327: Unclog Your Brain through Unfocusing with Dr. Srini Pillay

By August 1, 2018Podcasts

 

Dr. Srini Pillay shares why focus is over-rated and how unfocusing yields boosts to creativity and more.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The five disadvantages of focus
  2. How hobbies and whole days off re-energize your brain
  3. The types of thinking that activate your creative brain

About Srini

Dr. Srini Pillay is a globally recognized, Harvard-trained psychiatrist, brain imaging researcher and author of Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind. As CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, he works with non-profits and Fortune 500 companies globally to help people understand how to manage risk, uncertainty, and volatility, and to harness creativity. He is an in-demand keynote speaker and has been featured on CNN, Oprah Radio, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Forbes, and Fortune.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Dr. Srini Pillay Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Srini, thanks so much for joining us here on How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Srini Pillay

Thanks for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, you wear a lot of hats, and one of them that’s pretty interesting right now is you’re writing a musical. What is the story behind how you started with this and what’s it about?

Srini Pillay

The musical’s actually a love project of mine that I’m pretty serious about. My vision is to have it be on Broadway. I’m a trained musician, so I do have a background in music. And I had been studying jazz piano when all of a sudden I had the literal thought of wanting to find my voice. And I decided I wanted to exchange seats with my piano teacher and start singing improvisationally. And so I did. And one thing led to another, and all of a sudden I realized that there were all these things in my head that wanted to come out, that I was only churning out through planned processes.
And so I decided to just let a bunch of songs happen, and so composed the words and music to them. Last year I composed about 40 songs, and this year I’m going back into them, reworking them, and have fashioned what came out into a story that I think wanted to be told. And the title of the musical is Dance of the Psyche, and it’s about a young man’s existential plight and evolution through his adolescence and into his adulthood, recognizing that parsing everything into black and white is not always life’s best answer, that sometimes the gray is.
And there’s a definitive narrative that I don’t necessarily want to spoil, through which the music takes us. So, for me it was a love project as it incorporated not just my background in music, but because probably close to 50% of the musical is actually psychological construct singing, it gave me a lot of creative energy to think about human psychology and then to imagine what characters like Paradox or Anxiety might like to sing. So that’s the story behind it.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh boy. Well, I think you have a hit on your hands. And if I could be so bold as to ask you to get a comp ticket before they cost $300, because I really want to see it. And what I’m thinking of right now is the movie Inside Out, which was a hit, and really was quite fascinating how they gave character and life to these emotions. Have you seen it? Did you enjoy Inside Out?

Srini Pillay

I didn’t see it. Everybody talked about it.

Pete Mockaitis

You’re going to love it.

Srini Pillay

Yeah. No, I’m excited and you’ve got that ticket.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, thank you. I’m just getting a little bit more bold. While you’re on the spot, I’m just going to demand things from you. [laugh] If I could keep you on the spot for a bit, would it be too much to ask if you could sing one line for us, just to wet the appetite?

Srini Pillay

There are so many lines to think about. When Paradox introduces himself, he says, [singing] I am Paradox / the torture of contradiction. And this here is Clarity / my enemy.

Pete Mockaitis

“My enemy”. So there’s already a conflict, some tension to be worked through there. Well, thank you. Thanks for playing along.

Srini Pillay

Sure.

Pete Mockaitis

So now, tell us a little bit – your company is The NeuroBusiness Group. What do you do?

Srini Pillay

So NeuroBusiness Group essentially helps leaders improve both the quality of their lives and their productivity. And by “quality of life”, what I’m referring to is learning how to manage anxiety, how to manage uncertainty, how to make it through change processes and enhance creativity, while simultaneously always keeping an eye on productivity, to be able to reach their goals. So, what I do is, my background is in psychiatry and in brain science and executive coaching. So I combine my knowledge as a psychiatrist to understand human psychology, with executive coaching where I understand leadership development, together with brain research where I use brain-based paradigms to help people develop frameworks to create the behavior change that they want.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, I love it. So you’ve already laid out a lot of relevant things that we love to know about here, as well as have some real research-based background and good stuff to add credibility to it. I’m so excited to dig into it. And so, you share a good bit of that wisdom in your book Tinker Dabble Doodle Try. And I have to ask, if the movie / book Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was an inspiration for the title at all, because it really rolls off the tongue well? There’s something appealing about the way those words go together; I don’t know what we call that.

Srini Pillay

Yes, absolutely. It was definitely a riff on that title, and I think it just captured so much of what I wanted to say about how I think I have seen leaders and people really at all levels of the workforce live their lives more effectively. And that was a big inspiration for writing the book as well.

Pete Mockaitis

And so, is there sort of a central thesis or a main idea that you unpack, or is it more of an amalgamation of many tidbits?

Srini Pillay

I think it’s both. I think the central thesis in the book –  because the subtitle is Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind – I think a lot of people believe that in order to be effective at work, you just need to focus throughout the day. So their general days are focus, focus, focus, fatigue, and that’s the end of the day. And what this book describes is how building in periods of unfocus into your day strategically can actually help your brain out, and contrary to what people think, continuous focus can actually be a problem. So, in the book what I outline is, when focus is a problem, and then how unfocus can solve those problems and specifically what people can do in those 15-minute periods to maximize their productivity.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, intriguing. And so, could you unpack a little bit of that? So, when does focus become a problem, and what’s the benefit of deliberately putting that unfocused time in there?

Srini Pillay

Yeah. There are a couple of disadvantages of focus. The first is that focus depletes the brain of energy. And studies have actually shown that if you take two groups of people and you ask one group to really focus on a video, and the other group to watch the video as usual, what you actually find is that after that if you ask them to solve a moral dilemma, the group that hyper-focused doesn’t care less, whereas the group that watched it as usual actually starts to care. And when you feed the group that hyper-focused glucose, they start to care again – indicating that focus can cause brain fatigue and compassion fatigue.
So if you’re someone who’s at work thinking, “God, I couldn’t care less about what these other people are doing”, or if you are a leading a team and you want to understand why it is that people are not pulling their weight in the team or they don’t seem to be helping one another – fatigue can deplete the brain of energy. So that’s the first disadvantage of focus.
The second is that focus actually is great if you’re just on task, but it also creates blinker vision, and as a result you can’t see what’s happening in the world. So for example, An Wang was somebody who discovered the word processor. And while he was busy making the second version, the PC was launched, but because he wasn’t paying attention to what was going on around him, he missed that and actually became bankrupt. So, you want to not be paying attention to what’s in front of you; you want to be paying attention to what’s in the wings as well.
The third thing is that focus makes you work with your nose to the grindstone, so effectively you’re just looking at what’s right in front of you, and as a result you miss upcoming trends. So you’re not seeing that robots may take over your job, you’re not seeing that when there’s a merger of your company with another company, it could impact your position, and as a result you don’t really anticipate the future. So focus prevents you from anticipating the future.
The fourth thing is that focus also prevents you from being creative. So, a lot of people, when they’re focused, work in silos. A classic example is Gillette, that had a toothbrush division and a battery division, and they were late to market as a battery-powered toothbrush. That’s because each division was so focused on itself, they were not able to actually make connections across divisions.
And the last thing is that focus itself is really useful for identity, if you want to describe yourself like your LinkedIn profile. It’s like the opposite of what you do. You knew that this was about a work-related thing, but you ask me about things outside of that. And part of that is that it gets me engaged in the essence of who I am. And focus is like a fork – it picks up all the concrete parts of your identity, whereas unfocus is like a spoon that picks up the delicious mélange of flavors of your personality. It’s like chopsticks that makes connections across different parts of the brain, or like a toothpick where it goes digging into nooks and crannies in your brain.
So, those five reasons – the fact that focus can deplete your brain of energy, number one; number two, focus can give you blinker vision; three, focus prevents you from seeing the future; four, focus prevents you from being creative; and five, focus prevents you from being yourself – are the reasons that I believe that it’s important to have focus. Of course, I’m a fan of focus, but also, to build unfocus into your day, because it’s unfocus that will give you energy, allow you to see within the periphery, it will allow you to see what’s lying ahead, it will make you more creative and more self-connected too.
And that’s the reason I wrote the book, because I wanted people to understand how they could become more unfocused, and strategically. Because there are definitely ways of being unfocused that do not work, like just being distracted is not helpful. But the brain actually has an unfocus circuit, which we call the “default mode network” that you can activate in very specific ways.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s powerful and well-stated, in terms of five key things we can get our arms around, as well as rich metaphors. And “delicious mélange” is a phrase, the first time it’s been uttered on the show, and it needs to be said more. So, I like that. I need some more delicious mélanges literally and metaphorically, I think, in my world.
Well, the one that really hit me hardest, I think, on a personal level is when you talk about depleting compassion. And I think about how in my work day, I do a lot of focusing, being self-employed. Many people’s work days have, say, meetings that they don’t really need to be paying much attention to, for a good portion of them. I have none of that in my work day. It’s like every bit is scheduled and planned and requires focus.
And sure enough, I am pretty tuckered at the end of the day, and at times when my wife has requests or needs or thoughts, I think my compassion is much less accessible or ready to go than it is in the beginning of the day when she makes those same kinds of requests. And so, that’s a pretty powerful implication, just for the human condition and us being the people that we want to be.

Srini Pillay

It really is. And I think a lot of people are very hard-working, so they don’t even realize that they’re depleting their brain of this energy by just focusing. And they don’t even realize that the absolute truth is that every one of us daydreams for 46.9% of the day. So, what that means is that when we are focusing we’re depleting our brains. When we’re daydreaming, we’re trying to replenish our brains but we’re not doing it in the right way. There are ways that you can daydream that are really good for your brain, and there are ways that are not good.
And if you look at the workforce today and you look at Gallup statistics over the last few years, the engagement worldwide of workers is 13%, which means 87% of people worldwide are not engaged in their jobs. Now, it’s different in North America – it’s a little higher. It’s 30% are engaged in their jobs, but that still means that 7 out of 10 people are not really engaged. So, we’ve got to ask ourselves what are we doing, showing up to work the way we do? And are we just going to be going through the world with essentially half a tank of gas every day, deplete ourselves, and then do it all over again every day? At which point are we going to say, “You know what? I want my brain to be operating at its optimal, and I want my brain to be working in a way that it can work”? And I think we actually do ourselves a disservice when we deplete our brains of energy with focus.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, I’d like to get into some of the particulars of the dosage and frequency and application of unfocus time. You mentioned 15 minutes. How should we think about, first of all, the scheduling of focus versus unfocus? Is there a sweet spot in terms of interval or ratio, or how do you think about that?

Srini Pillay

I think it’s different for different people, but there are some general frameworks. I’ll just say off the bat, one of the things that I like to say is that even though I’m going to be speaking in pretty pithy ways and doing a lot of “1, 2, 3” types of things, I don’t believe that everything works for everyone, and I think that everything that I’m presenting is a framework, even when there is a lot of research behind it. I still think that when people walk into my office, every person is different.
Having said that, when I say this to people, they say, “Oh, I’ve got no time to unfocus.” And what I say is, “Actually, you spend 46.9% of your day unfocusing. Why not learn to unfocus in a more productive way?” The second thing is, think of when your brain is in a natural slump anyway – either directly after lunch, middle of the afternoon, or the end of the day – start slowly by building in one or two 15-minute periods into your day, and do this every day. If you want to change that up because you want your unfocus periods to be at different times, then change that up. And if you say to yourself, “I can’t unfocus. Other people will be looking at me at work” – we’ll go through some of the techniques and you’ll see that there are things that you can do, even practically during your work day, that would really help you.
So, there are a few techniques which maybe I’ll mention off the bat. So if you’re at work and you’re thinking, “Okay, I heard this guy talk to me about why unfocus is important, and I buy it. I probably get a lot of my best ideas when I’m in the shower, I probably get my best ideas when I least expect them. Why don’t I just learn to unfocus? Well, how do I do that?” Here are a few techniques. The first is called “positive constructive daydreaming”. And at first that may just sound a little absurd, like how can daydreaming be positive and constructive?
Well, it’s been studied since the 1950s. Jerome Singer was one of the people who studied this phenomenon, and he found that slipping into a daydream is not helpful, and ruminating over the prior night’s indiscretions – maybe you had too much to drink and you said stuff you shouldn’t have said at a party – that kind of rumination is not helpful the next day either. However, what is helpful is positive constructive daydreaming. And I would ask people to just take out a piece of paper and a pen and write down the three steps so that you can practice it. The first is, find a 15-minute period, either during your lunch break, directly after lunch, in the middle of the afternoon, or at the end of the day.
Step number two – remember that the best way to do this is by doing something low-key. Sitting at your desk and letting your mind float off is not the best way to do positive constructive daydreaming. Rather, you should be knitting, gardening, or going for a walk. Now when I say that, a lot of people are like, “Oh, come on. I can’t just suddenly pull out the knitting needles at work and start knitting.” Well, you can, if you build that into the culture of your environment. But if you feel like that’s still a few steps away and you can’t get there, I think walking is the least offensive of all of them and you can do this in 15 minutes at the end of your lunch break. Now remember, there are different ways to walk, to change your brain as well. If you walk around the block in a rectangle, it actually is not as effective for creativity than if you walk in a zigzag or on a curvy path. So, when you’re walking, remember to do that. So, the second step is basically determining a time where you can actually do one of these activities.
The third step is once you are walking, or knitting, or maybe you have a potted   in the office that you’re tending to – so you don’t have to have a full garden at work – but once you’re doing one of those things, you then start imagining something positive or wishful. Maybe it’s lying on a beach, or possibly running through the woods with your dog – whatever for you feels positive or wishful. And these three steps can start you off on a 15-minute period of mind-wandering, which when done in this way, when you schedule it, when you allow your mind to go into this positive vision while you are doing something low-key – can actually replenish your brain, enhance your creativity, and refresh your brain and make you more productive too. So that’s technique number one, which you can build into any of those 15-minute segments.
Technique number two – I also get a response to this at some companies, when I say napping is important. Because 5 to 15 minutes of a nap can give you one to three hours of clarity. Now, if you ask yourself, “How can I nap, and why should I nap?” Well, we all know what it’s like to drown ourselves after lunch. Sometimes you have a heavy lunch and you feel like, “God, I just can’t stay awake.” Or it’s the middle of the afternoon and you feel like you’ve got to get a project done, but what you do is, you do it without all your horsepower, rather than replenishing your brain and giving yourself the power that you need.
Now, if you find that it’s impossible to put your head on your desk because people will be looking at you, have a team meeting and talk about this research, and then talk about the fact that companies like Google, like Zappos actually have napping pods at their businesses because they realize how important it is to nap. And I can tell you there are a number of other companies right now that are realizing that building napping into a work day is essential. If you want to be creative, 90 minutes of napping is better than just 5 to 15 minutes, but that’s a little unrealistic for during the week. It’s something you can do maybe on the weekend, if you have a creative project, or maybe at the end of your day, when you feel like you need to spend a little extra time at work.
The third thing is doodling. You were talking about being in a meeting and you don’t always need to attend the meeting – well, it turns out Jackie Andrade and her colleagues found that doodling improves memory by 29%. So just scribbling on a piece of paper while you’re on a conference call, or even while we’re on a call like this, can actually improve your memory by 29%.
And then the fourth technique that I’ll mention – and the book is really filled with a bunch of techniques – but one of my favorites is a term that I coined called “psychological Halloweenism”. And psychological Halloweenism is based on a study that showed that if you take two groups of people and you give them a creative problem, and one group behaves like an eccentric poet, while the other group behaves like a rigid librarian – the group that takes on the identity of an eccentric poet is statistically significantly more creative than the group that takes on the identity of the librarian. And that’s because when you’re embodying that identity, you are thinking outside of your usual thought patterns and you’re thinking like someone that you’re not.
So, this is something I would recommend doing at dinner with your family, on a date – maybe not the first date, but after that, and also with a creative team at work, or your friends. Just say, “Today why don’t I just behave like someone I truly like, and think like that person? What would this person do on this particular day?” So these kinds of exercises are exercises that we can all build into our days to activate the default mode network or the unfocus circuit, to be able to increase our creativity and increase our productivity and energy as well.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, I like that a lot. And the phrase “psychological Halloweenism” is really a fun one, because it really gets you thinking, in terms of, on Halloween you put on a costume and you become another character, whether it’s Darth Vader or Spider-Man or whatever that might be. And I find that helpful. I remember one time, I was maybe 12 years old and I was playing basketball. I’m not that good at basketball, but I just decided that my name was Freight Train and that I was really aggressive and tough. [laugh] As kids do. And then I stopped, and my buddy said, “When you were Freight Train, you were actually playing a lot better basketball.”

Srini Pillay

Yeah, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis

And similarly if I’m trying to write something and maybe I’m trying to write something persuasive, it’s like, “What would Bob Cialdini do right now? He’d probably…” And then what do you know – I’ve written something that I think is pretty good, in terms of meeting those goals. So, it’s wild how just consciously choosing that can make a world of difference.

Srini Pillay

Absolutely. And if you’re unconvinced of that, try that when you’re working out. So, when you’re working out, lift weights as you usually do, and then say to yourself, “What if I was…”, and think of any person you embody and any person that you would like to be, or any person whose determination you actually enjoy. And I remember doing this once during a workout, which amused my trainer. He looks at me and he was like, “Wow, you already did those chest presses as if they were nothing.” And I said, “It’s kind of weird, because one of the people whose determination I really admire is Serena Williams, the tennis player. And I just decided to embody Serena in that one minute.” He was like, “There are so many other people you could choose. How did you choose her?” I was like, “I don’t know. I just decided to do that.”
And in that moment, I had a different mentality, and I think part of it was not just… Obviously there are many people who have physical strength that’s probably greater than hers, but she has a sense of determination that I felt like I really wanted to embody. I wanted to be like, “Whatever this limit is, I can go beyond it.” So try it out while you’re working out, and you’ll see that it makes a big difference, even in how you lift weights.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s cool, that’s cool. So, can you talk a little bit about… It’s interesting because psychological Halloweenism in a way is still a form of focusing. It’s like, “I’m doing this as…”, and that kind of takes some mental energy. But yet, it is rejuvenating to the brain.

Srini Pillay

Yeah, it really is. We’re stuck in my own heads the whole day. Sometimes I bore myself; I’m like “Oh my God, here I go again. Same problem, another day. I do the same nonsense over and over again.” So, when you’re feeling like that, just say, “Why don’t I just think like somebody else?” Even people you don’t like, but people who are successful, you might be able to embody. And if you embody them, it might give you a completely different idea.
I’ve done this at corporate workshops, and people will go into this state, and first they go into it hesitantly, because they’re like, “Oh my God, this is like an acting class.” But then they realize that what they’re actually doing is challenging themselves to think outside of their habit circuits. Their habits circuits in the brain have them trapped and they have their minds going in a loop. And if they can think outside of habit circuits, then they can actually think in novel ways and increase their creativity.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s excellent, thank you. Well, there are a few other tidbits in your book I want to touch upon as well. You mention a concept called the “beat of our brain”. What’s that about?

Srini Pillay

Yeah, so the beat of the brain was really the introduction to the book, where I wanted to say that nobody can listen to a song that is on high the whole time, unless you’re in a moment of metal glory. But even then you want it to build up to a place and have a crescendo. A brain is very similar. A brain has “on” and “off” components. There are times when there’s an “on”, and there’s a time when there’s an “off”.
And the beat of the brain was basically saying that our brains need periods of focus and unfocus, and in order to engage the beat in the brain you really need to focus, but then build these unfocused periods into your day so as to access your brain’s deepest qualities.
Remember, the unfocused brain is very much tapping into the unconscious, and I think most people would agree that the majority of brain processes are likely outside of conscious awareness. You’re not aware of what’s making your heart beat, you’re not aware of what’s making you breathe, you’re not even aware of what’s going on in your Freudian unconscious, or in implicit processing. There are a lot of different things that are completely outside of awareness. So, if we can tap into that…
What I say to people is that focus is the time when you pick up the puzzle pieces; unfocus is giving your brain time to put those pieces together. And if you look at a lot of important people – people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates – they all build unfocus times, especially if they’re in a time of crisis. Mark Zuckerberg – when he was having problems at Facebook, approached Steve Jobs and said, “What should I do?” And basically Steve Jobs said, “Build a long period of unfocus, go somewhere else, and just see what happens.” So, it may sound like it’s just taking you away from your work, and in a sense it is, but it’s only taking you away from your work so that you can return to that work refreshed. And the beat of the brain is essentially having a regular beat of focus and unfocus during your day.

Pete Mockaitis

That comparison to music – that’s where I find some, I guess, speakers are so much easier to listen to in terms of, there’s some vocal variety there. And we had a guest – Rodger Love, a voice coach, speak about that, and how that makes a world of difference, in terms of being engaging and feeling something. And there are some TV shows where maybe every sentence feels like it’s intense and in capital letters and bold font, and I just can’t endure it for very long. There has to be some lulls in there for the music and the adoption of engagement for me. So, I’m also intrigued to hear, when you talk about these 15-minutes zones – are there likewise benefits to having full days of unfocused time, or how does that play into things?

Srini Pillay

Yes, absolutely. I think for a lot of people… And it really depends a little bit on your career, but I think what a full day of unfocused time does is, it gives you time away from something that you’ve been hard at work at for a long time. So, I’ve worked with companies where they will say one day a month is your day to… Sometimes some of them just say, “It’s your day to take off”, and some of them say, “It’s your day to go to the local museum and find a piece of art that you like, take a photograph of it while you’re there and share it with us.” And then at the next meeting, we’ll start off by just talking about people’s responses to the art. And what it does is it allows you to connect in completely different ways when you do that kind of thing.
Also, hobbies can actually be very protective to the brain. And studies have basically shown that for example if you look at the success of scientists – scientists who have the greatest citations also have the greatest number of hobbies or things that they’re doing. With one caveat – that the hobby needs to have some connection to the primary work as well.
So, I play tennis for example. I’m also not great at it, but I love it, I’m completely obsessed with it. And whenever I can get a chance to play tennis, I do. But when I’m playing tennis I’m thinking about when to be offensive, when to be defensive, when to relax into the point. And all of this really gives me a lot of food for thought in my other work, in my day-to-day work, when I’m thinking about running… I have three tech companies that I’ve co-founded and I’m thinking about when to be aggressive, when to be defensive, when I’m trying to execute a strategy and I’m trying too hard and I realize actually I should relax away from that.
I think taking a day off just helps your entire brain to reset. So, I do think entire days off can be very replenishing to your brain, and I really think people need to recognize we don’t say… Sometimes it can be a drag to do certain things like your morning ablutions, or if you’re filling your gas tank. But these are all things that you need to do to energize. When you’re taking a shower, you feel good. I think especially as you grow older, you realize that you’ve got to re-conceptualize your life, because your body doesn’t work the way that it used to work. And even when you’re at work, I would strongly recommend, if it’s possible, finding if there’s a way for you to stretch or roll, or building that into your day so that you can actually recognize that you need to re-conceptualize your life.
The reason I went off on that tangent relative to building it into your whole day, is that I think when we take days off, days off of physical activity can also be really replenishing. It takes you away from this constant mental struggle, it engages your body, and your body itself carries a lot of intelligence in it. So, long story short – yes, a day off can help. During that day, consider physical activities and hobbies, because they’ll both strengthen your brain.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, excellent. Thank you. And how do you recommend we conjure creativity? Are there any tips above and beyond these breaks?

Srini Pillay

Yeah. I think creativity is a remarkable thing, because it involves multiple parts of the brain. So when I work with companies or I work with people, I’m usually thinking things like, “How can I help this person become more innovative?” The first thing, as I said – any of those unfocus techniques would improve your creativity, so that’s number one. Number two – I would suggest that before you even start on any creative exercise, engage in possibility thinking. Now when I say this, people sometimes roll their eyes and they’re like, “Oh my God, I hope he’s not going to go off on some tangent about why anything’s possible.”
And I’m not. What I’m going to say is that we often justify our lives based on reality, but nothing exceptional was ever made from the substrate of a current reality without invoking something that doesn’t exist. And so, the airplane, the Internet, the telephone – everything that you can think of that affords us some kind of convenience, was created from a space of possibility.
And that’s because when you operate from a space of possibility, you actually are allowing your brain to increase its dopamine, so it feels more rewarded, and it also increases its opioids and as a result it feels less stressed. And without the stress and with this reward, your brain leans into the creative experience much more than if it were just generally plotting along, saying, “Let me see what’s possible.”
Let’s say you have a 9 to 5 job and your job is to punch in figures into an Excel spreadsheet. Yesterday I was sort of dreading this. I used to do this a long time ago, but I don’t do this often. If you actually just take a step aside and say… I would do this, and I was like, “I can’t re-enter all these figures in manually. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a formula?”
I tried out a couple of different formulae, they didn’t work. And I thought, “I have a friend, I’ll give him a call and see if he knows how to implement this formula.” And so, if I had not had the thought that it might be possible to automate the data, I wouldn’t even have called anyone. So, I think that possibility thinking is a very powerful way of jumpstarting creativity, because it puts you into a frame of mind where whatever you are envisioning becomes your goal, and then you work toward it, even if you don’t know how to do that.

Pete Mockaitis

Yes. And so then, to trigger that, it’s just about asking the bigger question, or how do you recommend getting there?

Srini Pillay

So, the first thing is to say, “What do I want, no matter how wild it is?” So let’s say you want to be able to work the same job, but have fewer hours, and you really can’t imagine how. Start with that hypothesis. All good science starts with a hypothesis. So start with a hypothesis, write it down, and say, “Even though I don’t know how to get there, I’m going to figure this out.” And remember, figuring it out is not like, “Now let me sit down and figure out a strategy.” It’s a combination of focus and unfocus, because unfocus will put those puzzle pieces together for you.
So the initiating factor there is to simply articulate whatever your audacious goal is, no matter how audacious it is, and then reverse-engineer what that is. I think Steve Jobs was who said, “You can’t join the dots in life moving forward, but you can join them backwards.” So, when you’re moving forward, what Steve Jobs said was that you have to believe in something – and he called it gut, karma, life, destiny, whatever. Really what he was saying was, generate a hypothesis, no matter what it is, and then test it. So I think generating the hypothesis is the way to begin.
Then in terms of other ways to engineer creativity, there are a lot of other ways besides the unfocus techniques. One of them involves the frontal polar cortex of the brain, which is basically, if you put your hand on your forehead, just behind your forehead is where this part of the brain is. And this part of the brain is involved in making connections, and it makes connections across a certain distance. So, when you’re wanting to be creative, you can take the problem you have at hand and you try to say, “How can I liken this to something else?”
Now, I’ll give you a real life example. I worked with a company that was thinking about how to develop a concept of a trusted advisor. So, a lot of times people will get into the room and brainstorm a bunch of ideas, but what we did was, we used this particular kind of thinking, which is called “analogical thinking”, which basically means you come up with analogies so that the frontal polar cortex – the very front of your brain – can map what you want onto different examples. I got the group together and I said, “When you think of … some qualities?”, and people said a mother, a dog, a reliable car.
So we are developing what a trusted advisor is in the company. What properties does a mother have? A mother is nurturing, is unconditional, is advising. Okay, that’s great. We’ve got those properties. What properties does a dog have? A dog is always by your side. What properties does a reliable car have? It will take you from place A to place B. Okay, so let’s create a trusted advisor who’s nurturing, always by your side, and will take you from where you are to where you want to go, and let’s to build the processes to develop that.
So here you see that by using analogical thinking, you can connect what you want to an analogy, and the frontal polar cortex of your brain actually begins to enhance that creativity. Now, there’s a distance in meaning between what you want, like the trusted advisor, and the example you’re using. And that distance is called “semantic distance”. Studies show that middle semantic distance is fine.
So, if I say, “What’s the difference between a trusted advisor and a dog, or a mother, or a reliable car?” – that’s middle semantic distance. They’re a little way out, but they make sense. However, if I said, “What about a spaceship, or what about a hydrogen atom?” These things are a little bit more obscure, and although you may be able to figure out what that is, it may be so discouraging that it’s best not to start with that.
So, aside from those unfocus technique, I would recommend possibility thinking and analogical thinking by essentially developing this analogy to activate the creative part of the brain that’s right behind your forehead.

Pete Mockaitis

Alright, thank you. Well, Srini, tell me – anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Srini Pillay

There’s a lot to say. What I want to say is, most importantly, that eventually no matter what frameworks you hear, no matter what techniques I’m prescribing, your ingenuity really lies within you. And in my coaching practice I have seen that it’s not people who follow the frameworks, but people who invite more of themselves to the table to engage those frameworks who are the most successful. And I don’t just mean this in a kind of soft way.
There’s a project called the One Laptop Per Child project, where they dropped computer tablets in rural Ethiopia where kids had never seen technology before. And they literally were wondering, “What would they do with it? Would they sit on it? Would they try to eat it? What would they try to do?” What they found was that within a couple of hours they found the “on / off” switch. Within a couple of days they were singing “ABC” songs, and within a couple of weeks to a month, they had actually hacked Android.
And what this says is that you don’t need an education in something to activate your ingenuity. I think that education to a large extent prevents us from seeing our greatest capabilities. And it doesn’t matter what your level of education is. Remember, your greatest friend is your own ingenuity, and these frameworks are just accompaniments on your journey to greater productivity and creativity.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Good deal, thank you. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Srini Pillay

There are so many quotes. I think from a work position, one of my favorite quotes is a quote by Warren Bennis, who I think is the father of all leadership studies, who after all his many years of studying leaders came to one conclusion about what a leader is. And Warren Bennis said, “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that easy, and also that difficult.” And I think that’s what’s so impressive about the leaders that we see that we truly admire. They have become themselves, and that’s the reason that I particularly like that quote.
I also like a lot of quotes by Oscar Wilde, who often will emphasize the importance of youth slipping away and the importance of time passing. And while I don’t intend to take a negative view on that, I have a very simple philosophy on life, which is that you live, you die, you do something in between. It’s important to make the best of every minute. And when you find your mind is in a negative spiral, remind yourself of that.

Pete Mockaitis

And how about a favorite study, experiment or a bit of research?

Srini Pillay

There are lots of studies that I think I particularly love. That energy study I particularly like because I think we’re living in a time of disengagement, and the fact that feeding people glucose and re-energizing their brains is helpful. I think it’s relevant today because burnout is so high, engagement is so low, that if we can learn to build unfocused times into our day and feed ourselves with time and space and food, I think that that’s particularly exciting.
Another group of studies that I’m inspired by is a group of studies that looked at what connects stress with the body. And what these studies found was that the mitochondria – the cell’s energy factory – is the place where stress exerts its impact on your body. And because it changes how energy is metabolized, it can be connected to heart disease, to stroke, it can be connected to cancer. So, if you’re feeling stress and you’re like, “That’s fine” – it’s not just a psychological condition. The fact that we now know that stress impacts the energy within your cells indicates that it can influence different organ systems in your body as well.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And how about a favorite book?

Srini Pillay

I think my favorite book is Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust, and also Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence. They are old books, but I particularly love them because within the fiction is contained a host of non-fiction about human sensitivity. And I think humans are first and foremost extremely sensitive, and coming to this world with a set of very powerful intentions that get dwindled down as they begin to face challenges like anxiety and uncertainty. And I think, paradoxically, it is in these books that we see these human challenges come to life.

Pete Mockaitis

And how about a favorite tool?

Srini Pillay

A favorite tool… I’m not very handy. This is a bit of a nerdy response, but what I just did last night, where I literally got up and had some kind of peak life experience. I would say it’s statistics. I think online computing tools for statistics are my favorite tool.

Pete Mockaitis

Awesome. Is there a particular one?

Srini Pillay

Yesterday what I did was, I had a bunch of correlation coefficients I had to run. So I just used Excel, I ran a Pearson correlation, then changed that to finding R², and ran an R² formula. And then I used an online tool that could give me a P-value for the R-value. I just Googled “P-value for R-values for correlations”, and used that tool that was online.

Pete Mockaitis

Alright. And how about a favorite habit?

Srini Pillay

I’m not a huge fan of habits in general. One of my philosophies in life, which I think is on my Twitter profile is, when I describe myself I say, “Somewhere between martinis and meditation.” And I think my favorite habit is to switch between those two modes, because I feel like one gives me access to the spiritual world, and the other to a more carnal world. And I think that that combination really helps to enhance my sensitivity in a way that helps me in my day-to-day life.

Pete Mockaitis

And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate and get retweeted and repeated back to you frequently?

Srini Pillay

Yeah. When people ask me how do I manage my anxiety, one of the things I do is I tell them I have a mnemonic called CIRCA, which essentially is, I would ask you to take out a piece of paper and a pen and write down “C” is for “chunky”, which is whenever a problem confronts you, you break it down. “I” is for ignore mental chatter”, which is when you have a problem and you start being self-critical, ignore your mental chatter. And rather than paying attention to your mental chatter, focus on your breath – it’s a form of mindfulness. The “R” is “reality check”, and reality check is essentially, “This too shall pass.” So use self-talk just to remind yourself that this too shall pass. The “C” is “control check”. Let go of stuff you can’t control; there’s nothing you can do about it. And “A” is “attention shift”, which is whenever you’re faced with a problem, place your attention on the solution rather than the problem. And the mnemonic is CIRCA.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, thank you. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Srini Pillay

I’m on Facebook, I’m on Twitter. My website is DrSriniPillay.com. I’m also at NeuroBusinessGroup.com, or NBGCorporate.com. And if you’d like to join our mailing list, do so as well. I love interacting with people and sharing the information, because I learn that as well.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for those seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Srini Pillay

Yeah. I think tomorrow what I’d like you to do is find one 15-minute period, decide on one of the unfocus activities that we talked about, and implement it.

Pete Mockaitis

Perfect. Well, Srini, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom, and good luck in all you’re doing with NeuroBusiness Group and the book and more!

Srini Pillay

Thank you so much, Pete.

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