Tara Swart is a medical doctor, neuroscientist, award winning author and the CEO of The Unlimited Mind.
She also lectures at MIT Sloan in the USA and does a bit of advisory work for businesses in the wellbeing space. She travels a lot and always tries to take in some art, fashion and exotic cuisine as a reward for all the hard work!
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
My career has actually evolved over time – I started out as a doctor for seven years before I moved into consultancy and set up my own company that offers high-level coaching, speeches and team development based on neuroscience. My day to day job now is so varied that I don’t think I could ever have accurately predicted it – as well as being a leadership coach I travel all over the world lecturing and speaking, and I am co-author of the book Neuroscience for Leadership: Harnessing the Brain Gain Advantage. I also undertake research and studies into areas which particularly interest me, for example I have recently launched a study into the mental resilience of journalists, whose job I consider to be particularly stressful in a similar way to perhaps, A&E doctors or soldiers.
What made you decide on a career in science? Have you ever faced any gender discrimination?
I have always been a scientist at heart and I studied science and medicine at both Kings College London and Oxford University. I wish I had known 20 years ago what I now know about the way our brains work, and my ambition and passion is to help as many people as possible learn how they can train their brains, and adapt their habits to maximise their potential.
In terms of my gender, I am very sure of what I stand for and I enjoy maintaining my femininity in all aspects of my life, but attending a school with 60 girls and 600 boys at the age of 16 probably helped me to cope with the male-dominated environment that the worlds of science and business can sometimes be!
Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?
Starting my own business certainly had it’s challenges, as is often the case for anyone who takes this entrepreneurial leap. This was not least because the application of neuroscience to leadership is not something that has really been done much before, so I did not have many reference points to look to. I had to be more flexible in my thinking than ever before! A big thing I learnt is that if you are willing to ask for help it is incredible how much people will help you.
I found using mentoring and coaching extremely helpful as well as maintaining my supportive personal relationships.
These shouldn’t be underestimated – you need good people around you professionally and personally, to hold you accountable to being at your best as well as give you perspective. Building and nurturing a relevant network was also vital to my success.
It has been hugely rewarding seeing the business grow and take off, and the balance and variety in my life is great – there is no “typical” day. I find myself all over the world, in London, New York, Boston, Jo’burg or Cape Town and can be doing anything from speaking at conferences, brain profiling and monitoring stress and resilience using wearable tech, coaching on meaning and purpose or finding mindfulness techniques for busy executives and leaders. I do find that the jet lag is sometimes difficult to deal with. Fortunately I have a number of neuroscience-based solutions to help manage that, including keeping hydrated and fasting on the flight and rest days after longer trips.
On a typical workday, how do you start your day and how does it end?
We all know how important it is to eat a healthy breakfast but people aren’t often as aware of the benefits that certain types of food can have for your brain health specifically. My favourite brain friendly foods are eggs, avocado, nuts and seeds, melon, salmon and olive or coconut oils. I also take magnesium and omega oil supplements for resilience. I only have 1 caffeinated drink per day and I drink about 2 litres of water. I designed a brain food juice for Imbibery London called Mind Mylk and that is almost a breakfast in itself for days when I’m in a rush!
I practice mindfulness by either yoga or meditation depending on time availability. Kicking off your morning with just a 12 minute mindfulness meditation can be a useful way of focusing your brain to make the most of the day ahead.
In my spare time I enjoy theatre, ballet, art galleries and reading, so I often spend time on these or with family and friends during the evening. At the end of the day I try to avoid looking at emails or my laptop, or indeed any device which emits blue light, for an hour or so before bed so that I can get some undisturbed sleep. This is crucial for our memory, IQ level and prevention of certain diseases like dementia, which can be caused by build-up of protein plaques and beta amyloid tangles that are cleaned out of our brains while we sleep.
What advice can you give about the benefits of networking?
Networking is probably one of the most important things you can do when building a business. To me it has always been about taking an interest in and listening to other people rather than trying to sell something. It’s also a great way of meeting like-minded people and is particularly important if you are self-employed or don’t work for a big multinational company with a ready-made network of contacts.
With an abundant attitude, networking can boost your confidence and actually make you feel less stressed!
Building strong, supportive and trusting relationships helps to release oxytocin, which is a hormone that suppresses the release of cortisol (too much of which can cause us to feel stressed).
How would you encourage other girls or women into a career in STEM?
Encouraging and empowering girls to pursue sciences at school to GCSE and beyond is key. To do that we need to promote and inspiring teachers and better publicise women’s achievements in science, tech and engineering so that pursuing a career in these sectors seems an achievable and rewarding option. The ability of the brain to begin to catalogue information cements properly during teenage years, meaning intelligence develops the most during this time, and teenagers are also very impressionable, so there needs to be more of a focus on systemic encouragement of careers in science during early adolescence particularly. Science and tech are super interesting and can be used in so many different careers, be potentially lucrative and are a great way to meet interesting people. The old fashioned ideas about careers in science need to be blown out of the water!
What does the future hold for you?
I want to use my knowledge and experience in the field of neuroscience to help as many others as possible better understand how their brains work, so that they can get the best out of them. My leadership coaching practice is focused on using tools like brain profiles to track the ability of leaders over time to manage stress, regulate emotion and retain information, to improve not only their mental resilience, but also the impact their personal performance has on their business. I want to keep expanding my business, but I also want to go further, by more widely disseminating simple, pragmatic neuroscience-based messages that change the way in which people work, helping them to live happier and healthier lives. I’m currently developing a range of products including an App around mental resilience and keeping our brains healthy, tailored to different stages of life and giving us better responses to big life changes.