Take time out and celebrate the wins. We often get so obsessed with achieving that we forget to stop and reflect on how much we have already achieved. I recently went on a surf trip with seven mates to the Solomon Islands. We surfed, ate, drank, and chatted about our successes and our struggles. I came back from that trip ready to put 150% back into my business and my life. I came back believing in myself.
Starting something new is scary. Learning to believe in yourself can be a critical precursor to starting a new initiative. Why is it so important to learn to believe in yourself? How can someone work on gaining these skills? In this interview series, we are talking to business leaders, authors, writers, coaches, medical professionals, teachers, to share empowering insights about “How To Learn To Believe In Yourself.” As a part of this series we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Mark Williams.
Mark is the founder/director of Rethinking your Brain Pty Ltd and has worked with thousands of students, teachers, health professionals, and company directors keen to understand how their brain works, how to perform optimally and maintain a healthy brain. He has taught the fundamentals of neuroscience to a wide range of students, as well as publishing more than 70 scientific articles and worked at MIT in the USA and multiple universities in Australia. His new book “The Connected Species: How understanding the evolution of our brain can change the world” will be published in August 2023.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in a small country town in outback Australia. It was the type of town that people drove through on the way to somewhere more interesting. I remember as a teenager trying to hitch a ride with friends’ older siblings to go to the nearest McDonalds… about an hour drive away. We would do anything to get out of town. There was high unemployment and a lot of drug issues. The two main job prospects for those that didn’t own farms were an apprenticeship at the abattoir or in the lumber industry felling old growth trees.
My mother had a mental illness and struggled with dealing with life and family. My father was a workaholic and avoided the issues with my mother by being busy and absent. When he retired, we came to realize he also had mental health issues that he hid through work. I hated school and was a truant a lot of the time. I remember when I was about 15 years old, the school principal called my father in. He told my parents that by the time I was 25, I would be in prison or dead, so he thought it was best for me to go and get an apprenticeship.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
Ironically, it was when I was 25 years old that I decided to go back to complete high school. Two close friends had heroin overdoses and it shocked me into rethinking what I was doing. I decided I wanted to change. I enrolled in the local TAFE (equivalent of a community college in the US) and I was lucky to have a physics teacher who saw something in me that I had never seen. He believed in me and convinced me that I was smarter and had more to offer the world than I had ever believed. It is one of the reasons I now work with schools — the impact that one teacher can have on a student is amazing.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It wasn’t when I was starting my business but rather when I first started my undergraduate degree at university. Home computers were pretty new and universities were just starting to require students to have email accounts and submit work that was produced on a computer. There were computer labs at the University that we could use and the banks started giving loans to help students purchase computers for their studies. I took one such loan and I was very excited to have a brand-new computer at home with a dial up modem that made a lot of noise and did very little else.
My first mistake was now I had a bank loan that I had to pay back, which meant extra work. The second mistake I made was that I went out and got the video game Doom. Perhaps I had inherited my parents’ addictive personalities as I very quickly got addicted to playing Doom. I ended up missing multiple major projects and failing most of my courses. I had to write a pleading letter to the University Board to be allowed to repeat first year and not be expelled. Thankfully, they gave me a second chance, I learnt the important lesson that I do have tendency to become addicted easily and I needed to channel that drive into positive actions.
I went on to complete a double major in physiology and psychology with honors, then a PhD in medicine and was awarded a CJ Martin Fellowship to work at the McGovern Institute of Brain Research at MIT. I think I learnt my lesson!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I have just completed my book, “The Connected Species: How the Evolution of the Human Brain Can Save the World”, which is available for pre-order online. It is my first foray into popular science writing and the culmination of the past 25 years of research on our brains. I see the huge potential that we have as a species on this planet earth, but I believe we are at a cross-roads. We need to make some informed decisions about which way we want to head — and the type of people we want to lead us. At the moment, a few very powerful people and companies have too much control; they are leading us down a path that benefits them and their friends rather than society in general. We need to take back control and start heading in a direction that benefits us all. Understanding how our brains have evolved and how we got to this point is an important step in understanding our current situation and making informed choices for the future.
I also recently started Rethinking the Brain, an Educational Neuroscience Company with the focus on creating a brain healthy world, one organisation at a time. The most important asset in any organisation is the brains of the people involved! Rethinking the Brain offers insights and information based on decades of research on how the human brain works. Our science-based development, training, and systemic change programs provide all the facts and none of the neuromyths.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to believe in yourself? Can you share a story or give some examples?
Actually, I don’t think anyone who is truly successful believes 100% in themselves, unless they are narcissists — in which case their beliefs probably aren’t real. To be successful at whatever field you have chosen, you need to be extremely focused and dedicated to being the best you can be. You have to keep pushing and keep striving no matter what obstacles or barriers are thrown up in front of you. This requires a huge amount of grit and determination, and you don’t get that from 100% believing in yourself. You get that from fearing failure. You get that from being scared of not achieving your goals. You get that from being stressed and anxious that someone will realize that you are an impostor, and that you are not good enough.
So really, you need to believe in your mission, or the outcome, or the results that you are striving for. You need to truly believe that the work, that the time and effort, that the dedication and sacrifices, are worth it for the result you are aiming for. You need to have a strong belief that the outcome will be worth the suffering on the way. This then gives you the basis to achieve.
And you need people around you who truly believe in you 100%. It is the people around us, the people we are connected with and rely on, that need to believe that we are capable of achieving our goals. They are the ones that we look to when we falter. They are the ones we think about when we are struggling. And they are the ones that are still around even when we haven’t been around for them, for weeks, months and sometimes years. Because they believe in us and drive us to great things.
Of course, you do need to believe that you are the right person — that you can make a difference — and that you need to achieve your goal or outcome. But that comes from knowing that what you want to do is important, and the support of others believing in you.
What exactly does it mean to believe in yourself? Can I believe that I can be a great artist even though I’m not very talented? Can I believe I can be a gold medal Olympic even if I’m not athletic? Can you please explain what you mean?
Well, anyone can believe that they can be anything they want to be, but that doesn’t mean that they will achieve it! Believing is not doing. I remember many years ago, Professor John Duncan from Cambridge University told me that ideas are the easy part, everyone has ideas, it is putting those ideas into action that is what most people don’t achieve. Having belief that you can achieve a particular goal is the easy bit, achieving that goal is the hard part.
Was there a time when you did not believe in yourself? How did this impact your choices?
I continue to have doubts about what I can and can’t achieve but it is too late now to turn back! And I have wonderful people around me who believe in what I am doing.
When I was young, obviously, I had no belief in myself at all. I didn’t believe I was intelligent enough to go to university, let alone become a professor. I didn’t believe I was good enough to have positive friends or be in a stable relationship, let alone to have two beautiful children and a loving wife. And I definitely didn’t believe I was clever enough to write a book or setup a business that was focused on creating a brain healthy world. Yet here we are!
So what changed? It wasn’t overnight, but it was people I met along the way who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. It was the support and encouragement that I received and continue to get from people I work with, people I love and often even strangers who have come across my work. The people around us can change our perception of who we are and improve our belief in ourselves.
At what point did you realize that in order to get to the next level, it would be necessary to build up your belief in yourself? Can you share the story with us?
Early in my academic career, my then girlfriend who later became my life partner and mother of our kids convinced me that I should not only apply for an extremely prestigious fellowship but also to email Professor Nancy Kanwisher at MIT and ask if she would support me in the application. Nancy, who I had never met before, not only replied but asked me to visit her in Boston (USA) and to stay at her home while we discussed projects and ideas for the application. These two amazing women believed in me, which required me to challenge my own lack of self-belief.
Having people around us who inspire us, support us and believe in us can shift our self-belief in amazing ways.
What are your top 5 strategies that will help someone learn to believe in themselves? Please share a story or example for each.
Video available at https://youtu.be/9VMTyT04cYU
1 . Surround yourself with people who believe in you. When I was considering leaving my professorial position at university to start my own business, I talked to many different people from many different backgrounds. Those that were excited by new adventure were people who had also taken on important projects or created something worthwhile in their lives. The naysayers were mostly those individuals who were stuck in jobs they didn’t like doing work with people they didn’t respect. I now surround myself with people who are encouraging and inspiring.
2 . Distance yourself from people who don’t believe in you. When I told my father I was going to enroll in university and do a Bachelor of Science degree he said “why the #### would you do that. The only job you will be able to get is a high school science teacher. Get a job”. Luckily, I didn’t listen to him. And I don’t think being a science teacher would be a bad profession to have anyway.
3 . Tell people that believe in you what you are planning on doing and what your dreams are. The process of telling others what you are going to do will motivate you to start and to keep going. And they will act as reminders of what you are doing and why you are doing it. Achieving your goals will then keep you believing in what you’re doing and that you are going to achieve it.
4 . Write down somewhere what you want to achieve long-term, in the next five years, and in the next six months. Keep it somewhere close and read it every morning before you start work. It will keep you focused and keep you on track. I have a notepad that I write in every morning. The first three pages contain my big dream, my five-year plan, and my next six months. I read those three pages first thing every morning before planning out my day. It reminds me of the what and the why — it keeps me believing that I can keep going.
5 . Take time out and celebrate the wins. We often get so obsessed with achieving that we forget to stop and reflect on how much we have already achieved. I recently went on a surf trip with seven mates to the Solomon Islands. We surfed, ate, drank, and chatted about our successes and our struggles. I came back from that trip ready to put 150% back into my business and my life. I came back believing in myself.
Conversely, how can one stop the negative stream of self-criticism that often accompanies us as we try to grow?
Have someone you can call upon who will challenge your negative self-beliefs. I have multiple good friends and colleagues who I catch up with on a regular basis for a coffee and a chat. I know they will be honest with me and that they will reflect objectively on my negative thoughts. They keep me grounded and they keep me motivated.
Are there any misconceptions about self-confidence and believing in oneself that you would like to dispel?
I think the idea that self-confidence and believing in oneself comes from within needs to be dispelled. We have self-confidence because we are taught to have self-confidence from those around us. We believe in ourselves because people around us believe in us. Teenagers learn self-confidence when their parents give them opportunities to show independence and self-reliance. They learn that they are trusted and believed in when they are given opportunities to demonstrate their independence. Similarly, we as adults learn the same beliefs from those around us.
What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with imposter syndrome?
Don’t stress about it. We all have imposter syndrome sometimes (unless you are a narcissist). I have met thousands of extremely successful people and they have all experienced imposter syndrome at some stage. Typically, only narcissists or people with no insight don’t ever seem to have imposter syndrome — and those people rarely do great things for anyone but themselves. Imposter syndrome drives us to do our best and always show up prepared and ready to perform. My partner says the best advice she ever got about imposter syndrome was to think like a scientist and look at the objective evidence: if the evidence suggests you deserve to be where you are, don’t waste time undercutting yourself with a different belief that isn’t based on evidence!
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
A code of ethics and proper regulation of multi-national technology companies and the internet. The damage being done to our societies, our democratic processes, our educational institutions, our social lives, and our brains, by unregulated and unethical algorithms and technology is now well researched. It is difficult to reconcile this with a modern world that values freedom and liberty. We need a significant shift to stop the damage that is being done and to create an ethical and moral internet that strives to protect and improve the lives of everyone.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Dwayne Johnson! We both struggled at school as kids and were lucky to have people who saw something in us and believed in us, enabling us to be successful. I obviously don’t know him personally but from what I have seen he seems to be a very genuine person who has great connection with people around him and has a very big heart. I think if he knew the negative impact big tech is having on our kids’ brains and lives, he would be keen to use his amazing reach and popularity to help create change.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.