Srini Pillay is a world-renowned, Harvard-trained psychiatrist, former Director of the Outpatient Anxiety Disorders Program at McLean Hospital, and author of Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind.


Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?

I grew up in Durban, South Africa. My childhood, as I remember it, was quite idyllic. I idealized my parents and brother, and came from a very warm, loving and supportive family.

There were some absurd but important contradictions that have been very influential. For example, I grew up in an area where I could hear gunshots outside my window from time to time, while my mother powdered my feet with her special “talcum powder” that came in a mirrored “ballerina box” that played Chopin when you opened it.

The lull of a childhood sleep, the glorious caress of Chopin and my mother at the same time, and the end of a life or an injury outside our window all happening at the same time was absurd, uncomfortable, powerful, frightening and empowering.

Despite the absurdities and atrocities of apartheid, which prevented me from having a conventional sense of belonging, the prohibitions contributed to a vicarious sense of possibility.

And I was fortunate to grow up understanding that I could not generalize about specific “white” people on account of the injustices of apartheid because of my loving friends of all races.

What do you think separates world-class/top performers from everybody else?

I’m not sure there is much that separates me. For one, all humans are 99.9% genetically identical. But if you asked me why I have been successful and others not, I would say that I never feel like I have actually done my best, so that I am always striving, and I don’t see my limitations as a reason to stop, but a reason to learn and change.

Also, I think we all need to look deeply at what success means to us. It’s not the same for all. Perhaps I always wanted to be a world-class expert in my field, but that doesn’t make me more successful than a parent who wants to stay at home with a child.

My mother did the latter for most of my childhood and I think she would say that she feels that her dreams were realized when she had two children she could help grow.  (She still feels this way!)

What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently? 

I think my latest book Tinker Dabble Doodle Try summarizes this well. I build in unfocus time into my day. I try to create 15 minute breaks throughout the day. I think meditation helps me focus, and I remain engaged because most of the things I do, I love.

When you are that absorbed by your work, productivity is not much of a consideration. I change from seeing patients to coaching executives, to writing music and researching biotechnology and technology throughout the week.

I use deadlines as my absolute anchors, but between them, I like switching from topic to topic. Making connections between the various fields also fuels my productivity.

What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?

That physical stretching and rolling out tense muscles is essential, not optional.

What is your morning routine? 

I try not to keep too many routines. It differs from day to day. In general, I get up (probably annoyingly with a spring in my step), start writing for a few hours, meditate, work out, engage in morning ablutions, talk to people I love, and check email, in any particular order.

What brings you joy and makes you happy?

I rarely feel only one feeling. Happiness, sadness, fear, awe, horror all seem to travel as companions at the same time in my brain. But if I had to pretend that there are ever moments when I felt happy only (most people would say I appear to be this way most of the time), I think it is when I give people I love meaningful and heartfelt gifts.

Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often? 

D.H. Lawrence: “I know that man cannot live by his own will alone. With his soul, he must search for the sources of power in life. It is life we want.”

Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”

What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?

Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence. I think that it captures the complexity and paradoxical nature of being human brilliantly. Also, Lawrence has a unique way of merging the spiritual and the carnal. I have never read of loins written about with such sublimity.

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. It’s the most beautiful book ever written, though I have never had the stamina or time to re-read it.

Swami Satchidananda: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda is the best book on how to evolve your consciousness ever written, in my opinion.