is my hypothesis. Suffering is compelling because it’s compelling when you don’t have money and lose something. Most people would say, “That’s realistic.”
As much as realism has a certain appeal, imagination is the building block of a different future. I want my imagination to be tied to my fundamental nature so it can source from bliss rather than from suffering because when you try to imagine a new source from suffering, you build even beautiful things. Still, you build it from the substrates of suffering. Where you source from bliss, you’re sourcing from an element of consciousness that you believe transcends the material nature of your body. That may be more than you asked for. That was my thought flow as I was thinking about how to deal with such difficult losses.
I’m sorry about your loss. I know how significant your mother is in your life. What would you say to people struggling to cover their basic needs in life? How would you respond to those people when we are privileged and don’t have to worry about Maslow’s basic hierarchy of needs, whether we have shelter, food, or safety? It’s very difficult to deal with the fundamentals of not having those basic needs met. How do you think one can cope with a sense of danger of loss, of trauma?
There are many ways. I don’t think my way is the right way. I can tell you how I would recommend people do it. The reason I would recommend it is that I’m biased. I feel like it worked for me. I don’t think of myself as privileged. I think of myself and other people as human beings. I tend to operate from the plane of coexistence and love. The modern language of privilege doesn’t appeal to me because it pulls you out of a transcendental consciousness.Don't think of yourself as privileged; think of yourself as a human being that operates from a plane of coexistence and love. Click To Tweet
I lived in a family where my father would know where the next round would come from, but I was protected from it with my mother’s love. Maybe that was the privilege at the moment, but there were times when we were not well off. When I saw very wealthy people, my attitude toward them was not, “You’re privileged, and I’m not. I don’t like you because you don’t understand me.” I saw them as a symbol and as an aspiration.
You have hit rock bottom when you are in a place where you have nothing. There’s nowhere else to go. Do we have to go better? To me, what helps is to look at people who have more than you, have aspirational find people who truly love, and say, “That person has much, but I love something about them.” Some people have gazillions of dollars more than me in many different ways materially, but the one thing that my father always taught me is he would emphasize education. I was a neurotic child, so people always laughed with him.
They would say, “You’re not even telling him to study.” I had something where I felt like I had to save myself or something. He would always say, “The one thing no one’s going to be able to take away from you is your education and the feelings you authentically develop.” I am guarded about my happiness because I consider it an essential source from which I build the rest of my life. I always tell people, “Your brain is not a trash can. If somebody treats it like a trash can, say, ‘Sorry, wrong place. Find another trash (can).’ Your brain is a garden that grows beautiful flowers, metaphorically. Ideas can grow.”
It’s helpful if you’re in a state where you do not have anything. The thing about possibility thinking is it’s different from probability thinking. Probability thinking is, ‘what’s the likelihood that I’m going to get wealthy?’ It cannot be high. It is from a poorer area. You didn’t have a loving mother and what you wanted. The people who make it in life do not think about probabilities. They’re people who think in terms of possibilities.
I said this about the father of a friend who got a massive stroke. She was a medical student of mine. She subsequently graduated. She called me and said, “My dad had a stroke. Can you please help me?” She’s the most brilliant medical student I’ve ever worked with. I went through and said, “What do you think.” “They can do something, but they’ve got crap criteria where they’re going to stop treating him. We need to figure something out.”
The head of the department called me and said, “I know you’ve come to help her, but he’s too far gone. The best thing for the family is to say goodbye to him.” I said, “Can you tell me what are the chances?” He said, “There’s a 1 in 1 million chance.” I said, “ That’s great. Let’s let him be the one. What are we going to do to let him be the one?”
There was a lot of hardship dealing with the department and people. Many people disliked me because they wanted me to align with the hopelessness about that case, and I didn’t because I felt like I owed it to her. He ended up living for many more years. He ended up walking and talking because there was one thing that he could do.
If you don’t come from means, remember, it is unlikely in the world of probability, but if you live with a sense of possibility, you have already told your brain’s GPS or navigator. When you say to your brain’s navigator, “Something is possible,” it stays on. It tries to figure out how it’s going to do it. When you say, “That’s impossible.” It says, “Thank you. Good night. I’m going to sleep. I’m not going to figure it out.” The first commitment is to a sense of possibility. Once you have that commitment of a sense of possibility, recognize that you are not defined by where you are. You are defined by where you can be.
How do you relate that to hope? What do you think is the relationship between that possibility, mindset, and hope?
Hope on its own is a little empty because hope is simply wishing that something would happen and then not doing anything about it. My brother did this in a very literal way once. He went to school, and my mom told him, “Don’t worry. God will help you with your test.” He didn’t study for it. He put his pencil down. He kept on falling and put the pencil down. He came home and said, “I failed.” My mother said, “Why didn’t you?” “You said God will help me. God did nothing.”
Hope is simply saying, “I wish that something would happen.” Possibility thinking is about committing to a vision and then acting in the service of that vision, while hope can be helpful. In addition, hoping without acting is less likely to be valuable, which it can. Still, at least hoping activates a sudden multifactorial intelligence and opens the pathways to something. I would recommend being aware of acting on that hope or the possibility.Brain Science: Wired for Success with Dr. Srini Pillay in the USA Click To Tweet
Turning to somebody we both admire significantly, in his left greatly in the world, said it always seems impossible until it is done. Can you share a Mandela Moment for you, a moment that takes us back to when something about his life as leadership was significant for you?
There are many things about him as a human being and a significant leader. The characteristic that most strikes me is his ability to be a catalyst. He was a catalyst of transformational change against an established order to overturn that order into a system that strove to be fairer and live at a higher level of human consciousness.
In that regard, are you talking about transforming from an old Apartheid autocracy into a modern state of democracy?
That’s right. I don’t think that job has been done by any means. It’s still in development. What had been done was the catalytic process. When I think about the things that I’ve done that have catalyzed, I think about other people I see in my coaching practice where their lives have gone precisely from having pretty ordinary middle-class lives into having $50 million to hundreds of millions of dollars through conversations but honestly, I feel like the basic ingredient is love and respect. Then they get a chance to open up things within themselves. I feel very privileged to be able to do that.
I feel that dealing with patients over the years and being able to help them see hope in themselves. I’d seen someone in a bed for one year, and everybody wanted to dump medications on her. She felt like what she wanted to do was to give up and stay in a halfway house. The parents wanted her to stay in a halfway house. I believed in her because I saw the brilliance of her art. I said, “I’m going to stand steady.”
She sent me her portfolio that she was applying to St. Martins. She said, “Can you give me your comments?” I said, “This is phenomenal. I have no comments.” She said, “Thank you for believing in me.” For me, the catalytic process is being able to be a doctor or a coach and experience what that is. At a personal level in my career, I am trying to catalyze something to which I’m meeting an incredible amount of resistance.
I’m a doctor. I also am an executive coach and a leadership development expert. I’m also a musician. I wrote a musical and founded two tech companies. I don’t want to be defined by any of those things. I find them all interchangeable in my head. I have always been related to music and Math. There’s this way of speaking in the world that’s increasingly concrete. This relates to my greatest passion. my greatest passion is decreasing the incidence of chronic disease and improving the quality of life and longevity.
I used to run an anxiety disorders program. I feel like I know a decent amount about stress and anxiety. I feel pretty convinced from the research that we need to prevent stress and anxiety in a scalable and reliable way to prevent adverse changes in genes because we have a lot of evidence to show that when stress and anxiety impact your genes negatively, it can result in cancer, heart disease, stroke, and neurodegenerative disease.When stress and anxiety impact your genes negatively, it can result in cancer, heart disease, stroke, and neurodegenerative disease. Click To Tweet
We’re at a point of fundraising for the company. There are very few people who even think this is important. Everybody thinks, “You should treat disease after it sets in.” The process I am trying to be catalytic about is saying, “No. Can we do this ten years before the disease sets in? Can we do this in a place and be focused on a place where this can change?” Few people think that’s important, “Stress and anxiety, it’s just you feeling a little freaked out.” It’s like, “No, look at the Blue Zones Project, where people live until 100 years old and are healthy. What are 1 of the 9 factors contributing to that regular downshifting?”
Only 10% of the world meditates. What’s the other 90% of people going to do? I’m developing these algorithms for designing nature-based, geometric and self-reorganizing paradigms. How psychedelics, used medically, can help reorganize the brain to yourself. I’m using science-based principles to inform how the art will be constructed in the metaverse to democratize access to stress prevention to improve the quality of life and disease.
That’s where my catalytic efforts are. I’m interested in truly changing people’s minds about the fact that people know superficially that prevention is better than cure, but they don’t want to fund that. They’re used to making money from creating cures after diseases said it. I ask, “Why would you want to create a whole center?” If I had $1 billion, I would create a multidisciplinary center where the best people in their fields would gather to exchange ideas. I don’t think the subsequent significant advances in quality or length of life will come from medicine alone. It’s going to be cross fields. For me, that’s a super important place where I would like my catalytic energy to go.
Coming back to what you saw in Mandela as a catalyst, is there a particular moment you can recall that inspired you in terms of your catalytic capabilities and development?
I don’t think I can help myself. I’m a rebel at my core (Mandela was too). It’s an exciting combination of being a rebel and a lover. I feel those are two identities or archetypes that I identify with. It’s less about a moment and more about ongoing development. There’s something more intuitive that interests me in the world. The thing that is beyond immediate perception. Perception is very fault in some ways. We don’t hear what bats hear. Many things are beyond. You can’t hear what dogs hear. You don’t see what bats can see.
Interestingly, we believe in our perception so much. I find perception is a very limited way of defining reality. My profound interest in consciousness and what is going on in this relationship between us and the world contributes most to what’s going on. My curiosity is off the charts. I’m about to relaunch my Instagram page with a different tagline, which will ruffle people’s feathers. It is, “Indulgence is underrated.”
We live in a world where people are talking about conservation in ways that make a lot of sense and are modest in a certain way. They’re not daring. They’re not believing that they’re negative. I have a deep suspicion that the degree of this negativity is not independent of suicide being the second highest cause of death in people between the ages of 15 and 25 or around that age group. I looked at the literature on indulgence.
How would you define indulgence? Before we go into that, take us through your definition of consciousness.
I think of consciousness as our fundamental nature, both within and without us. Consciousness is a goal. The goal is our fundamental nature. Is it related to the brain? Yes. Is it related to how we think and feel? Yes. Is it only that? No. I think of indulgence as the ability to spoil yourself from time to time, which is the most superficial definition. What I think about it is the ability to stretch yourself beyond the limits of what you think you can enjoy so you can get a taste metaphorically of heaven that you might not have tasted previously.
That word repels people because they feel like it means greed or some over-involvement in something. With anything that I say, there are balances that 1 or 2 have. When I look around, I don’t see people being inspired by indulgence except those who think they can. When you have few means, you can find a way to indulge.
I don’t know why this example came to mind. When we didn’t have money, and I lived in this flat in Durban, South Africa, I remember when we used to bite through the apricots. We used to get to the seed and rub it against the wall until we got a whistle. We will all stand together, use it as a whistle, and try to make music. That’s a very indulgent way of eating an apricot. It’s not just cutting it and putting it aside.
That’s a great example in a humble way because many people tend to conjure up in their mind this image of indulgence as being luxurious and ostentatious living.
I like nice things. I like the idea of living in luxury. I’ll always want to aspire to enhance my life and share it with the people I love. I would encourage anybody within my consciousness sphere to join me in that. The more you can enjoy that with other people, the more amazing it is. Another thing is that I feel like I’m not getting enough traction in the catalytic space because I’m very interested in kids, in general, and helping them have a sense of possibility.
I started thinking I’d be interested in kids because, aesthetically, there’s something about them that pleases me. I have all kinds of music that I like. I have a hip-hop personality somewhere inside me. I think about that related to street culture that appeals to me, but I thought, “Why would you want only to support poor kids and not rich kids?” I’ve met plenty of rich kids who are sad.
I became a doctor. As a doctor, I should help anyone who is in need of help. The messaging that’s around us is not so much about the possibility. It’s about fear and being modest in what you want. I want to be a different voice in the world. I want to be a voice that encourages the sense of possibility with a sense of abundance that connects you with the bliss that I believe is this consciousness that is your true nature.
Turning to a few fun facts about you, you have this exciting connection with Mathematics and music. Before we came on, I listened to your beautiful piece, and You Can Be Anything. What for you is the gift of music? Why this incredible piece of work around writing this musical?
People would often say music is the language of emotion. It is a way of capturing or representing the way we feel. In the spirit operational world, emotions are very compartmentalized. It’s like you can’t be emotional at work. Music is a beautiful way to open the cage, so your emotions feel freer. “Dance Of The Psyche,” the musical I’ve written, which I’m putting together because I want to pitch it to be on the Westend (in London) and Broadway (in New York), is about a young man’s coming of age.Music is the language of emotion. It's a way of capturing and representing the way people feel. Click To Tweet
Part of the musical is about his relationships with people in his life, and the other half is about the characters in his head. Half of the characters are all his good side. The other half are the doubts, the paradoxes, and the dark side. The musical is about his journey through his life, but I also show the sword fights between these different elements and how the light side wins at the end of the first act. He feels very free in his new moral being, but he also feels empty because he does not have his denying and disavowing his shadows.
I’ve never met a human being who has no shadow or darkness. We struggle with this on a day-to-day basis. I wanted to be able to show this on stage. I love that I’m associated with it, but I feel like it came through me. I feel grateful for whatever the source of that music is because I was able to translate it and want to give it to the world. I want to take responsibility for it, but I sense it’s not (from) me.
I can’t wait to be at that opening night. I’m curious in terms of that musical. What do you think has been your light side regarding the archetypes you’ve created? What do you think has been your dark side that has been your challenge to overcome?
My light side has a lot to do with my lovingness and curiosity. I work extremely hard. I don’t look like that to people who meet me. When they see me drinking a martini or hanging out, I enjoy them much because there’s something about the work that allows those two martinis to feel indulgent when they happen. My dark side has something to do with that same kind of lovingness. Somebody asked me if I described myself as a hashtag; what would I describe myself as? I said, “#SlutForLife?” They said, “What do you mean?” I said, “There’s something about being drawn to an incredible life. You feel motivated in the world and excited, but then you come across the edge, the gate to your impulses.”
Much of the darkness has to do with when those gates closed and opened. An exhibit in the National (museum) in London, Lucian Freud, a notorious character. A friend of mine sent me the link and was right up in the New York Times and said, “You should go to this to this exhibit.” I clicked on the link and was like, “I’m not sure about this.” I love the art, but it’s a little intimidating. I feel like I’ve got my gates well under control. Let’s talk about an indulgent character. He had fourteen children. He slept with everybody. He painted controversial people.
It’s very hard not to be controversial in those ways. If you think about being free in the world and wanting to have a stable life but also knowing that you have these liberal impulses. Liberal impulses always present themselves as excitement and darkness. You don’t want to deny or suppress them. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali offer an exciting alternative. In the second sutra, they recommend that the restraint of the modification of the mind-stuff is Yoga, but that restraint is not suppression or repression.
I’m trying to deal with what those ideas are. I’ve had times when I’ve indulged. I’ve been regretful, and then I restrained myself. I realized, “The mystery to discover is that which is restrained but not repression or suppression but an acknowledgment of those impulses.” It starts with an acknowledgment of those impulses. Once you know your impulses, you can find a way to navigate the world.
New York has been such a big part of your life and identity. What in New York isn’t an indulgent moment that gives you incredible joy in this passion for life?
The first thing that comes to mind is the smells on the street. I once went to New Orleans, which I love very much. Someone said to me, “What was it like?” I said, “The smells were not like New York.”
How do you describe them?
They are primitive and historic, yet ongoing and changing. The openness of the architecture, the energy, and the buzz of the people in the streets, there’s something about the energy of New York that genuinely appeals to me. I spent most of my life in Boston and enjoyed that as well, but I visited New York and suddenly realized, “What am I doing denying that I want to live here?” Also, the varieties of people. When I first came here, I told people, “There’s the theoretical racism or nonracism, which is cognitive; you’re not racist towards certain people.”
When you come to New York, the idea of appreciating races is not to become nonracist. It’s sexy because there are so many people from everywhere in the world. It’s amazing to see how you share this consciousness but express it differently. New York is one of those places that puts you into that frame of mind. My cousin said to me, “It’s funny. You live in a fancy part of New York, but I see you on the streets. If you’re revisiting where you grew up, you’re at home at last.” I lived in a suburban home for a while. It was very ‘nice,’ which is why we moved there. Being back in the street is a very enlightening feeling.
When you talk about the sexiness of New York, are you alluding to these cosmopolitan differences, this melting pot of people?
Yes. I’m also alluding to the interactivity and the lack of self-consciousness. There isn’t a kind of like a political, “Isn’t it great that we’re cosmopolitan? It’s wonderful that we have many races here?” People don’t see that. They come in and interact with you as a being. To me, that is such an ideal in terms of how I would like to interact in the world.
Talking about how we interact in the world, for you at this moment and juncture, given all this remarkable work you’re doing and expressing it in very different transformational ways, what are the biggest leadership challenges? Let’s go back to the beginning and your definition of leadership and Warren Bennis. In your mind, in the world, what are the biggest challenges that we’re facing? What would be your final words around how we, as humanity, can address those challenges to reach the possibility of what we would like to create?
At a physiological level, the studies show that post-pandemic, there’s a heightened degree of neuroinflammation, even in people who have not had COVID. This correlates with a sense of fatigue, not feeling well, ill ease, brain fog, anger, and irritability. The biggest challenge we’re facing is daring to believe in a better future and being able to see across conventional definitions of who we are, our race, and our political party and turning to rebellion as the only resource without turning to love. I fully understand people who prefer not to be that way. My feeling is that love is the greatest power that exists on Earth. We’re giving up the opportunity to love and discover the power of loving in dismantling the things we want to dismantle. The greatest challenge is daring to believe and love.
What would be your final takeaways and message for people who do want to break that pattern and move into a realm of possibility?
I would first say to dare to know and express yourself. The second thing is to dare to believe. The third thing is to dare to strive for the highest good for yourself. The next thing I would say is something I always like to leave people with: “You live, die, and do something in between. Make it matter.” Those are two guiding principles for me that have always been helpful because standing on a pedestal, having a philosophy, doing a certain job, and having a point of view are all lovely things. What matters is that you feel like your life matters. I don’t think it has to matter because you’re being of service or doing something. As Aristotle said, “You know when something matters because it makes you feel like it matters.”
It’s been such a blessing to get to know you. I love your work. I applaud you for doing so much that does matter. I can’t wait to be part of what happens next. Thank you so much for being with us.
Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.
Talking to Dr. Srini Pillay helps us dig deeper into the brain’s power, brain science, and how to be wired for success. Our human brain is a complex master organ. It is the chief executive officer of our human mind and body. What struck me the most is that to exercise leadership, we can and must understand and leverage the power of the human brain to develop bigger and better thinking.
Our brains are not trashcans. Instead, they are beautiful gardens to be nourished and cherished to grow. To retrain our brain to rewire for success, we can and must 1) Dare to believe. We become what we think. 2) We must commit to and anchor ourselves to a vision of possibility. 3) When we come up against obstacles, we need to relegate those obstacles to short-term memory. We take what we learn, rethink, open up new possibilities, and then move on.
We must distinguish between probability thinking (the chances of something happening), hope, a wish for something to happen, and possibility thinking, a commitment to anchor to a future vision. Probability thinking is helpful because it opens up pathways for future possibilities. Hope is helpful, too, because it also opens up pathways. Ultimately, possibility thinking is a commitment. It is a service to a vision. We ACT ourselves into possibility.
Remember that leading boldly is about making thoughtful, clear choices. Bold leadership is about taking bold action, just one small step at a time. One step for you but together is a giant step for humanity. Come back soon and share with your friends because the world needs you to lead boldly. Until next time, take care and take thoughtful bold action.
- Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders
- Wired For Success: The Science of Possibility – YouTube
- Instagram – @DrSriniPillay
About Dr. Srini Pillay
Dr. Srini Pillay is a brain science innovator who applies his training, research and experience in medicine, psychiatry, biotechnology, brain science and music to the development of innovative services and technology in the health and leadership development sectors.