Positive Leadership

Training your brain for success (with Dr Tara Swart MD)

September 13, 2023 Jean-Philippe Courtois Season 7 Episode 2
Training your brain for success (with Dr Tara Swart MD)
Positive Leadership
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Positive Leadership
Training your brain for success (with Dr Tara Swart MD)
Sep 13, 2023 Season 7 Episode 2
Jean-Philippe Courtois

Finding harmony between head, heart, and gut can positively transform our lives in a powerful way.

Dr. Tara Swart is a PhD neuroscientist and medical doctor who has worked to examine the many intricacies of the human brain to understand why.

In the latest episode of the Positive Leadership podcast, Tara introduces JP to techniques that have improved the minds and behaviors of some of the world’s top executives – listen now.

Subscribe now to JP's free monthly newsletter "Positive Leadership and You" on LinkedIn to transform your positive impact today: https://www.linkedin.com/newsletters/positive-leadership-you-6970390170017669121/

Show Notes Transcript

Finding harmony between head, heart, and gut can positively transform our lives in a powerful way.

Dr. Tara Swart is a PhD neuroscientist and medical doctor who has worked to examine the many intricacies of the human brain to understand why.

In the latest episode of the Positive Leadership podcast, Tara introduces JP to techniques that have improved the minds and behaviors of some of the world’s top executives – listen now.

Subscribe now to JP's free monthly newsletter "Positive Leadership and You" on LinkedIn to transform your positive impact today: https://www.linkedin.com/newsletters/positive-leadership-you-6970390170017669121/

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Hello, I’m Jean-Philippe Courtois. Welcome to another edition of Positive Leadership, the podcast that helps you grow as an individual, as a leader, and ultimately as a global citizen.


TARA SWART: If you go through life saying things like that never happen to me or that’s not going to work out for me, then that’s probably going to become true. So your logic, your emotion, and your intuition have to be aligned. If logic’s telling you to do something but in your gut it feels wrong, it’s not going to work.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: My guest today, Dr. Tara Swart, is a PhD neuroscientist and former medical doctor who has worked to examine the many intricacies of the human brain, which has improved the minds and behaviours of some of the world’s top executives. In her book, The Source, she explores the ways in which we can take control of our brain and harness its incredible power to live healthier, happier, and more fulfilling life. It’s a brilliant read, an essential toolkit for all of you positive leaders. I highly recommend it. It was fascinating to be able to talk to her in detail about how to use the ancient tools and manifestation and visualization to train our mind, to grab life-changing opportunities, but how to free ourselves of self-limiting behaviours in order to move faster towards our truest, most authentic selves. There are so many practical tips in this episode. I really hope you enjoy it. And stay with us until the end. Tara, it’s a huge pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you for joining us. 


TARA SWART: Thank you, and that was a wonderful summary, Jean-Philippe.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: So, Tara, I’d love to start at the very beginning, if I may. You know, you grew up with a real clash of cultures. Your home life’s centred on practices that your parents brought over to the UK from India, such as yoga, mindfulness, and belief in reincarnation as well. How did your values and beliefs shape who you’ve become, and later on, how much of a conflict, if any, did you have to resolve between your scientific studies and Indian tradition, beliefs, and rituals?


TARA SWART: Great question. So I would say that their values and practices shaped me in both a push and a pull way, so, for example, things like the fact that I became a medical doctor and did my PhD. They were things that my parents very much wanted. It was almost predestined for me, since before I was even really conscious. But, when I look back, I think, you know, I was good at languages, I loved history and geography, but I was told that those things wouldn’t give me a secure career, so I wasn’t to pursue those things.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: One of your teachers I think told you that you are not very creative, which I’m sure has been like a huge shock for you. At a young age, like all the statements that we get from teachers, sometimes parents or so-called good friends in early age, which can be devastating.


TARA SWART: Yeah, the creativity comment came from the fact that I wasn’t good at drawing in art, and so the specific point was you’re not good at art, that means you’re not creative. And I think I was about 15 at the time, so I believed that to be true. So I made my decisions on the basis that you can’t get a proper job if you study languages or humanities. I’m not creative, and I was good at science and math, so I thought I’d better do that. But in my mid-30s, I woke up one day and thought I didn’t really choose those things, and if I could do whatever I want to do, and, you know, a lot of the reason I did medicine and did the PhD was because people said you’re so smart, so you could do this, so I thought, okay, if I’m really that smart, what could I do that I actually want to do? So it was, you know, it sort of set me up really well, but then also made me question things, and then, in my mid-30s, I changed career, and I got divorced from my first marriage. And that’s when, in fact, all the kind of practices that I tried to keep really separate, because I just wanted to be a normal kid growing up in London, you know, and all my friends were British, and that’s when I thought, okay, I need to do something different, I need to work out how to come out of this better and stronger, and what really appealed to me then was both Jungian psychology, but also a lot of Buddhist practices and beliefs, so things started to come together for the first time then, I would say, and also by then yoga had become quite mainstream, so I’d gone from sort of feeling really embarrassed if I came home from school and my mother was in a headstand to thinking yoga was really cool.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: So it looks like, I mean, along the years of your different steps in your life, you’ve been reconciling yourself with some of your Indian traditions and rituals and roots while you decide as well on the path that you wanted to take yourself. So it’s interesting to see this nuanced approach of taking aboard when needed, the traditions from your roots. I think most of us can relate to feeling that the character abilities and weaknesses were not only assessed but quite often declared as facts. And at such a tender age by very influential people, and I think it’s not easy, but it’s actually vital, just to not accept to be defined, but what others have to say about you, about ourselves, so my question is really about the journey you went on questioning your life and career choices, Tara. It must have been, you know, daunting, living on one end a very comfortable and well defined career path, the psychiatrist, to get onto a very unknown road and path for the future, right? At the same time, you had a breakdown, of course, of a very important relationship that you alluded to as well. So can you tell us about taking the drastic step, both personally and professionally at the same time. It looks like wow, you know, very few of us would take both challenges at the same time, and how did you weather the storm? What did you do to give you the confidence that you could actually tackle both challenges?


TARA SWART: So obviously I didn’t choose for both of those things to happen at the same time, but they did. And I’m sure there was some interrelation between the decision to change career and how that changed my relationship. And some of my friends said like how many things do you want to change at once? Because I also moved countries. I was living and working in Bermuda, but, as a result of the two other things changing, I decided to return home to London, which helped. So being back in my territory with my friends, my family, familiar, you know, language and places and everything, that helped, where I was working in the government hospitals, it was the lowest socioeconomic classes of people, and there was nothing proactive. There was nothing to do with wellbeing. It was just about fixing really big problems. And that’s probably what became demotivating for me in the end.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Because did you feel unequipped actually in terms of what you bring to these people, given, again, the depths of the issues, where it came from? What was the challenge for you?


TARA SWART: No, no, I mean, it was I felt very equipped to diagnose mental illnesses and prescribe the right medication. But I felt like my impact ended with that person. Often they’ve been like abandoned by their families, they don’t have a job, and I just started to think my impact could be much bigger if I was working with healthy brains that could be even better and not just constantly trying to solve problems that were just recurring, and then a friend of mine who had also done a PhD in neuroscience but had gone to work for one of the big consulting firms, she said to me you know there’s an overlap between what you do and what I do, and it’s called executive coaching. So I started looking into that, and that was quite crazy for me at the time, because I’d only ever had a stable job. I’d become quite senior in my job, and I literally had to start again from the bottom. I did a coaching course. I started working as an office manager, and, you know, the skills that I had, they weren’t very transferrable for being an office manager. So it was a hard six months, but I had that mixture of being nervous and excited, which I’ve learned now is a really good sign that you’re on the right path.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It took enormous courage for Tara to leave her sacred job in medicine to follow her gut feeling and explore new opportunities for self-development and growth. It was around this time that she went back to the book that had come into her life five years earlier. The book is called The Master Key System, written by Charles F. Haanel. It was first published all the way back in 1912 and originally appeared weakly in a newspaper. It’s a classic work of self-empowerment broken in 24 chapters, and you have to do certain exercises each week, your money, your body, with a goal of optimizing your mind and the control you have of it. Tara had read the book but had not committed to doing the exercise. Now, at this critical junction in her life, she realized that she should.


TARA SWART: It took me six months of solid regular practice, and it was really life-changing for me.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: And did you do it by yourself or were you supported, mentored, coached by someone else?


TARA SWART: So I did that by myself, but, in the meantime, I had had both therapy and coaching, so I believe in asking for help. So, for example, if you go back to my roots, to the Vedic texts, they were the first books that, you know, a lot of other kind of spiritual beliefs had come from, but then, you know, if you think of the Greek philosophers, the Bible, this kind of thing has been around for a really long time, and I think either as an individual or as a community, we go through ups and downs where we need to reach out for those sorts of things more, again. You know, I think COVID is an example post which, you know, there’s a lot of mental suffering going on, and so I think the popularity of those sorts of things is on the rise again.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I’d like to come back and get a bit deeper, Tara, basically on the way you’ve been working on your identity, and the chance to have I think a common friend of both of us, Herminia Ibarra, that I hosted on my podcast, she wrote this book called Working Identity. In this book, she explored the process of creating a more fulfilling future, reinventing oneself, and finding the confidence to make characterizations. I had the pleasure to speak to her. In her book, she talks about a few unconventional strategies for reinventing your career, such as start changing what you do and don’t try to discover yourself by introspection, which sounds like counterintuitive, or stop trying to find your true self, which is, well, something I heard many of my guests talking about in my podcast, to be honest. And focus on your attention on which of your many possible selves you want to test and learn more about. In other words, it’s about practicing some different side of yourself by being an entrepreneur of your life, my words, not Herminia’s words. So I’d love to hear about the way maybe or not her book influenced yourself and the kind of change it helped you implement at the time you made all those big changes in your life.


TARA SWART: Yeah, so I agree with you, it sounds counterintuitive, but actually I agree that you can spend a lot of time, like I said, you know, I’d read that book, but never done the exercises. And even when I speak about vision boards, I call them action boards, because you can’t just sit at home and create a fantasy of the life that you want and not do anything, so I get what she’s saying, which is go out there and do something differently and see what works and what doesn’t work. I think we do need to do some introspection, but you could introspect for the rest of your life and never change anything, so I agree with that. For me, the impact that her book had was that it gave me examples of people that had made really massive career changes, because I didn’t have any, I think, or certainly not many examples of that in my own life, and especially not out of medicine. I know a lot more doctors now who’ve changed career, but, at the time that I did, I didn’t know anyone, so just her case studies that showed that people did it, but also the process that they went through, that just made me believe that I could, and that’s actually really important in your brain, so the most famous example of that is when Roger Bannister ran the four minute mile. Before that, we didn’t think it was possible for a human to do it, but, as soon as he did sub four minutes, in the next two or three months, seven or eight other people did it too, so knowing that it’s possible, that’s what Herminia’s book gave for me personally.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Knowing something is actually possible has a huge impact on our ability to burst through barriers. For years, runners have been striving against the clock to break the four minute mile, which was seen as the Holy Grail of athletic achievement. But, by 1954, the barrier had become as much of a psychological barrier as a physical one. Then, just 46 days after Roger Bannister broke the record, another runner, the Australian John Landy did as well. Then just a year later, Phil Reynolds did again in the same race. So was there a sudden growth spurt in human evolution? Of course not. What changed was the mental model. As a leader, when you’re thinking about your goals, you need to be careful not to accept the limitation that defined conventional wisdom. Don’t be afraid to transform the sense of what’s possible in your field. I’d love to talk about the way you move from introspection to action and the way you have to actually, in a way, starting to set your own goals, you know, big and small and your intentions. And I know that’s something very important for you as well. Tara will discuss about the tools and the ways you advise people to do that. We all have learned at least business and in different business circle that you need to define your smart goals, right, isn’t it, so specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bounded. I’ve learned that myself for decades. I recently exchanged with a friend of mine who was on my podcast called Michael Bungay Stanier about his latest book, How to Begin: Start Doing Something That Matters. That’s the name of the book. And in his books, Michael provides practical tools to define your what he calls your worthy goals, a goal that should be thrilling, important, and daunting. And he has defined a three steps process. Number one, set your worthy goal. And of course there’s a lot of meat around the bone on that. Number two, commit, and, number three, cross the threshold, so, Tara, you’re obviously doing a lot of that differently, offering your own approach that you detail in your best seller book, which is a wonderful book I would advise to all listeners, The Source, and you say what is key to remember is that intention focus are at their strongest when our goals align with our deepest life choices and values. This really resonated a lot with me, and your proposing methodology, which is very visual, pictorial, and has different steps, so can you share with us the next stepping stones, journaling, action boards, visualization, and unpack them a little to make the process of making goals intentions a more actionable reality for us? And, if I may add, I know it’s a long question, why don’t you start telling us what your first visualization board would look like in your bathroom, I understand, so, if I was invited in your home, understand, maybe asking where’s the bathroom, Tara, or I could have bumped into a very interesting picture. Can you tell us about the picture, and then you can unpack me the whole process, if you don’t mind?


TARA SWART: Yeah, well, Jean-Philippe, because it was such an amazing but long question, I’ve actually got four points that I don’t want to forget.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Let’s go through them one by one.


TARA SWART: So the first one is it’s interesting what you said about Michael’s three steps, because, when I changed career, because I also got divorced at the same time, I was so poor at one point that I didn’t even know if I could pay my rent or my bills, and people said to me, you could go and just do like one weekend as a doctor, and you wouldn’t have to worry about money for the next few months, but, for me, I had to burn my bridges. If I went backwards to being a doctor, I would feel like I had failed. I had to give myself that no option but succeed.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: You said 100% different. You didn’t make any compromise, say I’m going to do some medical practice on one end and do something else as well.




JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: To hedge my bets. Actually, you decided just to go all the way into the unknown, which was very courageous.


TARA SWART: Yeah. And, you know, that’s not right for everyone. I know people who’ve successfully kept a part time job, also starting up a business, but that was instinctive to me, and now I’ve understood that, if I don’t keep making myself do that, then I’m just going to sort of not start—basically stop growing. So and then I wanted to pick up on what you said about intention. So you used a really nice quote, but I just want to add to that that, for reasons we don’t fully understand, but have huge implications in business, your intention behind any action completely changes the impact of that action on your brain and therefore in your life. So, for example, I do time restricted eating, which means I don’t eat breakfast, I only eat between 12:00 noon and 8:00 PM. And that has a very positive effect not just on your physicality, but also on your mental resilience. If let’s say you, just for example, you’re so busy that sometimes you just forget to eat breakfast. So, you know, usually you do eat three meals a day, but sometimes you’re so stressed, you’re traveling, you just skip a meal, that has completely the opposite effect on your brain and your body. So it’s essentially the same action, which is I’m eating two meals a day or I’m eating less than I used to eat, but the impact on your mental and physical power is opposite. And it’s also the same with the difference between daydreaming, which is where you sat at your desk and you’re supposed to be focusing on a task, but you find that for 15 minutes you’ve been thinking about something else. So that’s not good for your brain, but, if you do intentional mind wandering, so if you say, okay, I’m going to put the laptop lid down, and I’m going to give myself 20 minutes to just think, like maybe come up with some ideas, but just let my mind wander, that’s really positive for the brain, so I think that’s a very actionable point for your listeners. Okay, so onto vision boards. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Onto the bathroom, yes.


TARA SWART: The bathroom. So that was the first year when I had started up my executive coaching practice, and I was living alone for the first time, and because it was a period of transition for me, I was probably more mindful than I would be now, let’s say, of who I actually allowed into my home, so it was really only close, old friends. And there was only one bathroom, so, if they needed to go to the bathroom, they would definitely see my vision board. And I’m a strong believer in that, because, when people make these boards, they often hide them away, because they don’t want anybody else to see them, but then, if I was coaching an executive, I would say what is it about what’s on the board that you don’t want people to see and what does that mean about your sense of worthiness and deserving of what’s on the board? So on that board I actually had the specific sum of money that I wanted to earn in that next year, and I don’t know what it’s like in France, but in Britain, we don’t really talk about how much we earn, or how much we want to earn. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Oh. Even worse in France.


TARA SWART: Yeah. So, you know, it’s not something I would go around telling people, but, like I said, I knew that if they went to the bathroom, they would see that. It also had some elements of travel but related to business, because I wanted to grow, not just work in England, and then because at the time I was renting, I was actually still living in the apartment that I had lived with my first husband in, it had some homes that I would want to buy, pictures of homes. So that was on the first—pretty much that was quite simple, the first one.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: And, sorry, was there a special positioning in the painting where the money’s somewhere on the painting versus where home is, is there a technique for people?


TARA SWART: So it has to mean something to you. I tend to group things together, so I would have the home things in one section and then business things in a different section. Something I’ve learned over time is to not completely fill the board, and leave space, because that’s waiting for opportunities that you haven’t, you know, thought of yet, which I quite like. So anything at the top was probably top priority. Anything at the bottom was quite like foundational to how I want my life to be. Anything on the left hand side would be more to do with like love and family, but that’s just what I decided. It’s not the rules for everyone. It’s just what’s right for you.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It’s your choice, okay.


TARA SWART: Yeah, as long as you know what it means and why it’s there.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: No, quite amazing. You made a couple of comments, Tara, about the fact you kept some open spaces, right, so that you can update, in a way, your vision, or are you repainting or redesigning the whole actually picture every year, every couple of years? What is the practice for encouraging people to do? And I’d love you to talk about the fact, the way you actually move from the picture, the painting, to action.


TARA SWART: I would advise people to do a new one every year. As with any kind of behaviour change or goal setting, there are always some things that are quicker wins and some things that take longer. The reason for doing the board and having it somewhere visible is that you are continually priming your brain to remember that these are the things that you want, because we’re very busy. We have tasks that absolutely have to be done in the real world, which mean that the places I’d love to travel to or the dream client that I’d love to get in the next year might not be my top priority every single day, if I’m trying to just get my life sort of under control. Compared to me on a really busy day, where I’m just running from meeting to meeting and I don’t really have time to notice things, it might be that I pass you in the corridor, and I would think why not just ask him, you know, the worst thing he can do is say no. So if there’s something on my mind that I would like to achieve and I see you and I think that you could help me with it, it would make me much more likely to think, okay, this is a person that could help me, let me ask him for help.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: There are so many actionable points to come out of this discussion. And a number of them are underpinned by the laws of attraction. The laws of attraction are very longstanding, but mostly seen as spiritual, which means not backed up by anything very solid, like empirical data. Tara’s beliefs that led to a number of misunderstandings, so do the laws of attraction actually work?


TARA SWART: So an obvious possible explanation of the law of attraction is that, if you think good thoughts, you attract good things into your life, but then there was a huge backlash which was if I get a disease or I lose a loved one or a war happens in my country, does that mean it’s because I was thinking bad things, you know? And we don’t want people to feel like that at all, because there’s no basis for that being true. And so I just started to think that I liked some of these ideas that you can attract good things into your life, but, as a cognitive scientist, I wanted to be able to explain it with psychology and neuroscience, but I also wanted to feel like I had agency and responsibility and it’s not just something in the universe that makes these things happen. Because I felt like that was just much more empowering as well. So one summer in France actually I just thought let me just, you know, just out of curiosity, see what these laws are and see if I can align them to anything from cognitive science. And I was amazed that sort of 80, 90% of it was just very obvious to me how that was explained by the power of your brain, and the first part was having an abundant mindset. If you can regulate your emotions so that you’re spending less time feeling fear or shame or anger and more time feeling joy and excitement and trust, then you’re actually shifting the balance of hormones that are going around your brain and your body. So you’re moving away from the stress hormone cortisol, and you’re moving more towards the bonding hormone, oxytocin. When you have high levels of cortisol, which in the modern world it’s just so easy for us to have like all the time, your brain will actually reroute the blood flow around your brain and move it away from the higher functions like creativity and problem solving and flexible thinking, because you don’t need those to survive. To survive, you’ve got to wake up in the morning and come and sit at your desk and do a minimal amount on your job so you don’t get fired. But so at the time that you need it the most, your blood flow can actually really go against you and make it very hard to think outside of the box or solve a problem. If you’re at the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got more of this trust and bonding hormone going around your brain body system, then you’re more likely to take healthy risks. You’re more likely to lower your guard. You’re more likely to collaborate and think creatively, so you can already see how that’s going to lead to a better outcome. Secondly is what I call magnetic desire, so the magnetic desire is an emotion that is so strong that even if it feels like things aren’t working out, you maintain your motivation. So, you know, you can see the difference between people that go through a struggle for something, and some people give up, and it was almost just around the corner, and some people keep going, and then they become hugely successful, so that’s the second part. The third part is manifestation, which sounds like a very woo-woo word, but it actually basically is goal setting. It’s saying these are the things I want in my life, this is what I’m going to do to bring those things into my life and actually going out there and doing them, and these are things like asking for a pay rise, trying to get a promotion, trying to get more travel opportunities, learning opportunities. If you just sit at your desk and you never ask, you’re probably not going to get those things, but yeah.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: They never happen, for sure.


TARA SWART: Then it goes into a slightly different mode for the last three, which next comes patience, and the reason I’ve included that is because when you are making changes in your life, you’re physically creating new and different pathways or overwriting existing pathways in your brain, and before we had brain scanning, we would just think of that as psychological work and not understand that it’s actually physically laying down pathways. It’s like building a brick wall, so what happens is there’s a tipping point, where you’re trying to change, and it feels like nothing’s changing, and suddenly it’s like, oh, this is, you know, this is how I operate now. This feels more natural and comfortable. And it’s because it takes time for those neurons to connect up together, and so you’ve got to keep going until you get to that point, where this becomes your more natural behaviour, but, up until then, it’s quite a struggle. And then there’s harmony which is both about the harmony between—well, I talked to you about head, heart, and gut. But there’s actually six ways of thinking, so I define them as logical, emotional, motivation, physicality, which is the brain body connection, intuition, and creativity. So it’s about those being integrated as much as possible, but it’s also about harmony like within yourself, between yourself and other people, let’s say in a team, and then also in a broader way, that you’re not trying to do something that’s actually going to have a negative impact on society or something like that. And that’s kind of very closely related to universal connection, which is the fact that in some ways that we understand scientifically and in some ways that we don’t yet, we’re much more connected than we believe, so we mostly communicate with other through articulated language, because we’ve evolved in that way, and it’s the easiest way. You know, if I say Jean-Louis, do you want to be on my podcast, if you say yes, I think that’s the truth. But, if you say yes and you’re shaking your head like this at the same time, I might think, oh, he’s just saying yes to me, but he’s not going to come back to me. And then, if we were in the same room together and you had high levels of the stress hormone, because you’re trying to get me out of the door so that I can’t ask you to be on my podcast anymore, then I would actually physiologically be aware of that on a subconscious level. So, at minimum, we communicate through speech, through body language, and through hormones. And then there’s other things that we can’t explain, like, in the first lockdown, a journalist called me up and said there’s a global phenomenon of vivid dreaming, people having dreams that seem like they’re completely real, and they’re sort of anxiety-based. And I actually was so surprised, because it had happened to me, and I didn’t realize it was a global phenomenon. So I did my research to help her with the article, and it turns out that the last time that happened was during the world wars. So when everybody in the world, no matter what country, how rich you are, you know, what your life circumstance are, is faced with this common threat, same things happen in the brain, yeah.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Hearing Tara articulate all the steps makes logical sense and is really fascinating. I was also struck by how much it resonates with the three reports of positive leadership philosophy which worked outwards from the visual towards the broader impact universal connection as well, but I want you to come back to talk to Tara about the abundance mindset, to find out what people, young and old, can do about the plasticity of their brains, to improve those higher functions, like creativity, problem solving, and flexible thinking. Tara herself speaks six languages, so what advice can she share about how the rest of us can more easily learn new skills?


TARA SWART: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, that’s probably one of the most exciting things that’s come out of neuroscience research in the last 20 years. This ability, well, so neuroplasticity, which is the ability to change your brain, but the fact that it doesn’t stop, like we used to think, around the age of 18, when you stop physically growing, in fact, so it’s very, very pronounced in the first two years of life. You know, if you think a baby goes from being completely helpless and vulnerable to walking, talking, managing their bowels and their bladder and potentially talking up to five languages, and then there’s another—it’s different, because it’s more about neural pruning, but there’s another big change in the teenage years. And then this process is actually very active until the age of 25, so later than we thought. So then from 25 to at least 65, and I have definitely got examples of people even over the age of 65 that are harnessing neuroplasticity. It’s there, but you have to essentially use it or not lose it, but kind of it slows down, and the main way to keep inducing neuroplasticity in your brain throughout adulthood or throughout working life, specifically, is by learning new things. Now, something like a language or a musical instrument is such an intense learning that it actually, you know, it visibly changes peoples’ brains, and you wouldn’t just get the benefits of let’s say somebody learned French later in life, you wouldn’t just get the benefit of you can go to France on holiday and you can order your meal, because it changes your brain globally, you would get benefits like better emotional regulation, better flexibility of thinking, better problem solving skills, better ability to override your biases, super important at work. But those are quite big things, you know, and a lot of people with a busy job are going to say I don’t have time to learn a new language, so but try to do something new and different as frequently as you can. Go to a country that you’ve never been to before. Cook a meal that you’ve never cooked before. Talk to somebody that comes from a completely different background to you, just constantly be doing what I would call micro learnings, which is just doing things differently to what you’ve always done before.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: No, I love it, because I know there’s also a lot of writings on the 10,000 hours you need, right, to get to your craft and a new skill and a new capability, but if you said, well, of course that’s probably true, and it’s been proven, actually, in many different ways, but you don’t necessarily need to apply 10,000 hours to everything that you want to discover in life. I think that’s in essence what you’re sharing with us.


TARA SWART: I actually do something which I think people would almost call cheating, but I will learn something until I can tell that I’ve gone past that tipping point of neuroplasticity, so, for example, the last language that I tried to learn was Danish, and it was really difficult, and I did it for about six months. I went to Denmark in the summer, and then I came back, because I used to have these 90 minute lessons, but because it was such hard work, I would get really, really hungry and tired, usually about after an hour, and after about six months, I had the lesson after I’d been away for the summer, and then she said, okay, well, we’re done for today. And I was just amazed that it had been one and a half hours, because it just seemed easy. And so then I thought, okay, I’m not really enjoying Danish, I have to be honest, but it’s obviously changed my brain, so, with that one, I stopped there, and then with tennis, like probably everybody else, I started playing tennis again in the lockdowns, and once I got to the point where I realized all of that muscle memory from being a teenager had come back, I kind of felt like, okay, I don’t really need to do it anymore. But there are other things that I have kept doing. I’d like to make that very clear. But there’s a couple of things that I found more challenging. I just did it until I felt like it had had the neuroplasticity impact that I wanted.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yeah, no, excellent, actually, to share that experience, Tara, with our listeners, because I think we got a lot of feedback on that and the way you reinvent yourself. You know, shifting gears a little bit, I mean, in your professional perhaps personal life as well, I’m sure you’ve encountered many people that needed your help to manage stress every day of their lives, different types of stress, actually. And I know that you believe that mental wellbeing, you know, which keeps growing after COVID-19 is the number one issue people have to deal with in their lives. So can you share with our listeners some very practical recommendations on how to take care of yourself, your mental wellness? You mentioned already a couple of things before, you know, in the previous question, but what else would you do?


TARA SWART: I have so many things here, Jean-Philippe, and they fall under the five pillars that I have been speaking about for many years, which are rest, fuel, hydrate, oxygenate, and simplify, but I’ll give you some like, you know, particular facts about each one of those that are quite easy to incorporate into your routine. So, with sleep, the ideal length for the norm in the population is eight hours and 15 minutes. More than that can actually reduce your mental wellness, so oversleeping is not good, but we say at least seven to eight hours, and that’s to do with the time that it takes for the brain to clean itself overnight, but there’s another quick tip that really makes a difference which is, if you have a regular sleeping time and waking time within a one hour window, that seems to have a really beneficial effect as well. And then with fuel, that’s basically your diet, so I’d just like to preface that by saying that even though your brain is very small in your body, it’s the hungriest organ in your body, so it’s using up 20 to 30% of what you eat. So to fuel your brain as effectively as possible, it’s ideal to be mostly plant-based and make sure that you’re trying to eat a variety of 30 different plants per week, but that’s not just vegetables. It includes coffee, dark chocolate, all the grains like rice, lentils, quinoa, spices, black pepper, but also—






JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: No oil? Okay, no olive oil.


TARA SWART: No. So olives rather than olive oil, yeah, actually. But I mean the good oils are good for you too, but I don’t think they count in the 30 different plants, and then eating fermented food is also very good for your brain, so kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, etcetera. There’s so much evidence coming out now about like I think we’re on the tip of the iceberg, but I’ve become obsessed with eating mushrooms, so yeah. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Mushrooms, okay. Particular mushrooms? I mean, do you have a specific selection of mushrooms?


TARA SWART: I mean, I think the more exotic ones are better, but even just eating regular mushrooms, you know, champignon, the average champignon is fine.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Okay, champignon de Paris, okay, very good.


TARA SWART: Yeah, so things like rashi and shitake and oyster, but really just eating two cupfuls of mushrooms per week, and then hydration is really important, because it’s important for the obvious reasons, but also the chemical and electrical messages that pass between neurons, there needs to be enough lubrication for that to happen properly. So we should be drinking half a litter of water for every 15 kilos of our body weight per day. And, if you drink a lot of coffee or you live in a really hot place, then you probably need to drink more. Oxygenation, this used to be very much about doing 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week and doing some strength training, but actually post-COVID what we’ve learned is that if your exercise is too high intensity, it becomes counterproductive, because it’s producing stress hormones, so now it’s become more about—especially because a lot more people work from home, don’t be sedentary, make sure you’re getting up and walking around. Make sure you’re trying to get 5,000 to 10,000 steps a day.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: And outside and in the natural, if you can, right?


TARA SWART: Well, that’s a whole separate point, which is so beneficial, yeah, in nature, absolutely, and outside but not in a polluted area, because, if there’s pollution in your area, which you can check using apps, then it actually reduces the growth factors that help your nerve cells to grow, so outside as long as it’s near a large body of water or lots of large trees. But just separate from exercise, just time and nature is just showing like massive benefits for mental health. And then apart from just movement, making sure we’re breathing deeply, because when we’re stressed, we do shallow breathing. There’s actually shocking statistics about how much people hold their breath when they’re reading emails or they’re looking at social media. So becoming conscious of that, yeah, and then the last thing I was going to say was time in nature, so yeah.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Tara’s advice really connects with the recommendations we’ve had from other positive leaders, including Arianna Huffington, who I spoke to a couple of years ago on the podcast. She had some fascinating insights about how to avoid burnout, by incorporating similar, simple micro steps into your life. Tara’s book is packed with so many incredible exercises, and I wanted to ask her about one in particular that really stood out to me, the technique for overcome problems by breaking them down. It involves getting out a piece of paper and drawing a circle, then dividing it into four quadrants, then labelling each quadrant physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. 


TARA SWART: So physical is literally what you feel in your body. Mental is about your thought processes. Emotional is about your feelings, and then spiritual is either something that’s not described by those three or four people that have spiritual beliefs, it’s something in your spirit or, if you don’t, then it’s something in your values, and so what I asked people to do is think of a time that life, you know, whether it was—usually I ask them to think of a work example, that things were not going well, it was difficult. Things weren’t in flow, team wasn’t pulling together, results weren’t good, and we always start with the negative one, because, remember, about abundance, we don’t want to start with positive and end up negative, because that will have an effect on the brain. I asked people to close their eyes and immerse themselves in that memory for one minute, and then, at the end of the minute, to write down how it felt in your body, what was going on in your thoughts, your feelings, and your spirit. And then I actually do say like take 10 deep breaths or just jump up and down five times to just get rid of that negativity and then repeat, so draw another quadrant labelled the same, and think of a time that things were going really well, you were at your best, you know, people were collaborating, results were great. Close your eyes and immerse yourself in that memory for a minute, and then, at the end of the minute, write down how that felt in the four quadrants, and there’s literally no right or wrong answer. I’ve heard people say that it was exactly the same in all the quadrants or that there’s one quadrant that’s different, or, you know, for me, what I learned, is that the biggest difference between those two is my physicality, so my posture changes, my eye contact changes, my how much I smile, and that’s kind of a little bit easier to force yourself to turn that around. A negative spiral in your thoughts is very difficult to turn that around at the time, but sitting up straighter, giving eye contact, smiling, that helps me to then move through the other quadrants over maybe a day or two.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Super, super helpful framework, super helpful exercise, I think, Tara. You know, thinking about what you just said, we had a great dialogue again with Barbara Frederickson, and I think it was—you know better than I do, there’s been a lot of research on the fact that I think it takes three times more positive events in your daily life than to compensate one negative thing happening to you every day, and so it means as well that, in a way, I think you’re responsible for creating more positive moments in your life as well.


TARA SWART: I completely agree with you. I think it’s at least three positive things for one negative. It might be—I’ve heard seven sometimes, and that makes—




TARA SWART: Yeah, and, you know, the brain is geared for survival, so that makes sense, so we do have to, in the modern day, kind of be very conscious of overriding that.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: So the last couple of questions, unfortunately because the time is flying very fast, you’ve done a lot of work, love to come back to that, coaching growing leaders from the business community now for a number of years, and from other circles, which is very different from where you started, as you say, right, in terms of your professional career. And the way you move from having an impact one patient at a time as a psychiatrist, super hard job, by the way, and I’ve got a lot of admiration myself for people doing that job every day, and you’ve been moving to a place where it had an impact hopefully on millions of people, through your books, your podcasts, you know, videos and more, and so my question is do you have any regrets changing, in a way, the course of your life now? And, if I may, in a way, not applying your strengths to the people who may need the most from you, maybe, I’m just provoking you on purpose, right, compared to people who I’m not saying they don’t need you, they all need you as well. So what’s your take on that?


TARA SWART: I have absolutely no regrets. I don’t believe in having regrets. I believe in, you know, if you make a mistake, learning from it and maybe changing something, but, yeah, I agree with you, the reason that I’ve started doing so much, well, the reason I wrote the book in the first place, but then also that I’ve started doing so much more free things on social media is so that I’m having the widest impact possible, and through the podcast, you know, that’s obviously free, so, yeah, I guess I went from focusing on a very like narrow group of people that have big impact, but then continuing to do that and then just doing much broader sort of higher volume, further reach things as well, because that feels right as well.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: No regrets, like me. No regrets at all on the life we keep having and defining. So very last question, Tara, in a way maybe back to the bathroom, who knows. I’m told that you’re supposed to be the reincarnation of your late grandmother, and that you more than accomplish your dreams with your studies and PhD. So as you plan a new visual board every year, this is the point, did you see the need for you to climb your second mountain, you know, this is this wonderful book from David Brooks, The Second Mountain, and, if that’s the case, what will you find at the top of this second mountaintop? What’s for you?


TARA SWART: Well, I’ve already started the climb, because actually I was a guest on another podcast, and I was getting this repeated question, are you going to write another book? And, you know, in my mind, I’ve done that, I’ve written the book that I wanted to write, and I wanted to have my own podcast, which, as you know, I’ve now released season one of the podcast, and it charted to number one in the UK and the US in life sciences.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Which is a wonderful podcast, by the way, for our listeners here.


TARA SWART: Thank you. And so, at the top of the mountain, to address what you said about reaching as many people as possible, is a TV show. So, yeah, working towards that now.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I am so looking forward to that TV program. It was a real delight to have Tara on the podcast, and I learned so much. From neuroplasticity and how to change your brain to the science behind manifestation, I’m going to make myself a vision board, maybe in my bathroom as well, and, if you do as well, send me a photo of your LinkedIn or Twitter, I’d love to see it. It’s been a delight to have you, again, on the podcast.


TARA SWART: Thank you so much.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: And it’s been wonderful to get all your practices and actually all your wisdom of neuroscience applied to all of us, so thank you so much.


TARA SWART: Thank you.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: In the next episode, I’ll be speaking to legendary South African politician from Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka about servant leadership, the power of mentoring. In that time, she was given a pep talk by President Nelson Mandela. I’m Jean-Philippe Courtois. If you’ve been listening to the Positive Leadership podcast, if you’ve enjoyed this episode, do please leave a comment or rating and share it with your friends. It really does help. Thank you so much for listening, goodbye.