Srini Pillay: Play for a Living and “Dabble” Your Way to Success

How to play for a living and “dabble" your way to success:

When’s the last time you doodled just for fun?

There are surprising benefits to getting your creative juices flowing, and today we’re here with returning guest, Dr. Srini Pillay, to dig into the inner workings of the mind and how to use tinkering to improve all areas of your life.

Srini Pillay, M.D. graduated at the top of his class in medical school in South Africa and has been dazzling minds ever since. He’s an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, CEO of NeuroBusiness Group and also an award-winning author. I even hear he’s writing a screenplay, maybe a musical, and dabbling in a bunch of other things.

His wonderful new book is entitled Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try. We’re about to teach you how to upgrade your brain, health, and performance by having more fun.

On this show with Srini, you’ll learn:

  • Why we shouldn’t just try to maintain self-confidence
  • The importance of daydreaming
  • How fitness makes you a better musician
  • Why Srini is belting it out like Ella Fitzgerald
  • And much more!

Srini Pillay: How to Play for A Living

Abel: Srini, I mean it sincerely when I say that you’re one of my very favorite people to talk to. Thank you so very much for coming back on the show.

Thanks so much for having me, Abel. I love talking to you as well, and I think whenever it works both ways, it’s always a good sign.

Abel: Totally, we’re jamming. I have to say, for someone with Harvard credentials, you use a ton of zany babble words… At the same time, I know you know exactly what you’re doing so let’s talk a little bit about the approach that you take with not only your new book but obviously your life, as well. It’s not a straight line, is it?

It’s not, no. There’s a part of it that’s classical in the sense that I wanted to train classically. I wanted to have the foundations, but I think the reason I worked so hard at medical school, and the reason I studied brain imaging, and then anxiety, and the reason I kept doing my clinical work with my research is that I felt like I wanted to have some kind of basic foundation upon which I could improvise. What I’ve realized since then is that you don’t actually need that rigid of a foundation, and that improvisation is just a fantastic way to lead a life. It helps you unearth the parts of yourself that are part of your real identity so that you have some sense of authenticity.

I was talking to somebody today who is actually in the health space. She’s an extremely smart, confident person, and she was saying “I just don’t feel confident,” and I was like, “No one in the world would say you don’t feel confident.” And she said, “Well, what is confidence?” And I said, “Well, there are a lot of models to describe what confidence is, but I think that confidence has to do with having at least a minimum number of self elements online in your brain, so that you can be who you truly are. If you’re not into taking selfies and saying things that you don’t want to be saying, then obviously feeling forced to do that is not going to make you feel good about your life.”

And so I feel like this non-straight line has something to do with the fact that life is about exploration. It’s about curiosity, and it is as much about discovery as it is about thinking about what you already know.

For me, discoveries are a major deal because I get so excited when I discover something.

I think most people want to have that experience, it just feels initially unsafe.

Abel: It’s also coached out of us through life, right? You go through school, you color within the lines… It’s supposed to be a straight line, and once you get to the top school you have to graduate at the top, then you go to the next top school, then you go to the next hospital and then you’re top there, and then the next residency or whatever—it just keeps going and that doesn’t sound like fun at all.

Well, I have to say there was always a mischievous intention in me in doing all of these kinds of formal things. I always wanted to be able to say what I wanted to say about the fact that I don’t think that education necessarily means that you’re smart. But I felt like I had to go through it so I could be legit, because I didn’t really want someone to be like, “Oh you’re just saying that because you didn’t go through it.” “Well, like, no, no,” I did the whole thing and I don’t feel like it’s what it claims to be.

I’ve met so many brilliant people who’ve literally had very little education. I’ve met so many people with a ton of education who I feel just have never had the time or opportunity to express their smarts.

And so I feel like in the world, if there’s one thing I feel that truly drives me it is ingenuity. I just feel like ingenuity is not about whether you have a Harvard education or not, it’s not about what you’ve learned about something, it really is about innate intelligence and it’s about trying to make sure that you can access that.

Have we ever talked about this before in terms of the one laptop for all project?

Abel: A bit, let’s dig in.

Just that idea that you could drop a bunch of tablets in rural Ethiopia and have kids who’ve never seen technology figure out how to turn it on, sing ABC songs, and later hack Android…

You can access that awareness without a formal education. I did a similar thing when I launched a piece of technology myself to a group of highly educated executive coaches and no one wanted to go anywhere because they had not been taught how to do it.

So I feel like, to a certain extent, formal education in of itself definitely has a place for certain people, but for a lot of people it really sort of makes them feel down about themselves because they can’t grasp the elements of a formal education, and we confuse that with intelligence.

Abel: Yes and they think that they’re being taught something or they expect to be taught something as opposed to actually actively learning. And you get a real taste for that when you get out into the real world where you get your first real job. And you’re measured on completely different things, like your results, which actually matter in the real world, as it turns out.

Well, one of the things I refer to in the book was this amazing school called Brightworks that I visited in San Francisco. They have a summer camp called a tinkering school. When I went there, I was thinking my parents would never have sent me to a school like this. It sounded way too free, and I had my doubts about it. So I was like, “Well, let me just go and if I really am a scientist, why don’t I go just look and observe and see what I truly see?”

I saw some things that truly astounded me. I can actually say, I’ve visited many schools in my life. I have never been to a school when on a Friday afternoon, the kids are on the verge of tears because they don’t want to leave the school.

When have you been to a school where people are like, “Oh my gosh, I’m gonna have to go home on the weekend. I don’t want to be without school.” And that’s because they arrange their classes in bands, not by age group. So you have like a seven or eight-year-old talking to like a 15-year-old. They have teams and they base their whole education on ingenuity and you can think, “Well, this sounds too free,” but by a certain grade, and I forget the actual grade, they’re two grades above the national average in reading.

So there’s something about the fact that this education does stimulate a brain, and even when you use conventional measures to measure advances, discovery stimulates intelligence and that was a big piece of why I wanted to write Tinker. Because I just feel like a lot of people don’t want to tinker, dabble, doodle, and try.

Abel: It’s scary.

Yeah. It’s very scary. Yet if you look at a lot of people (and I mention some of these people in the book), like Kary Banks Mullis, who got the Nobel prize in biochemistry for discovering PCR, which is the way of duplicating DNA.

Without his findings, we wouldn’t have been able to have understood many of the genetic bases of many illnesses. He was exactly every scientist’s nightmare. They would say he’s not following this point to point thinking.

He was driving with his girlfriend, he was in a car, and he had a bottle of wine. Suddenly he’s going from Berkeley to Mendocino, and he starts seeing these lurid pink and blue images. His mind starts sorting things out. It’s in that unfocused state that we get to experience what this fullness of our intelligence is.

And I, like anybody else, am for focus. We wouldn’t be able to be here if I didn’t know I had to be here on time.

But I think that focus by itself is really not enough in terms of having some kind of meaningful life. The thing you referred to at the beginning of the conversation, which is, what is this non-linear piece?

The non-linear piece is about recognizing and having learned over time, that focus and unfocused networks work together in the brain. And if you have focus, focus, focus, it leads to complete fatigue. But when you have focus and unfocus, then when the focus networks are overworked, then the unfocused networks take over and you can recycle the energy for your attention, become more creative. We become unstuck.

So I think there’s a lot of good, sound, biological argument for why it is that we need to build these periods of unfocus into our day to help us more.

Every time I talk to you, I realize that there’s one more thing that we have in common, which is I think intuitively the very first day I met you, which is why there was this kind of explosion. I was like, “What is going on with this person? Like, what?” It’s like a dog seeing a dog and being like I want to know about you.

Abel: For sure. We got together for the first time, if you’re listening to this, and we both looked at each other and we were like, “You’re way weirder than everyone else here,” and we hung out like buddies for the rest of the conference.

Yeah. And I remember that feeling. I felt like I was talking, but somewhere underneath there was some kind of growl, like some kind of primitive communication of information. I had no idea that you had a background in neuroscience, for example.

Abel: Or music at that time, we were at a health conference.

No idea. In fact today, I remember you were telling me about the Tim McGraw stuff. I was like, “What?” And then I told you about the musical I’m working on.

Abel: It makes sense.

Yes, but how would you say it makes sense? For people who are listening to this who are like, well what are these guys chatting about? Why are they talking about health and music and communicating some of kind of message?

Abel: Here’s what some people ask me. They’ll come up to me and they’re just like, “Wait a second. So you did the podcast and that went to #1, and you published a bunch of apps, and you published a book that did really well, and you’re in an ABC TV show, and you also play music with the Tim McGraw band, and go on tour and do all that stuff. How do you find time to do all of those different things?”

They don’t all happen at the same time. On a daily basis, you might be doing a little bit of any of them, but for the most part, I see those as exactly the same thing.

For a Harvard MD, or professor at Harvard, that could be the only thing that you do. You never go out of your house. You study all the time, maybe you publish a little research and then you teach some classes. Or you could see the fact that you’ve been at the top for a while, and then you get bored of it, so you go and do something else. And that’s what I do, as well.

Most people don’t know that I started up this podcast when I stopped playing live shows. I realized that live shows were limited to where I was at the time, and digital is exponential. It could go anywhere. And so I took all that energy that I was focusing on playing live shows, and promoting live shows, and performing, and setting up, and breaking down, and that whole thing. And then I applied it to trying to learn how it works on the internet, digitally.

I use that energy to learn spoken word as if it were music. And convey emotion that way. And you understand how that works, right? The more you connect your brain, the more that you strengthen those connections, the more holistic of a being you are that could take skills from one place and apply them to another.

Completely. And you can hear this in people. I was actually doing a corporate workshop yesterday working with an international multilateral that’s a non-profit. Working with people in poverty stricken countries. And everybody there sort of gets recruited in a particular way.

They’re very deep thinkers. And when you go there, the first thing is like these are regular people sitting in the room. And literally in that same growl, I think you can hear that they’re saying normal words. But the energy behind those words are completely different because they’ve allowed themselves to explore these different dimensions of their thought processes.

I give them an example of a supervisor I once had who was 75. Her name was Ann Alonzo, and we used to call her Yoda. She was a psychotherapy supervisor and she was very funky. And she would say very normal things. I went to her office once and I was like, “Anne, how you doing?” She goes (in a very slow pace),” Oh, Srini. Nice to see you.” I’m like, “What? What happened? What?”  She goes,”You’re surprised?” I’m like, “Anne, I don’t know what is going on right now.” “Did I say something unusual?” I said, “Forget about it. Let’s just go into the… ” I go into her office and before she sits down, she slowly turns around. She goes, “Oh, look. It’s the ice cream man.” And I was like, “My mind is blown… I have no idea what is going on. I am not smoking anything. I am not drinking anything.”

Abel: Right. You don’t have to.

Your presence is making my mind go somewhere else. And that’s another example where… It’s like what you were saying about when you speak. Again, I didn’t know this about your musicality, but I can hear that in your voice and what you’re communicating. And what’s getting projected to the world. I honestly believe that people would lead much happier lives if they could connect with this complexity in themselves.

Everyone’s doing what they’re told or what they’re supposed to do. Or they’re rebelling completely in some way that doesn’t make them feel a connection to themselves.

What if we just calmed down a little bit? And then said, “Okay. I’m going to figure out different ways to express myself.”

It fascinates me what you’re saying… I don’t think I would have known that you were that aware, obviously now it makes sense. But I felt like it was a secret in my head that I knew that when you spoke, I knew there was something musical and I was trying to understand this.

The Magic of Music and the Brain

Abel: I’m going to send you my first book, The Musicial Brain, because that’s what it’s about. It was basically the thesis that I wrote at Dartmouth, which is about music and the brain. Looking at where music came from, from an evolutionary perspective, because it doesn’t make any sense. There’s no clear adaptive function, right? But it’s everywhere. It clearly affects us. And then also looking into how musical training affects the brain and changes it. This is back in 2006. It was a meta analysis of research I wrote in 2005, and there’s been a lot more work in the field since then.

Similar research is also in your book, so this is a good time to talk about the example you give, the restaurateur musician, Jonathan Waxman.  Could we talk about his story? Because this is a great example of this thing that we’re talking about.

I met with Dorothy Hamilton, who unfortunately died recently in a freak accident. She was the head of the International Culinary Center in New York. And I sat with her and I said, “Dorothy, I just went to this famous person’s restaurant and the food was terrible. I’m reading amazing reviews of his food, and I wanted to like it. Everything about it sounded perfect. So I was like, ‘Let me go eat the food.’ And I went and ate the food. And I was like, ‘This is terrible.'” And so she said, “No, the food is terrible.” And I said, “Then why is everybody in the world going so ga-ga over it?” And she said, ” Because somebody started the trend and that’s how it goes.”

And I said, “Can you suggest someone?” She asked me about the kind of food I like. And Jonathan Waxman came up and she said, “Well, he is a real trendsetter.” We talked about it and I got to learn about it. Read a lot about it. I’ve eaten at his places. He was somebody who brought sort of the whole idea of fresh California cuisine to the east coast. Opened up a place called Jams. He’s got a couple of other places in New York. Barbuto is one of them. And I’m not personally connected to him, so I’m not advertising.

But there’s something about his ingenuity in saying, “I found this type of cuisine and I want to show the rest of the world what it is.” And he brings it here. He charges a lot, but he focuses on the food so the food is out of this world, delicious. He makes the most famous, of all things, roast chicken. And something about the crispiness of the skin and the quality of the chicken.

When he first left school, he joined a band, he dropped out, the band broke up. And he always had this love of music, but he could never really attend to it consciously. So, when he started this new food thing, he became very famous very quickly, did extremely well, and then all of a sudden, it stopped doing well and he had a slump in his life.

And for most other people they would be like, I guess I’ve lost it. I’m not going do it. But he never lost it. He came back. He came back into the world. Started making his food, but the thing that’s so exciting to me about it is that he’s opened up his newest place in Nashville. Which is kind of mind blowing. I’m sure he’s aware of this, but it gave me goosebumps to think that the love of music was still in him all that time.

That love of music persevered while his food went up and down and it made me wonder, was part of the down the fact that the music was not there? That thing he was denying in his own consciousness about the importance of music centrally in his own life?

Abel: That happened to me when I first started this podcast Fat-Burning Man, it was a pretty dramatic departure it appeared from what I was doing. But to me, it’s me in front of a microphone. I’m just not holding a guitar for this one, and I’m not using as many cheap jokes for drunk crowds.

I performed at roof-top bars and clubs and weddings, that sort of thing. But a very similar experience happened to me because I stopped playing music and I worried that I would go insane.

When I was kid, I had some negative examples of people who I didn’t want to be and things I didn’t want to do. So I was straight edged, didn’t drink, no drugs all the way through high school. And music was the thing that I would use as that outlet.

It was when one of my best friends, my cousin, died—it was so traumatic for me. I couldn’t cry. I was just numb. There’s nothing there and so the only thing that cracked that open is this: I would go up to my room, try to play along with Jimmy Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan or someone really fast and hard and just play until I couldn’t keep up anymore. And then I would just collapse in tears and let everything go. And that was the thing that I was worried I wouldn’t have anymore when I stopped touring, and I stopped playing music for a while.

I went through an intense up and down journey throughout all that, I’ve got to say. You know it’s tough but… sometimes the music isn’t there. But it’s not just the music, right? Sometimes the Fat-Burning Man passion isn’t there either, and you have to go where the energy is. And that’s how you write a book. That’s how you write a good book. You don’t crank them out year after year, year after year. They come to you and they’re always about a completely different thing than maybe you were expecting, right?

So much of what you’re saying is resonating. So as I speak to you, on the wall in front of me is a picture of Jimmy Hendrix. I’m insane about Hendrix. I actually collect iconic rock art because I love what it is. There’s also a picture when you enter the house on the left hand side of the Rolling Stones biting each other from the album. Because there’s something about the intensity of that that feels like so not okay and so amazing.

So, I’ve taken music very seriously. I studied it at school, I’d already started playing classical music, concert piano, and then I went to medical school and there wasn’t time to spend seven or eight hours a day practicing music.

But music is one of those things, unlike other competencies, which when you lose it, because you’ve been in love with it, it just never ever leaves your mind. And so, a couple of years ago, I was like, okay I’ve been tinkering on the piano and playing a little bit and composing songs, I could never quite find my way. Then I decided, I’m just going to literally go on Thumbtack and try to find a piano teacher in the area.

But to make myself feel better about losing my competencies at classical piano, I’m going to try to learn jazz piano. So I found someone, he came over, he actually admitted to me recently he was like, “When I first met you, I was just completely… I didn’t know what to do. I’m used to going in re-visiting scales, thinking about pieces that I’d like to play.” And I started up in a very thorough, nice, normal way.

I wanted to play, It Goes to My Head. There’s sort like a nice Ella Fitzgerald-y kind of phase. And then, someday I need to re-explore. I don’t feel good about losing my competence playing. I don’t feel like I’ve found my voice in the world. And I feel like part of that is going through the ugliness of whatever sound I think I’m producing when I’m singing. And whatever Bob Dylan did when he was like, “I don’t care what I sound like. I have a message and I want to communicate it.” They have always been inspiring to me. I was like, you know if any human being in the world had a voice like Bob Dylan, they might be afraid of showing it.

So at some point I just got up from the piano and I was like, “You know, the one thing you don’t lose is musical composition. Can you just go to the piano, I’m going to start singing.” And he was like, “What would you like to sing about?” And I was like, “No idea.” Well, is there a theme, a key, a genre, and so I initially actually started composing some really cheesy R&B love songs. But I ended up singing this music that was like Cole Porter-ish and so, as I started singing, he would play on the piano, and he was like, “I don’t know what’s going on here but something… ” And I was like, “Yeah, let’s just do this.”

And to make myself feel productive, I was like, “Well, how about I do a song a month?” But then it changed to a couple of songs a month, and I gave myself all kinds of challenges for exploration. And people will say, “That must be some secret thing you knew about yourself.” Or “Maybe you knew you could do it.” It really wasn’t about that, it was about the fact that I was searching for the love of music because my life felt too incomplete without it being manifested.

And so I was like, “I need the music back.” Because in a weird way, it helps me study neuroscience. And in a weird way, it helps me look at biotechnology. But without it, it felt emptier and it felt like it had something skimmed off it that I was not happy about.

How to play for a living and “dabble

Abel: Yes, exactly. And here’s the weird part, after my break that we were talking about, when I came back after not playing music for almost 2 years, I didn’t really play guitar, saxophone, clarinet, piano, sing, or anything. I was just getting this health project off the ground and trying to liberate myself from a day job that I needed to help support myself.

When I came back after not playing, I was much better. After I got my chops back, it takes a few weeks, maybe a few months to get your chops back, your technical skills, but after that happened, I was so much better and you can hear it in my music, in my recordings, in my live shows.

What I learned from podcasting quickly improved my music, and my writing, and my other stuff. And now, I’m so excited I want do live shows again. And doing a Broadway show, or something like that sounds like a really scary challenge. And that’s how you know that that’s exciting to you, right? That’s how you know that you can channel that into something amazing because it scares the crap out of you.

It’s completely scary. I think one of the ideas I mentioned in the book is this whole idea of self-esteem maintenance for self-esteem optimization.

I think a lot of people live their lives trying to maintain their self-esteem. Not wanting to optimize it.

The problem with wanting to optimize it is you’ve got to go every new stage, you’ve got to disintegratereintegrate. Disintegrate, reintegrate, and sometimes you go in a place in yourself… You’re singing music, just singing. You go to incredibly emotional places and you really feel like you’re disintegrating. You’re like, “What is going on here?”

But then you’re like, “Okay, wait a minute.” You’ve got to break that down to rebuild something in a different way, and you’re never going to rebuild it if you don’t break it down. And so I think that if we could hold ourselves to that… There was a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist who talked about this, he had a theory called ” The Theory of Positive Disintegration” and what he’s described was that gifted people, in general, and I think this applies to the entire population, are willing to disintegrate repeatedly. They don’t just do something and then stay at a plateau, they’re like, “Okay, what’s the new thing and how am I going to manage this?” And then they fall apart in some way.

But for them, falling apart is more like the fun of taking the puzzle and then just mixing it up in a box, and then starting to put together a new puzzle. It’s a different attitude about disintegration. It’s not like, “Oh, my gosh, I dropped this glass and it’s in a million pieces.” The metaphor in the heads of someone who is willing to be disintegrated is like a box of puzzle pieces and my theory, I think I’ve always said this to you, is…

You live. You die. You do something in between.

It’s important to be able to feel like you have the permission to choose another puzzle. And it may be more difficult, but it’s more exciting.

So there was a tangential thought that I had while you were speaking. You were saying your music got that much better. It occurred to me, in terms of health… Recently, I read the audio for my book, and I wasn’t really looking forward to it. I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m going to have to read everything I wrote in a studio?” I had no idea what a workout it was.

Abel: Oh yeah, it is.

I was thinking, “Reading in a studio for three days, whatever, that’s not going to be that hard.”

My god, I was so happy that I was more fit than I’ve been in the past because I don’t think I would’ve been able to breathe, stand, stop. And so I feel like the musicality that you’re talking about must, in part, be due to your own fitness regimen, that when you train yourself cardiovascularly, you breathe differently and so you’re more relaxed with your body, you just have a completely different relationship with the microphone.

Abel: Yes, I became a good runner, I believe, because I was better at breathing than other people were because I played the clarinet. From a young age, I learned how to do that. I learned how to hold my breath, breathe from the right place. I noticed that a lot of other people, especially running fast… I was running the mile in middle school at sub six minutes so a lot of the other kids would start hyperventilating. And I knew that that was my secret weapon at the time. But it didn’t last because I have short stubby legs…

Well, but if you think about it, though, breathing is so connected to the brain stem, and so the brain stem is always communicating to the cortex. We may seem like we’re talking about a million different things but I think part of the message, from my perspective, is to really remind people that they can invite themselves to a different experience of their own lives.

Abel: To have more fun.

Yes. Because without the fun, what’s the point?

Abel: I realized that if I just try to appeal to my 8-year-old self for a small portion of the day, the day goes really well. That’s before puberty for the most part—it’s more just the innocent, playful things that you would create. When I was a kid, this will amuse some people, maybe I can even pull up some of the tapes of this, but I used to make radio shows on my little tape player with my brothers and my friends. We’d put ’em out and the family would listen to them and we’d play the recordings at school and people would laugh. It was just like Monty Python/Ren & Stimpy-type stuff.

And lo-and-behold, look at what I do now as my day job. Right? As a whole business, and now other people have jobs supporting the show. So I think it starts off as something… It’s little bit like, why would I doodle for five minutes a day? Why would I write in my notebook or my journal? Why would I try to learn a new instrument? And maybe eventually, you’re on Broadway.

Well, as you were speaking, I was trying to restrain even a higher degree of weirdness because I was thinking that when I listen to you there is some kind of spiritual thing which I think is an integration of different levels of consciousness. And I sort of relate to how you feel about a microphone for some reason. Like there’s something about a microphone, because you have a platform for connecting with something much larger than yourself and further than your immediate environment.

It stands as a metaphor for the fact that you can connect with something much, much larger than who you are or where you are, and I think for the most part people make their lives smaller because there isn’t this platform where they can connect with other people. And I think for you, when I watch you in front of a microphone, it reminds me of the kind of delight I have when I’m in front of one. I feel like it’s just the resonance of that sound that makes you feel like you’re connecting with the largeness. And I think what that does is it reminds us that we’re connected anyway.

Again, this may seem just philosophic, but I honestly think it has implications for people who make technology. It has implications for how you live your life on a day-to-day basis. If we stop thinking about ourselves as being isolated and realize that being connected is not a choice, it just sort of is true. Like we’ve got brains in our heads, and holes in our heads, and so because of eyes and ears and nose and mouth, our brains are connected to other people.

Being connected is not a choice, it’s just sort of true. @srinipillay Click To Tweet

In one of the studies in the book I pointed out this fantastic study, it was done between people in France and in India where they had someone in France think the words that got communicated wirelessly through their computer to somebody in India who wasn’t hearing the word, was receiving this thought through electricity wirelessly and was able to predict it without seeing the person or hearing the word. Suggesting that we can be connected across huge distances.

The reason you and I can talk is partly because we are already connected, and we are using a device to connect us. So, if we were not connected, there’s no way we’d be able to talk to each other.

What that says, if you start to think of the brain as part of the internet of things, that we have electricity running through the brain, the way it does through our devices. It changes the way you design technology. It changes the way in which you interact with the world.

It changes your self-concept, because you realize all the time, you think you’re limited to your body, but actually if you’re connected across space with some person, your identity is more than just yourself, it is the whole world.

Ideas, Intention, and Focus

Abel: You mention a phenomenon in your book called “predictive anticipatory activity,” which as a scientist I would love to hear you comment on. 

Well, so I think for me it’s one of the most exciting things because it’s in the same realm of phenomenon. The fact is, often the brain knows before you intend to do something what it’s going to do, because your life creates ideas, memories, thoughts, and these assimilate and they assimilate into an intention.

When you actually have an intention, you think that’s when the whole process started, but the brain has actually predicted this before, and the intention has been registered in your brain. So when you have an intention, what you’re actually saying is, “I’m going to tell you what my brain has already decided,” not what is about to happen based on what you just thought. Which means that it pays to be attentive, not only to what we intend, but to what precedes that intention.

I think if you take a personal example, really, at some level, there’s something in me that’s very disciplined and something in me that’s wild and crazy. I’ve been trying to think about this more deeply with my trainer, like while I’m working out… for example, it occurred to me that I just do not even think about my body ever. Like, I don’t even consider it in any way. Never thought about it, put on weight, lost weight. My life has felt like it has been how I wanted it to be.

What’s interesting is that if you look at stuff before your intentions, you will find ideas that may be influencing your intentions, which are then influencing your actions. And I think for me, part of that was… And I think this is true for pretty much everybody I’ve seen in my practice and people in the world in general…

We all want to express ourselves. We’re afraid of losing control, and we’re afraid of that point where we’re going to start doing something we’re going to regret.

So, we keep ourselves in line so that we don’t get to that place. In general, that’s probably a decent idea and it’s considerate of other people and that kind of thing. But if you’re someone who you know gets into this altered state of consciousness without any drugs or alcohol, and you know that you can, it may actually prevent you from making something happen that could lead to more frightening consequences.

So part of the thought was, “If I started tending to my body and become fitter, even though I don’t really think about it, what if I got carried away by whatever new level of attractiveness existed, but then made my general dis-inhibition even worse?” And so, part of me was like, “Well, that’s a dumb thing,” because I want to be healthy, live long, walk stronger and do that kind of thing.

So, I feel like by realizing that I realized that my intention to take it easy and do what I could, when I could, that had some sensibility to it. But there was a part of it that made no sense because I was not focusing on becoming healthier because I was afraid that becoming healthier would change the way I looked positively. And if it changed the way I looked positively, it would somehow affect how I was using my body in ways that I felt had become irrelevant.

And so, I think the thing that keeps most of us away from the fullness of what we are is that when you decrease the hold of the frontal cortex and you start integrating parts from your brainstem and the other emotional centers.

Everybody loves Jimi Hendrix, but they’re also afraid of Jimi Hendrix. Everybody loves the creativity of Steve Jobs but they’re also like, “Why did he do that, he also died so early?” So we’re all afraid of it, nobody wants to do that, so we hold onto some level of inhibition. But I think for every person it’s different.

If we look at why we’re inhibiting our successes, we’ll see that at some level we’re afraid of our own freedom.

In the book, I point out the story of Kierkegaard which I had lots of fights with my editor about. My editor was like, “Kierkegaard should not be in this book”, and I was like, “Why?” but she was like, “This is not a philosophy book.” And I said, “Well, it’s a book in which I’m communicating what I can.” Just because he’s got a strange sounding name, which I also have, it doesn’t mean nobody should hear about it.

So we talked about it and somebody asked me recently about daydreaming at a conference that I was doing in London. They were like, “I buy your thing about daydreaming and unfocus. I get my best ideas in the shower or when I’m laying in a hammock, that’s when my best ideas come to me. But I feel so guilty when I’m day dreaming. I feel like I’m off task, I feel like I can’t do what I want to do.”

So they asked me, “Why do I feel guilty when I daydream?” and I said, “Well, daydreaming is a microcosm for the freedom of your mind,” and as much as we all say and pay lip service to the fact that we want to be free, as Kierkegaard pointed out, we are intimidated by the dizziness of freedom. So much so that we will add these different balls and chains to our lives to keep ourselves captive so that we don’t have to be dizzy when we are that free.

How to play for a living and dabble your way to success:

Abel: That was another reason, to just to keep building on the same example, I started this show because it got easier and easier to build over time, like you were just talking about.

When you started it, what was that… Was that dizziness there?

Abel: If I’m going to play a show, it always has to come with a context. If someone told you to write a paper and that was all they told you, it’d be really hard to write that paper. But if they said, “You have to write a paper about a Chevrolet,” then it’s like, “Alright. Got it. I can go write that.”

In a similar way, if I just had a podcast and it was like, “Here is Abel and somebody,” and I interviewed people and I’m like, “So what do you want to talk about?” It would be a weird show. But if it’s like, “This is a show about being better, whatever that means to you. Let’s talk about that and we’ll loop it into health.” That’s the jumping point of the conversation and if you give yourself that one little thing, that jump-off point, that one bit of making it a specific, tangible jumping off point, then you can just run with it.

Absolutely, I think that’s sort of how I proceed in this world of freedom. Because people often confuse flying with falling and that’s why they don’t even try to fly metaphorically in their lives.

But I think if you give yourself a couple of anchors, and part of what I love about the brain science piece is that it gives me an anchor of understanding as I proceed. And I find as I move through my life, I’m a bit more attentive to the people I surround myself with because I don’t really want to be surrounded by judgemental people. With judgemental people, I mean… I’m a psychiatrist so I love judgemental people, too. I get it and I understand it, but for my personal life, I feel like I want to be surrounded by people who I feel recognize that I like them, struggling and dealing with life, trying to find this greater degree of freedom, intimidated by it.

Sometimes I overstep the mark, so amongst my friends we have a really, I think, cool understanding that we are all going to overstep the mark at some point. Let’s say nobody ever talks about it, nobody mentions it. We used to first be like, “What happened last night? Why did you say that and why did that happen?” Now people do whatever they want and the next day we just feel more integrated. Because we know we can trust that there’s not some kind of slippery slope into some conventional idea of something, but that everybody is struggling at some level and that everybody oversteps the mark at some level.

So, I feel like that’s the permission people are looking for. I can’t say I’ve overcome it. I mean, I definitely do that with one too many martinis and I’m sort of in another zone. Without martinis, there’s something about my consciousness that can be so scary to me and to others in a certain way. Because I think I feel very loving towards people at baseline and my friends, they’re like, “When you get drunk you become more loving which is crazy.” Because for some reason, people I’m closest to, my friends, they get more angry.

And so, I’m like, “Well, be angry. I’ll be loving. If that’s what you need to express, express it.”

What We Learned from Running Relay Races

Abel: You raise a good point to being around like-minded people. It makes it much easier to create things without boundaries. If you’re by yourself, and you’re like, “I guess I could just doodle,” and that does give yourself permission. It might work for some people, but I think what would work even better for most is involving your friends. Whatever outlet you choose, if it’s music, start a band or join a band. Join a group where people are playing the same thing. Like comedy writing with your friends, you have a fun night out, just write a couple of stories the next morning about it and keep history of it.

When we were in touring bands, we almost always kept a touring history, just so we remember these little nuggets of gold that would be memories forever. It doesn’t have to be big. You don’t have to write a book or create a composition. You need to play a little bit. And having friends around who are doing the same thing, I think, opens you up because then you’re creating something together. You’re not personally making something yourself that’s always going to be tied back to you, right? People can get too stuck in the ego that way.

I love that… So part of the thing about collaboration in itself is, for my part, I actually feel better when I’m in a club. And I love this lesson. First, when I was in high school, I was a competitive athlete in sprinting, and I loved winning my individual races, but there was nothing like winning a relay. Nothing.

In a relay race, people are not happy for you, they're happy with you. @srinipillay Click To Tweet

You celebrate with a bunch of people who are all super jazzed that you’ve won something together and I love that feeling. I love that feeling of knowing that I’m sitting with somebody and they’re not like, “Good job! Congratulations! That’s great!” They’re like “Dude, we did it!” like “How did we do it? I don’t know how we did it, but we did it.” And you feel that connection that we’ve been talking about earlier. It’s another microcosm where you get to exalt in the fact that when you’re connected in the right way, something amazing can happen.

In my last year of high school, I was raised in South Africa, where there were housemasters, and I was the house captain. My brother had won the event, the athletic event, five years before me, so was it was emotional for me. I was the house captain after him, I wanted to win this. And we had to win the last event and it was a relay. I had a good team and I was like, okay, we stand a chance, we actually had one person who was a real threat because he was a South African champion, and I was sort of like, “We have to figure out where to go.”

I was strategizing where to put people. And my housemaster comes up to me and he’s like, “I’m going ask you to do something and I’m not going tell you what to do.” And I go “Yeah?” And he goes, “Well, there’s someone who’s in your class who’s feeling really sad that he’s never run in an athletic event, and he really wants to run this race.” And I looked around and that somebody was completely out of shape, not a runner, and I’m like, “How am I going to make this decision?” Like what… I want to win this event. Everybody in my house wants to win this event. But here’s a person… And there’s no right or wrong about it, but I eventually talked to the guys and they were like, you know what, one of them wasn’t feeling completely in top shape, so he said, “Let him run. I mean, the likelihood that we’re going to win this is very low now, but we’ll figure it out.”

Well, I decided to change it around. I was the fastest runner on our team, but I decided to run second and I put him first. So, you know, he handed the baton to me in last place. But everybody else put their slowest runner second, and so I could overtake all of them and give it to my team first and we won. And winning that event, which was sort of unbelievable. It all had to do with strategy… but it also to do with heart and he was overjoyed, he had never run in his life before and he was like, “What, we won?”

Abel: That’s amazing.

Yes. But it’s one of those things I always talk about in a certain way because learning that feeling of the relay is what made me search for the kinds of business opportunities that I want.

You know I love bringing my own stuff to the table, but I really love when there are different ideas and we could put it together and we have some kind of a team effort and then you make it to the finish line together.

I think as long as there’s no madness about everybody else’s madness, it works out really well.

Abel: Right, I think so, too. And I can’t believe it, we could talk all day but we are coming up on time. So before we go, could you tell folks where they can find you and a little bit more about your new book?

Where to Find Dr. Srini Pillay

You can find me on, on Twitter and Instagram, and the new book is ‘Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind. And you can find that on my website or you can find it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Thank you for having me. It’s always so fantastic to talk to you and to share with your audience because I feel like this is a journey where we get to talk, we get to interact with people and hopefully get to touch lives.

What my hope is that people recognize, and this is sort of a very big change and passion of mine, which is that I’m now going to really declare very very strongly that I truly believe that intelligence is innate, that interactions can bring that out, but that if we don’t dare to connect with the most powerful versions of who we are through different stages of life, we’re losing out. And the struggle is not always easy, but I think as long as you make it fun, it’s a pretty enjoyable way to live a life.

Abel: And that’s how you build invisible intelligence and that’s what you’ve got in spades. So thank you so much Srini, I would do this everyday if it were up to me. So I look forward to chatting with you again soon, I know we will.


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