Antifragility: changing your mindset for a better life

Liam Hayes & Dr. Srini Pillay | 23 February 2022 | 22:42

Podcast Transcript: Antifragility: changing your mindset for a better life

Maria Rampa, podcast narrator: Hi, I’m Maria Rampa and welcome to our fourth season of Engineering Reimagined. If this is the first time you’ve joined us, or, if you’ve come back for more, we hope you gain some valuable insights from our inspiring guests to help us reimagine engineering, to lead the world to a better place.

With 2022 now well and truly underway, it’s been an odd start to the year as Omicron has wreaked havoc across the world.

It has meant, for some of us, being unwell, and for all of us, a fractured start to the year.

Two years on from the first outbreak of COVID-19, we are supposedly ‘better’ able to cope with constantly moving goalposts, given the uncertainty ever-present in our lives. However, how many of us truly feel better equipped to deal with cancelled plans, adjusted expectations, and frankly, overworked, blended home and work lives?

Well, today’s podcast guest has some tools that can help. Dr Srini Pillay is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and brain researcher, a McKinsey & Co Think Tank member, and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group—voted one of the Top 20 movers and shakers in leadership development in the world. Recently Aurecon was fortunate to have Dr Pillay share insights with some of our leaders around the concept of antifragility.

We are re-sharing excerpts of Dr Pillay’s presentation with you today, as our leaders found his insights incredibly useful, including Aurecon Chief People Officer, Liam Hayes, who firstly will provide some commentary on what resonated with him most from Dr Pillay’s session.


Aurecon Chief People Officer Liam Hayes-commentary

I first heard about the concept of antifragility from Aurecon’s Chief Executive Officer Bill Cox. As many of you would know, Bill is an avid sailor and has a friend who, when he sees a storm brewing across Sydney harbour, races to get his boat out on the water. Bill’s friend wants to experience first-hand the challenges and dangers of sailing a boat in a storm. He wants to test his equipment, see what works and what doesn’t, so that if he’s caught in a storm in an important race he’s better able to respond as he knows what to expect.

This is what is known as ‘antifragility’.

There is a difference between antifragility and resilience. Resilient people block shocks to the system, yet they remain the same, whereas the anti-fragile get better.

There were so many valuable takeaways from Dr Pillay’s presentation on antifragility, but these are just a few that really resonated with me.

Dr Pillay talked about how clarity can be gained in stressful situations like public speeches. He explained the important link between mindset and performance and has created a methodology called CIRCA to reduce anxiety and help you think more clearly.

Dr Pillay also discussed the value of the unfocused brain – how too much focus can be a bad thing. The value of techniques such as napping, positive constructive daydreaming and doodling or drawing to build focused and unfocused time into your day were shared. Who knew that five to 15 minutes of napping could lead to up to three hours of clarity?!

A mindset of possibility has been shown to correlate with better goal setting and evaluation. Dr Pillay also spoke about the power of possibility thinking to help reframe business models. Even if a business is doing well, you don’t just want to be stuck in the status quo.

Dr Pillay also discussed the hallmarks of burnout and how to overcome and prevent these. He also provided insight into why looking after our brain and stress levels is critical to reduce our risk of heart attacks and cancer.

I hope you gain as much value from Dr Pillay’s presentation as I did.

Antifragility-Asia Leadership Forum with Dr. Srini Pillay

What we're going to be talking about today is how to optimise your innate capacity to be able to function at your highest level. What we want to do is fill out this performance gap with antifragility. So, let's look first at the definition of antifragility. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resist shocks and stay the same. The anti-fragile get better. What we're talking about is not just how to recover from shocks. But how do you get into the situation of adversity and use this chaos as a tailwind so that you actually do really well in this environment? What research shows is that mindset is a really good place to go to. Peter Drucker is famous for saying that culture eats strategy for breakfast, because if you have a mindset culture, it actually can significantly influence your success. Keller and Price at McKinsey did a study showing that if you are aligned in your aspirations this can improve your performance by between two and four point four times.

How do you build a dynamic and progressive mind? And from the perspective of reframing business models, how do you remove obstructions to possibility thinking so that you reach your highest level of functioning? Let's first take a look at removing obstructions to clear thinking and strategic speed and how you can target your brain to think more clearly. Jocelyn Davis and Henry Frechette and colleagues actually studied strategic speed within organisations, and they found that there were three factors that contributed to optimising strategic speed. The first was clarity. The second was unity. And the third was agility. Now in the brain, what we know is that for clarity to occur, the prefrontal cortex, the thinking brain, has to be unencumbered. The prefrontal cortex has to not have interruptions from other parts of the brain so that it can't function. But what happens when you're anxious is that the anxiety centre or the emotional centre is like an alarm in the brain and it disrupts what the prefrontal cortex can do.

How do you quiet down this anxiety centre so that you free up your thinking brain to think more clearly? And I've come up with this mnemonic 'CIRCA' and each step in 'CIRCA' is backed up by a large amount of research that shows that when you perform the step, it actually takes blood away from the anxiety centre in the brain, allowing your thinking brain to think more clearly, and I'm going to go through each of these different steps.

The first 'C' is for chunking, the 'I’ for ignore mental chatter, the 'R' for reality check, the 'C' for control check and the 'A' for attention shift.

What you need to know is that when you chunk something down, it prevents your brain from being overwhelmed. Chunking is very important when you do it explicitly by breaking things down into segments. So, if the task is too big, you break the task down. If the task seems too overwhelming, you spread it out over time.

Ignore mental chatter refers to mindfulness. You close your eyes and you place your attention on your breath like a flashlight. And if your mind wanders, you gently bring your attention back to your breath, just observing in and out.

The 'R' is for reality check. And this is just because when something is anxiety-provoking, your brain makes up lots of catastrophes. One thing that you can do is call out the possible end. So, you literally use self-talk by talking to yourself, either out loud or in your mind. And you say this too shall pass. And by reminding your brain that this is not going to last forever, it actually starts to calm down. So that's reality check.

Control check is all about acceptance. Studies show that we need to really focus on the things that we can control.

The last 'A' in CIRCA is attention shift, and it's there to remind us that when things are bad, we often spend a lot of time talking about the problem and not enough time talking about the solution. So, if you shift your attention to what you want, you are much more likely to solve that problem.

One of the things that we know about stress and anxiety is that they can impact genes because they cause negative changes that we that we call epigenetic changes. And when that happens to genes, it can open up pathways to cancer, heart disease, stroke and neurodegenerative disease. So, it's really important to work sustainably, to work intelligently.

Now you might ask yourself, how can I make this work? You can download the CIRCA app, you can do a daily CIRCA. So, you just typically go through all five steps at the beginning of the morning. Or you can use the CIRCA before stressful moments. If you're going to a board meeting or you're about to go to a talk, you just do a quick CIRCA. And if you're thinking about how to institutionalise this, you can use CIRCA on teams or also have CIRCA meetings, if you sense that anxiety is too high and you want people to become more productive.

So that's the first piece. The second piece has to do with preparing an energised and agile brain. The value of unfocused. And when we talk about work, home balance or harmony, it's important to remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. So, it's not about just focus, focus, focus to the finish line because that can really exhaust you. Now I'm very much in favor of focus, and I think focus is very important to get things done. But there are disadvantages of focus that it's important to become aware of.

The first is fatigue. If you actually focused the whole day, studies have shown that when you come to the end of the day, you actually will care less about other people and giving people glucose starts to make them care more. Focus can fatigue the brain. We call this prefrontal cortex depletion, and it basically means you're taking all the energy out of the prefrontal cortex. If you focus, you are thinking with tunnel vision. And it may seem great, but An Wang, who invented the word processor, actually was so focused on version two, he didn't notice that the PC was about to take over. If you focus with your nose to the grindstone, you're just looking in front of you. People who do that are not aware that there are upcoming trends. Also, when you're focused, you're focused on one point, and for innovation, you need to connect two or more dots. So focus can disrupt your innovation. One of my favorite definitions of leadership is one that is Warren Benson's definition, which is becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and also that difficult. And in order to become yourself, you need to engage both the focused and unfocused networks in your brain. When you let your brain be more intelligent than simply pragmatic, studies have shown that just being pragmatic is really negative when it comes to recovery from recessions. Ranjay Gulati and Nitin Nohria published a study on this in Harvard Business Review. Unplanned successes can be really helpful. Sara Blakely, who founded Spanx, thought about the idea while getting dressed for a party. She was the world's youngest self-made billionaire, no business course and no experience in her field, and Kary Banks Mullis discovered a way of making synthetic DNA when he was driving from Berkeley to Mendocino. Steve Jobs in 1974 spent time in India meditating, ruminating and walking around nearby villages. And in 76, he founded Apple and in fact, he gave the same advice to Mark Zuckerberg as well to take time off whenever you feel like you're stuck because when you unfocused, it can energise your brain. Some people call the unfocused circuit the crystal ball of the human brain. It also allows you to become more creative. Your sense of self becomes much more powerful. So the unfocused circuit is super important. What you see here is to really achieve a balance to thrive, to be anti-fragile. You need to go from the focus to the unfocused brain and then back to the focused brain. Now the next question is, how do you actually deal with this? If you're going to build ‘unfocused’ into your day, what can you do? I'm going to talk about three techniques: napping, positive constructive daydreaming and doodling or drawing. When it comes to napping, five to 15 minutes of naps gives you one to three hours of clarity. We're afraid that if we nap, someone will think we're not working. But if you can refuel your brain just with a nap, why would you not? A lot of companies like Google actually offer napping pods to be able to do this. Now to improve your creativity, you need a full cycle, which is a 90-minute nap, and that's not that practical during the week. But if you have a creative challenge, you might consider it on the weekend. So in general, what I recommend is if you're going to nap, then nap approximately two times a week, especially when you feel like you're losing your energy and you're losing your clarity. Positive constructive daydreaming was something that was first studied by Jerome Singer in 1955, and he said there were three types of daydreaming. The first was slipping into a distraction, which is not helpful. The second was being guilty and that's not helpful. And the third is positive, constructive daydreaming. So for positive, constructive daydreaming there are a couple of things to remember to build this practice into your day. You have to be engaged in something undemanding, something like walking or gardening or knitting. And then you start imagining what's playful and what's wishful. Maybe running with my dog through the woods or lying on the beach, and when you do this, when you allow your mind to go free, then your perception is not what's important. You access an inner intelligence. And then this doodling or drawing has been shown by a study by Jackie Andrade to improve memory by 29 percent, although recently there was a caveat to this because, they found that you actually have to be drawing relevant figures rather than just scribbling on a piece of paper.

So how do you personalise this? The first is you can build non-negotiable, unfocused times into your schedule. My general recommendation is to do it several times a day. Now you might say, I don't have time to do this because I've got to get work done. But studies that look at how we all use our minds show that close to 50 percent of the time, we're daydreaming anyway in a non-productive way. So taking structured time out can be really helpful. And of the different things that I mentioned, napping or positive constructive daydreaming or doodling or drawing, choose one that works and connect this to an outcome to see if your work does actually improve by blocking out time 20 minutes, three times a day just to get a start, and if that sounds like too much, then start with once a day and increase that gradually. Because if you just think about the implications of this, in your brain, you have a couple of major circuits and they all contribute to your intelligence. If you only activate the focused circuit, you are losing the intelligence from one of the most major circuits in your brain. So if you really want to be productive and you really want to be able to be in a state of flow, it actually is very advisable to take unfocused time.

I am now going to go into the last section of what we're talking about, which is how to see around corners and ‘let the future use you’. Now in the brain, if we use possibility thinking it actually activates the brain's GPS, when you say what is possible, what is my greatest possibility in life, even if you don't know how to get there. It's like telling your brain's GPS where you want to get to. The mindset of possibility thinking by asking yourself, how can I raise the bar so I can be my greatest self, has been shown to have tremendous advantages. Burnett did a meta analysis and found that when you have a mindset of possibility, it actually correlates with better goal setting, orienting and monitoring and it also allows you to see your errors more easily. Now, why possibility thinking? Well, one of the things that I think has come up for the organisation at large is that you don't want to be stuck in the status quo, just doing the same old thing. Even though the business is doing well, you want to also exercise your intelligence into it. You want to bring a possibility to your work that has perhaps not been seen, because when you tell yourself that you believe in something positive for yourself and for the company, your body starts secreting natural and endogenous opioids so you're more relaxed and dopamine so that you feel more motivated. So, possibility thinking actually accentuates this feeling of motivation and also relaxation. Your negative expectations can actually lead to negative outcomes in the brain and in the way you feel. For your team, what is preventing them from actually operating at their greatest level? How many of you would say it's burnout?

The three hallmarks of burnout are actually cynicism, ineffectiveness and exhaustion. So people feel like this is never going to change. I don't feel like I'm operating at my best, but I don't care, and I'm kind of exhausted. And work overload is one of the top causes of burnout that it's important to address. But so is unfairness, absence of reward, community breakdown, lack of control and also conflicting values. These are some of the major factors that contribute to burnout that actually make your work almost impossible to do. A recent study with physicians found that, looking at burnout in physicians, in 29 percent of physicians with the highest level of resilience, there was also the highest level of burnout, which means burnout is not just about whether you're resilient. Often it's the systems issue. Changing the structure of the organisation is particularly important. What's interesting about that is usually high performers recognise burnout a little bit too late. And so by the time it gets to that point, you're already just not caring about what's going on. So it's really important to ask yourself, why do I not care about my health and well-being? Am I waiting for that heart attack to happen? Do I feel like I don't care about myself?

Burnout extends all the way from what we call the false smile stage where people come into work and they're like, Hi, how are you doing? Well, I'm great. That's when you're using extra energy to cover up what you're actually feeling, all the way to not being able to get out of bed. And so there are different levels of burnout. The most important thing about burnout is preventing the progression of burnout. Stop rewarding people who are working in a way that's dangerous to their brains and dangerous to their bodies. The shift in leadership that this calls for is to say, You know what, I'm taking my life into my own hands. I love my work. I love doing what I'm doing. But I'm going to do it in a way that doesn't compromise my well-being. What you do is you focus on the cause. You ask yourself if it's work overload. How do I change the system and how do I change the way we're working? One thing that most people are saying right now is “ruthless prioritising”. Recovery has led to so many different priorities that you actually have to ruthlessly prioritise. And as a leader, help your team to prioritise as well. If you're lost, you can reevaluate your direction. Resolve conflicts. If you've already given up and surrendered that you don't have the brain energy to care about this, and so in that instance, taking a timeout, establishing a new direction can make all the difference in the world. If you're depressed or anxious, allowing yourself to get early treatment is important. If you are worried too much, it's important to try to understand what that worry is about. People who worry, deliberately keep themselves in between because when something bad happens, they don't want to fall from a height of life. What that means is that you end up never enjoying anything. So I always recommend to people that to decrease worry, build an extraordinarily positive experience every week into your life. And then with imagination, doing imagery exercises is super important. It can really help you. When you're thinking about achievement and you're thinking about motivation, remember imagery can be super positive in helping you understand how you can overtake people so that you can feel competitive and feel light.

So just to summarise, we talked about the fact that reframing business models is really about paths of possibility thinking, and that creating a strong sense of purpose is also about cognitive rhythm. And if you're thinking, Well, where do I start with all this information? I have a few suggestions for you. Start each day with possibility and CIRCA for the first five minutes. What's possible for me today? Make unfocused times mandatory by adding them to your schedule. Add obstructions to possibility to address the obstructions to possibility for self and team. So thank you very much. We hope that this was helpful to you and that you'll use some of these techniques in your day to day lives.


Maria Rampa:We hope you enjoyed this episode of Engineering Reimagined on antifragility. How will you incorporate possibility thinking, CIRCA and unfocused time into your daily routine? We’d love to hear your ideas, so please leave us a review and your feedback and suggestions. Until next time, thanks for listening!

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Dr. Srini Pillay on the connection between mindset and performance

As we enter year three of the pandemic; the line between work and home life is becoming increasingly blurred. When you're working from home, it's easy to reply to that late night email, or just finish one more task before logging off, leading many of us to be burnt out and unable to function at the highest level.

In this episode of Engineering Reimagined we'll explore the concept of antifragility, the important link between mindset and performance, the CIRCA methodology to reduce anxiety and even how scheduled napping can improve your focus.

You'll hear from Dr Srini Pillay, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and brain researcher, a McKinsey & Co. Think Tank member, and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group. Here we'll share excerpts of Dr Pillay’s presentation with Aurecon's leadership team, featuring an introduction from Aurecon's Chief People Officer, Liam Hayes.

Meet our guests

Learn more about Liam Hayes & Dr. Srini Pillay.
Liam Hayes Chief People Officer Aurecon

Liam Hayes

Chief People Officer, Aurecon

Liam leads Aurecon’s People team which focuses on providing solutions that enables the company to attract the best talent and create the right environment that allows people to succeed.

Liam was a recipient of the Australian Financial Review BOSS Magazine’s Young Executives of the Year award in 2017 and is board member for Wear for Success, an organisation helping people experiencing economic hardship through unemployment prepare for job interviews.

Dr. Srini Pillay CEO NeuroBusiness Group

Dr. Srini Plillay

CEO, NeuroBusiness Group

Dr. Srini Pillay is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and brain researcher who is also a certified master executive coach with more than two decades of experience in applying brain science to mindset shifts. He is the CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, where he pioneered a field of leadership called neurocoaching®. In working with leaders globally, he was voted “one of the Top 20 movers and shakers in leadership development” in the world by Training Industry.

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