Valencia Ray M.D. is a principal of The Efficace Group, LLC in Chicago. A speaker, coach and consultant, she uses The Art and Science of NeuroReInvention® to help leaders and teams expand work/life vision so that more true potential is achieved. She is the author of “Leadership Beyond Gender: Transcend Limiting Mindsets to Become a More Engaging Leader” (Empower Up Publishing, 2014). For many years she was a highly regarded eye surgeon. She received her M.D. degree from the University of Illinois College of Medicine.
Tell me what the tipping point was for your shift from eye surgeon to self-actualization speaker.
I’ve always been motivated by purpose. When I get a clear idea about something, I can persevere and stick to it. I feel speaking and teaching are important and what I should be doing in this phase of my life. I restored vision. Now I’m just doing it differently.
I came out of medical school in 1985. So I was in medicine from 1981 to 2007, I think that’s a long time to do one thing. I enjoyed it very much. I sold my practice in 2007 although my initial thinking was that I wouldn’t sell it until 2015. Now is when I thought I’d sell my practice and go pursue this next phase of my life.
I’ve had a strong feeling that I would do something like I’m doing now since I about 12. I couldn’t have explained it. I just knew it had to do with empowerment. When I was young my father took us to Bible studies. One of my favorite scriptures was Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” That always stood out to me but I had no idea back then I’d be focusing on the mind and neuroscience.
What was it like to know at such a young age that you had a calling?
It was scary. I didn’t even know I was going to be a doctor. I wasn’t thinking about that. In high school and college, English was my favorite subject but I had great math and science talent, too. I loved reading. I also was very social. I was a biology major in college.
But, specifically, when I sold my practice it wasn’t because I felt a need to get out of ophthalmology. It had more to do with my having a persistent intuition that it was time to move into this next area of my life. But I didn’t know how. I didn’t advertise that I was selling my medical practice; I thought that if I were correct, someone would show up to purchase it. And that’s what happened.
Did that tell you it was meant to be?
Well, it reinforced in my heart that it was very purposeful. I had developed the means to have courage to do many things. In the end, I felt very good about it.
I had to go to libraries to learn how to be a doctor, but at least there was a sort of map: you needed certain classes and to stay on certain timelines. And after I graduated I did ‘moonlighting’ work in a doctor’s office, worked for a medical corporation and then I started my own practice, so I had some idea how a medical office was run. But for this phase of my life, I initially had no mentor and no map for pursuing a speaking, coaching and consulting career. There was nothing I could “look up” with step-by-step guidance. So it has been quite an interesting experience. Fortunately, those earlier experiences in my life gave me an inner strength and spirituality, resilience and confidence that has carried me through.
Were you always interested in the idea of leadership?
Yes. I was running for school wide office in junior high. I was a leader in second grade! What happened with me was that I became conscious that I was a leader in my medical business and took it seriously. That’s where I learned a lot. I’m very confident and grounded in what I talk about because it comes from experience. It doesn’t come from a leadership book that I read.
In 1991, after achieving all my external goals, I still felt insecure about my sense of self. During that year I had several personal tragedies and everything came to a head and I realized that what I was looking for wasn’t “out there.” I had everything; I was “successful.” But I still wasn’t happy. That’s when I decided to go back to that childhood vision and purpose.
I had a developed a very “command and control” personality and that wasn’t how I wanted to be inside. I wanted to be my authentic self and not who I was ‘supposed to be’ and I ended up [developing] collaborative leadership within my office culture. It changed me and turned around the office, doubling the practice receipts and developing engaged, productive employees.
Did that evolution come naturally for you?
It was difficult at first. I didn’t really have a role model or mentor. It was more of an internal vision that I was following. That was tough. I had no doctors I could talk to about it. Not only is there no concept of “personal development” in medicine, it is a stoic, invulnerable profession, period.
Do you work now with people in the medical profession?
No, I work primarily with people in the corporate arena. Part of my journey has been to decide to whom this message is for. In a way it could be for everyone but that’s not who I felt called to speak to. It took reflection and personal growth to clarify this. I’ve grown more since I sold my practice than in the previous 15 or 20 years. I believe learning and growing never end.
I had to learn a lot about myself and wait for [people] to even know they would be interested in what I had to say. In 2008 when the whole world was disrupted, I knew we weren’t going back to how it had been.
My specific audience tends to be educated professionals and corporate leaders. They tend to be [involved with] solving issues around self-awareness, collaborative leadership, and desire to be more self-confident and effective in their work and life. They want to perform at their best.
What I’ve done is marry my backgrounds in business and neuroscience with my personal growth and leadership journey to create a bridge between the corporate business world and the scientific world. As an eye surgeon, I practiced clinically applied neuroscience on a daily basis.
I don’t use academic jargon. I want to ground it so that people really understand that we have a powerful ‘quantum computer’ called our brain that is running our perceptions and our lives but we have no clue how to optimally operate it. In fact we operate probably 180 degrees away from what would give more desired results.
Why is that?
A lot has to do with lack of awareness and putting so much negativity in our media. Many elements of our culture and education system are also counter-productive to developing greater human potential. The brain will give you what you focus on. When we focus on things that scare us or bring us down emotionally it constricts our physiology. It’s toxic and hurts decision-making.
Another part of it is historical. In medical school we were taught (even in textbooks) that after young adulthood people can’t develop any more brain cells. I remember thinking as a young 21 year-old that this didn’t sound right. Flash forward and we now know that’s wrong. How could we have said that with no technology or proper research behind it in the first place? The Neuroscience shows that our brain can literally change itself and create new patterns of thinking throughout our entire life. This is known as “Neuroplasticity” which I like to call, “NeuroReInvention.”
One of the reasons I wrote my book, “Leadership Beyond Gender: Transcend Limiting Mindsets to Become a More Engaging Leader,” is to help both women and men to understand how we all have unwittingly trained and wired our brains to create perceptions that limit not only our leadership skill and talent, but also limits our ability to perform at our best in every area of life, including relationships. I use brain research as a framework to help us understand how we create “self-fulfilling prophecy” in our behavior. Neuroscience concepts and techniques retrain your brain for developing more clarity, more confidence in yourself and talents and greater passion for your work, career and life.
How does the lack of self-awareness manifest itself?
Lack of self-awareness is the root of lack of self-confidence. We beat ourselves up and we think it’s humble. But it’s counter productive. You can learn better ways to motivate yourself. One is clarity of purpose: gaining a sense of why it matters what you contribute and what your gift is. Find a way to be motivated by passion rather than by fear because fear will disconnect you from people and hurt you physiologically.
If you can become more self-aware, you can reduce your stress. I have. I’ve become more resilient. I don’t fear disappointment; I deal with disappointment. I’m stronger mentally.
You work with young people. What do you tell them about self-awareness and building lives and careers
What you do is not who you are and you are not your thoughts. In fact, I’d say this to anyone of any age. Believe it or not, that’s something I used to say to myself. Now I’m reading neuroscience [research] that also says, “we are not our thoughts.” This is true; we are not our thoughts!
I have learned how to think for myself and not to wait to be told how to think or what to think. I’ve learned to trust myself and accept myself separate and apart from “what I do.” By doing this we have more regard for our own sense of self-worth instead of thinking, “If I just become this doctor or attorney or business leader I’ll be OK.”
So if you develop a sense of self-acceptance—I am unique; I don’t need to duplicate other people but I want to do my best—that is a hugely important place to be. You’re more likely to be true to yourself and enjoy your life and your work. When you’re not always seeking approval, you’ll have more energy, more zest.
You have to be careful what you believe. So don’t say, “Oh if I don’t go to that school I’ll never be successful” or whatever. We don’t realize how we build bias into our brain. Fortunately, thanks to neuroplasticity you’ll be able to reprogram your brain.
I say this not just to students but also to CEOs. We all need to work toward our highest potential.
Are you still a journey in progress?
Yes, and it’s never going to stop.