Due Quach On How Brain Hacking Brings Out Your Best Self
Due Quach (pronounced "Zway Kwok") is the founder and CEO of Calm Clarity, a social enterprise that uses science to help people master their mind and be their best self.
A refugee from Vietnam and a graduate of Harvard College and the Wharton MBA program, Quach overcame the long-term effects of poverty and trauma by turning to neuroscience and meditation. After building a successful international business career in management consulting and private equity investments, Quach created the Calm Clarity Program to make mindful leadership accessible to people of all backgrounds.
Due talks about the different brain states which can greatly affect success, provides advice for social entrepreneurs and discusses how the sector has changed.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Nikoline Arns] - Could you please share a bit with us about your background and what led you to create the calm clarity program? [2:15]
[Due Quach] - I'd be happy to. You know, a lot of times when people grow up in low income communities, they feel very disempowered and they feel like they have to play by the rules and do things according to whatever non-profit roles or donor different programs have them do. And I realised it really takes away your dignity. When I was growing up, I was a refugee from Vietnam. Growing up in inner-city Philadelphia, there was such a sense of shame and having no dignity when you have to work through the system and figure out how to make ends meet, and how to take care of your family. There was a sense that people looked at you like you were living off the system. There was the cycle of poverty and people didn't really want you to break it.
You know, in order to follow the rules, you had to stay poor and, and give up your power. And I was always very angry about what it was like to be in these neighbourhoods. In the sense of hopelessness and frustration to get support you had to basically give away your power. And I just wanted to find a way out of this and have a sense of dignity and self respect as well. And my parents, when they escaped Vietnam, it was because they wanted me and my brother who weren't born there to have a good life, to have access to education and it was worth risking their lives, our lives in order to have these opportunities, and so I knew that in order to pay back my parent's sacrifices, I needed to get a good education. And so that became my path out. I was academically gifted and I got into Harvard college eventually and what drove me to keep working hard and not give up, not become hopeless, was that I was determined to find a path and come back to the inner city and try to break this cycle. Whatever the cycle was, of hopelessness, negativity and frustration. So when I got to Harvard, what I didn't realise was that I had witnessed so much violence or experienced so much violence as a young child and then throughout my childhood that I had all this suppressed post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. And while I was in my community, it was normal to be subjected to so much violence and we had a social support network because everyone's going through the same thing. So when I got to Harvard and realised that most of my peers came from very privileged, affluent backgrounds and they didn't understand what I had experienced and they looked at me with horror. If I did share my story, I became socially isolated and that's how the PTSD symptoms finally exploded to the surface and I started having nightmares, flashbacks.
I couldn't pull myself together. It became harder and harder to get out of bed and go to class and stay functional. And I began to have terrible panic attacks and I didn't know what was wrong with me. And so, when you have mental health issues and stigmatise, and you don't want people to find out, you withdraw even more. But eventually I decided to get help. And that was when my life changed, because the psychiatrist explained that as I shared my story, all the adversity that I had experienced in my childhood had impacted my brain and that symptoms the way it impacted my brain might not be curable. Right? So on one hand I felt vindicated or I felt a sense of relief that it wasn't my fault. I wasn't weak. You know, and it was a miracle that I had come from my background and ended up at Harvard, but it was also very devastating because I could have these symptoms the rest of my life and it was hard to go through Harvard when your brain is impaired.
Then I realised mental health issues weren't just effecting me.
It would be affecting everyone who came from my background who had trauma. I was determined to then find a way out of this and maybe one day be of benefit to other people going through what I had to go through, given that I had no health insurance growing up for the most part and I was going to lose health insurance when I finished at Harvard, I decided to use the vast library and resources there to teach myself about the brain and develop mind hacking techniques. So I could wean myself off medication and therapy upon graduation and not relax. So I went about going on my self assigned project and luckily I did manage to graduate with honours and graduate, stop taking medication and stop having therapy snd stay healthy from there on.
So that was a big milestone for me and when I came back to the inner city after graduating, I realised so many of my friends also went through similar issues, but no one could talk about it because of the stigma and the shame and the sense that we were all low and then we had to tough this out. And so, it occurred to me that there's got to be a way that people don't have to keep reinventing the wheel, because generations of first generation college students are going through this experience. Why do we feel like we're the first ones that were going through this alone? There's got to be some way to change the status quo. But at that time I had no power. I had no networks. I had graduated from Harvard, but I didn't have any experience or skills.
I didn't know how to create change. So at that point I decided I needed to build those skills. So I went into management consulting to understand how to create change and run organisations and how corporations are managed. And then ended up going to business school and applied to business school with this concept that after getting my MBA I would one day eventually start a non-profit that would help kids growing up in low income communities, develop their leadership and I didn't know exactly how I would do it, but I just had this belief and vision that somehow I would find a way to make it happen. But of course after you finish business school, you have all this debt. So I went back into management consulting, but this time I wanted to experience living in Asia, my groups, my heritage, and there was always this hole on one side where I didn't really understand where I'd come from and I didn't feel like a complete human being.
So I got my firm to transfer me to the Greater China practice and I worked across Asia. And then I eventually got recruited to run a private equity team in Vietnam. The land where I was born. And so I was like, 'how can I turn that down?' So I went to Vietnam and started doing growth capital, private equity investments, which was very exciting. It was a frontier market and there, I met people who were building social enterprises and got more interested in, fascinated by the idea of using business skills to make change. Eventually I got recruited by a social impact investor to do private equity deals for his platform, but we ended up disagreeing on how was the best way of doing it. At that time I had gotten fascinated with meditation because of all this research with neuroscience that was coming out on how meditation changes the brain.
And I had been following known developments in neuroscience for so long. I was a brain geek in my spare time. The social impact investor had helped me get a one year visa to India. So when we agreed to disagree, I was like, 'you know what, let me just go and do some soul searching because I want to be a social entrepreneur, but I don't know what I'm going to build. I don't know how I can make a difference. How do I cross over from the social impacts that I do, the social entrepreneur side. What am I passionate about? What can I give to the world? And so I went off, I bought a one way ticket to India, ended up in Dharamsala, spent a month there in different retreat settings. And what I didn't realise at that time was that mind hacking would become what I would offer the world. The things that I was about to learn about how meditation changes the brain from direct personal experience, was what I would end up offering as a social entrepreneur.
It's been an incredible journey since then. So for me, I think it is a combination of my life experience, the hardships that I've overcome and seeing all the dots connect through the thing that I'm most passionate about, which is neuroscience and self improvement. And being able to offer that type of training to other people, because quite frankly, we all want to end the cycle of poverty. We want people who come from low income backgrounds to succeed in transition, but there's no training to help somebody who came from the bottom of the pyramid to adjust socially and culturally to that type of transition, to the loss of identity, not understanding where your tribe is anymore, being cut off from the place that you came from and not really belonging to the new socioeconomic group that you kind of superficially belonged to and trying to find your place in the world and how you can make a difference. That's not a Cinderella fairytale ending. People who have to bridge two sides of the divide have a very complicated cycle, social life and so many people who have been successful academically, have not been happy and have lived lives of suffering because they feel like they're an imposter. They never really fit into the new group.
You're making a really great bridge between the scientific knowledge and have people from all backgrounds that you can connect with in a language that everybody understands. At least when I read your book, this is what I feel and I think this is something that you don't see everyday, so thank you for that.
I think one of the biggest challenges of my life was being thrust from this very poor neighbourhood into Harvard and having to go to school with people whose parents are governors, senators, Vice President of the United States. People who are CEOs of ambassadors, are like, 'Who are you? Who are your parents? What are they?' Do you know what? And I had to go to class with you and I'm supposed to compete with you for jobs. Like how am I supposed to do that? Right? But flipping that and realising that these people are just as vulnerable, insecure, scared about the future as I was. And you know, the level of perfectionism, neuroticism, enter torture at Harvard is unbelievable. And so you start to have a lot of empathy for people. Even though, when I was growing up, I just imagined they lived a fantasy life. But once you get to know them, you realise that they suffer just as much as I suffer, but in different ways. Then I just learned to be strong and be there for my friends. Even if they had billions of dollars to inherit.
Could you please tell us more about the Calm Clarity program and the impact you're having? Which groups are you working with at the moment? [13:57]
Our idea, my idea in the beginning; the vision was to create a world class neuroscience based mindful leadership program that would benefit executives of Forbes 500 companies, and to share the same high quality program to people from disadvantaged backgrounds communities. Because too often people who grow up without resources don't have a choice. And so donors or non-profits or schools just give them crap and they can't turn it down. And I want to make sure the people who could benefit most from really good leadership training could actually have access to it. And so, the idea was to create one standard of excellence and that if I developed something that's really powerful that could change the life of someone growing up in the inner city, it would definitely be able to help someone who's running a company because adults are just big kids.
And in fact, if you could design something that engages a 14, 15 year old in the inner city, then you're guaranteed to be able to engage a corporate leader. And that was a challenge right? Because the program couldn't be too academic. You have to be concrete, it can't be too intellectual. It had to be like a discovery channel episode, where the students would be so mesmerised by learning about themselves that they would pay attention; that it would naturally trigger their curiosity about how their mind works. And I knew that kids, even though they might act cynical, they love learning, they can't help it when they get fascinated. So the idea was to give them a sense of awe and wonder. And so that's how I went into these schools. I told my story and try to captivate them with how the mind works and how their mind in particular worked with videos and illustrations and exercises and it was very, very interactive and you could see the students were reluctant, but then they have never seen anything like that before.
And so they couldn't help engaging. When I guided them with meditation, you could hear a pin drop in the room. What I ended up doing was trying to simplify neuroscience to the point where the students could just immediately understand, grab and apply it in their lives. So it couldn't be academic or intellectual. It wasn't about memorising names of brain anatomy, which would've lost them. So I shared with them the three emotional states of the brain. How when you're born, these structures that allowed the fight-flight threat system to work are fully formed so you can survive. And when they're triggered, they're over-activated, you just live your life expecting threats and seeing threats where none might exist, right? You're over-interpreting threats and you can be in a constant state of anger and frustration and paranoia even, and it keeps you from building meaningful relationships.
I call that inner Godzilla mode; you just want to smash things or disappear, and then we talk about the next stage that develops. That pattern tends to take over and adolescent's Brain 2.0, which I call it the inner teen wolf. And when that happens, you just want to like things that you think you need to be happy, and for a teenager it might be grades or it might be popularity or getting the person you're crushing on to like you back. If all your classmates have a certain sneaker, you need it too, they all have a certain gadget, you want it to, right? It's all or nothing thinking. So if you don't get that thing that you really want, you think your life is over and you'll be miserable. Right? And the kids identified with that, and they could see that swinging between Brain 1.0 and 2.0 was making them miserable. Because if you really want to get it and you can't get it, you end up in inner Godzilla Mode. Then I told them about Brain 3.0, which is your higher brain. And unfortunately for them, it doesn't fully form until your mid twenties, but fortunately for them through neuroplasticity they could accelerate its development. This is part of the brain that gives you self mastery, and helps you be your highest self, to express your highest and best qualities like being compassionate, understanding, patient, seeing a bigger picture. It's the you that you really want to be when you look in the mirror. And so we did mind hacking exercises to activate brain 3.0 and once the kids experienced it, they were like, 'my God, that's the real me.'
When I'm in Brain 1.0, I don't know who that person is. It's like this monster takes over, but it's only when I'm in Brain, 3.0 that I'm like, 'that is me, I want to be that person.'
It was so quick, the kids could see and sense that and so many of them emotionally, made a commitment that they want to spend more time in brain 3.0. And they themselves practice the meditations and exercises on their own because they want it to be that person. We were tapping into intrinsic motivation and it was really powerful. So with each module we layered on more aspects of how to be in brain 3.0 different exercises, different skills you can develop within the brain, 3.0 neural circuitry, and you'd have to use it or lose it.
So the students would be more proactive about or being more intentional about activating those circuits so they could grow stronger. It was really amazing to watch the students transform in short periods of time. Kids who came in wanting to get into fights eventually became peacemakers within five weeks. And we only ran the program once a week for about three hours for this particular pilot. So that was amazing to see because these are students in west Philadelphia who everyone had written off. When people told me, 'you're crazy for even trying this at that school, at that place,' I was like, 'well, we'll see. This is a pilot, I won't know until I do it.' And the transformations were so amazing that I was like, 'okay, this works.' I've proven to myself this is worth doing.
And then the idea after that was how do we build a business model to make this sustainable? I had bootstrapped those pilots and I need it now to build a source of revenue. So we began to then tweak the program for professionals so that it would be engaging and resonate for professionals too. Now we have Forbes 500 companies interested in our project, and they love the social impact model. Basically we want it to make it part of our DNA. So we've developed this buy one, give one aspect. When we started running weekend retreats, these workshops where people buy tickets to join, it was a gift one model, so we were able to start the college scholar program where we could invite first generation college students from low income backgrounds to attend the same retreat for free alongside the professional support tickets. And it was really, really meaningful. When some of the professionals and students were paired together, the professional said they learned so much from being paired with their students. The students would say things that were so profound and meaningful.
What mindset do you believe is key to successfully achieve your goals? [21:32]
Well, I mean I call it Brain 3.0. It's when you can be your best self when you're activating the circuitry that allows you to express your highest qualities, your ideals, your core values, your aspirations. It's not necessarily a mindset, but you develop the ability to notice when you're being hijacked by your brain. One point now we're going to point when you have the ability to calm your inner Godzilla and teen wolf.
You can do anything, you can be the master of your life, you can be the author of your story, and if you keep getting sidetracked by your inner Godzilla, inner teen wolf, you're just less effective.
So when we teach students how to notice, because the inner critic is basically the combination of the inner Godzilla and the teen wolf, we teach them to notice when their inner critic is impacting their behaviour, their emotions, what they'd say to others; that reactivity. Then to help break that pattern, to break that story and the more you can break through all these self limiting patterns, the more successful you can be in achieving your personal mission, right? To understand who you are and the gifts you can give the world, and to actually develop, cultivate and use them.
That's great insight. It's basically to be more conscious about what your own behaviour is and how to know when you're in which state and how it affects you, right? [22:55]
Yeah, and that's universal. No matter what socioeconomic background you have, everyone has self limiting behaviours. I have friends whose parents are billionaires and they are just as limited by self sabotaging patterns as anyone else.
How do you believe the Calm Clarity program is unique in the way it approaches personal success and the types of opportunities it can offer to change makers worldwide? [23:22]
It's hard to talk about uniqueness because I don't know if it's similar to other programs. I can say that it's original and a sense that it's based on my personal experience, my love for neuroscience and mind hacking. It's based on what I use to grow as an individual and as a leader and it works for me. It's helped me be successful in building social impact projects that have made enormous impact with very little resources. Compared to non-profits and multimillion dollars, this is a brand new initiative. I started the collective success network in just one year. We impacted somewhere between 300 and 500 students. We grew from nothing, to over 100 something volunteers and campus chapters in three major universities in the Philadelphia area. Being in Brain 3.0, being able to watch yourself get hijacked by 1.0 and 2.0, now I'm bringing it to 3.0 and keep coming back to the centre. So you're never taken over, right? It allows you to build really meaningful connections, effective relationships, collaborations. And instead of getting stuck in negativity, you always see a way forward. So when you're really centred, there's storms, but the storms pass and the storms pass more quickly, you don't get lost in avalanches and hurricanes and drama, right? And the partners appreciate that. You inspire people the way that you deal with adversity and just keep going, because you see another path forward. So there's this mental agility, the flexibility that comes from being in Brain 3.0, because the thing about a lot of the way that we're trained, we're trained with carrots and sticks. And that activates brain 2.0. And Brain 2.0 creates very rigid thinking and a sense of tunnel vision.
This is the right way; you check these boxes and you're done, but it kills creativity. So you're always looking for some preconceived notion of what success looks like, but you're not able to accept what's actually unfolding in front of you and keep adapting and adjusting.
Whereas in Brain 3.0, it's like your co-creating with the universe. Whatever opportunities come. You're constantly adapting and tweaking and invite much more participation, engagement and creativity from everyone you're working with. And it allows for much more inclusiveness. It's like true diversity, true inclusion, because you give many people a voice.
You listen in ways that you wouldn't listen if you were in Brain 1.0 or 2.0 and you see other people's gifts and you give them opportunities to use their gifts, so they can also bring out the highest expression of who they are. It's kind of a coaching model and allows you to be the most effective coach that you can be to nurture other people's talents and development.
That's amazing. So how have you seen the social enterprise sector transform and change over the last five years? And where do you see it heading? [26:50]
That's a great question. I can't say I'm the best person to ask about the entire sector because I've mainly been in my little neighbourhood, doing the work that I do. One thing I've noticed though is that a lot of universities are already talking about social entrepreneurship and that amazes me. So we have all these young people who want to understand what it is, what does it mean to be a social entrepreneur? What is social impact, how do you build a social enterprise? And that's something no one asked when I was growing up. It was not even a thing. So I love that all these universities are encouraging students to learn about this. And so many students are so idealistic and hungry that they take the classes and they reach out and ask questions. The other thing that I've noticed, and again, I don't know if this is the social enterprise sector, but 10 years ago there was no such thing as a B Corp, so I don't know when B Corps started exactly, but, I think you can get certified as a B Corp and then they created a National Statutes where you could actually establish a company as a Benefit Corporation and has social impact tied to its articles of incorporation.
And that's pretty cool. That's an amazing shift, right? People are just messaging that profits is not what we're about, you know, social impact is just as important as profit. So there's a triple bottom line and that is now a norm. It's amazing. I love that. Colleges, universities are teaching this and students are so hungry for it. It's great.
What advice would you give those listening to her who are keen to start a social enterprise? What is the best advice you can give them from your personal experience? [28:54]
I would tell people that you're still building a business, right? It's a business that does good, but it's still a business. So there still needs to be a business plan, a business model. There still has to be revenue, there has to be profit, there has to be value that you're adding.
There's a difference between a pure non-profit, right? Because non-profits usually runs on donations and contributions, but a social enterprise is supposed to build a business that sustains itself and the social.
Too many people are very idealistic when they jump into this and they don't actually have created a product that people want to pay for value.
The important thing is you still have to create products and services that people would pay money for or that the audience you're targeting actually values what you're providing.
There's different types of social enterprise models. I think people have to experiment with the ones that makes the most sense for their social mission. So there's some where you're selling to the bottom of the pyramid products and services at a much lower cost. But if the cost of developing, creating them, distributed them is higher than the cost of serving the revenues you bringing in, it's not a sustainable model. So you would have to find a different audience that's willing to pay a premium higher price for these similar services or products so that you can make your distribution system and infrastructure and operations sustainable. And I think that's hard for people to understand. So I think with calm clarity, having seen that as a social impact investor, I knew that if I was going to create a high quality product and service, I would have to find a way to charge a premium for that among the different audience, in order to provide that to the beneficiary audience to make it sustainable.
Also for the people that are buying the service, they know that they are contributing to the wider spread of knowledge to people that maybe cannot afford it. It's gives a sense of social involvement from everybody, right? [31:17]
Yeah. So I think of all the models I've seen, the 'buy one, give one' or some variation of that is the most sustainable. The ones where people are just delivering. I like services to the bottom of the pyramid, but their cost structure is very high. Those business models have a lot of challenges.
That's great advice. And what inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across recently? [31:55]
There's a lot of things happening in this space. I can't say that there's anything specifically that's standing out to me right now. I've noticed that the #metoo movement, the #blacklivesmatter movement, those types of movements, or the students standing up against gun violence and actually pushing for gun reform laws. What's really inspiring me is people mobilising that may not have yet coalesced and jelled into a specific project or initiative. But I think it's heading in that direction. Does that make sense? There's this outpouring of energy activism dialogue, but then it has to be organised into specific movements or initiatives or projects. And this generation that's growing up, it's processing all of this and being very active and coming up with solutions. So I'm waiting to see what magic comes out of this wave of awareness and dialogue.
To finish off besides your own book (which I would recommend) are there any other books, that you recommend to our listeners? [33:17]
Sure. I try to make book recommendations based on what I think is the audience's interests, not just what I'm passionate about. And I remember when I was doing research on social impact and how to be a social entrepreneur. There was a book that really stood out to me as being really, really helpful and it's called Poor Economics by Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee and Esther Duflo. It basically shares these two entrepreneurs going into bottom of the pyramid situations and interviewing people to show that the decisions that these people are making. While they seem silly to you, a person who's trained in economics and comes from a privileged background and the context of their level of poverty, they're actually making very rational decisions to manage risks that we don't really understand if we're not living in their situation. So they can seem like self sabotage where they're actually self preservation.
The other book that's more inspiring, in terms of just understanding social change and that I've really found helpful was "The Gift of Anger" by Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, Arun Gandhi. I know that a lot of people who are activists who want to create change do it because there's a sense of outrage against injustice. And I thought the book did a great job of helping us understand how to channel and transform anger so that it's not destructive. I think that's something that everybody who wants to create change; we keep banging our heads against walls.
It's like you're working with a bureaucracy. There's just so many things that are frustrating that can make people angry. And I think, having like Mahatma Gandhi's lessons, how he dealt with being thrown in jail over and over, and how he was forgiving. He understood the human struggle and human nature and I think that helps a lot of people because if Gandhi can deal with that, I can deal with this.