Dr. Tommy Shavers: “Adaptability is the key to sustainability”

Build adaptive and responsive technologies that serve as a piece of the puzzle and not the puzzle itself. Create technologies that can change with the changes of people and societal shifts. These technologies also need to be complementary as opposed to complete solutions. If everyone is building the end all be all — the consumers will be […]

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Build adaptive and responsive technologies that serve as a piece of the puzzle and not the puzzle itself. Create technologies that can change with the changes of people and societal shifts. These technologies also need to be complementary as opposed to complete solutions. If everyone is building the end all be all — the consumers will be consuming non-congruent solutions. As a result, we won’t be helping society, but complicating society even more by exposing it to complete and competing ideas that are not able to harmonize in a way that can actually help them. If every technology is solely focused on trying to replace the next company, then the society as a whole becomes the benefactor of the unintended consequence of the consumption of non-complementary solutions by society. We need more collaborative solutions for the betterment of society.

In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course, many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Tommy Shavers with NESTRE Health & Performance.

Dr. Tommy Shavers is the Founder and CEO of NESTRE Health & Performance. He brings more than 10 years of Organizational Leadership and High-Profile behavior training experience to the company. Additionally, Dr. Shavers has spent the past decade as an NFL/NCAA Behavior and Performance Consultant.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?

I am the youngest of seven children. I have three older brothers and three older sisters, so I had a pretty good representation of experiences to observe from my siblings on how to navigate the do’s and don’ts of things. My mom is amazing. She raised us all, along with two adopted cousins, and later several grand children with only a 3rd grade reading level and 6th grade education. My mom (Bobby Jean Shavers) was taken out of school at a young age to work in the farm fields in order to help support the family. So early in my life, I also worked in the fields with my family as this was how we also took care of our family. I was the worst field worker out of the entire family. It could’ve been due to age, but I think it was more of the fact that I just couldn’t do the farming or field labor work well. One day, as an elementary school kid, I remember saying, “I can’t do this, I’m going to get an education and play sports because I’m not good at this outdoor field labor work!”

I was born in Niagara Falls, NY, and grew up in my early years living half the year in Niagara Falls and the other half in Homestead/Florida City, FL, as we followed the seasons doing farm work. In my later years, I grew up in Homestead/Florida City. This was a very tough area when I was growing up. I was introduced to organized sports in the 5th grade and it changed my life. My elementary Physical Education coach paid for me to play little league football because my mom couldn’t afford to at the time. I played for the legendary Florida City Razorbacks Pop Warner program. I was privileged to be coached and developed by some of the best leaders and coaches I’ve ever seen still to this day. I had great support in high school, even when I started to stray in the wrong direction, and those who knew me and supported me, believed in me and were patient with me as I found my way through some tough periods. There was an expectation of doing great things that was constantly being put before me. That became the fuel for my drive to be great and live a life of impact.

What I wasn’t aware then that I know now, was that the moment my P.E. coach paid for me to play little league football, I was placed within a highly integrated community system of development and support. All the key individuals in my life from elementary to high school were all connected. They were predominantly a networked community of Black leaders, coaches, educators, volunteers, ministers, program directors, and supporters. When I look back on it, it is astounding how organic, strategic, and intentional this community was. I knew I was going to be successful and knew I was going to make it out. I never doubted it because the community system essentially removed all doubt from me. Despite the outside dangers and challenges in the community that were very real, I felt a sense of immunity from all of that. So many people poured their goodness, knowledge, confidence, opportunities, drive, and resilience into my life; and because of that, I developed a high-level immunity to real, negative impacts that growing up in a world like I grew up in can have on a young soul. This is why I spend so much of my time and energy personally serving youth and families who need those same activating qualities and characteristics poured into them. I know the system works because I am a byproduct of the system. In fact, one of my visions to help change the health, wellness, and development of communities like mine, is to create and implement an intentional training and development model, anchored in the learnings of my experiences and the experiences of so many who have a similar story and create a way for us to empower and resource individuals like the ones who poured into me, to help develop and produce young potential. This is one of the main reasons that human wellness and development is such a core part of who I am.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

For me, it’s not one particular story. It’s a combination all of the people I’ve been able to meet, engage with, help, and learn from on this journey that I have found most interesting and rewarding. The personal lives, lived experiences, challenges, victories, and perspectives on the world are fascinating. When you pull back the layers of our lives, it reveals at a foundational and fundamental level that we are all human. Although we are all extremely different and unique, in some core ways we are also very much the same in that we have desires, goals, feelings, fears, people we care about, etc. One of the more interesting things to me is understanding how humans work at this level, which is a part of what NESTRE studies in its clients.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There’s no question it’s my wife Tomica (Mica). We’ve been married more than half our lives (25 years), since we were seniors in high school. It’s hard to describe how incredible it has been to have my best friend with me throughout this entire journey. She has seen me at my best and helped to guide me through my worst. When I began to experience severe and progressive mental and cognitive decline from college football head injuries, Mica was there by my side the entire way. When no other solutions were available to help me, I decided to help myself and created a model for mental and cognitive self-recovery, which became the foundation of NESTRE. For years it seemed as though my life became a secret lab, and I was my test subject. Mica and I were the only two people who knew what I was doing and what I was going through. She was there firsthand; and she saw my mind and my cognitive functioning deteriorating right before her eyes. We had recently had our first child and so in many ways she was the caretaker for both our first son and for me.

There are so many things she had to do, and so many burdens she had to carry in order for us to make it out on the other side. One that always stands out to me is when I finally realized that in my decline, not only was I losing my memory, but I was also creating false memories — memories that seemed so real, except they were not. In talking with family members and loved ones who have dealt with individuals who were suffering from similar challenges, they said this often became the source of conflict that eventually led to not being able to keep the family together. Most assumed that individuals going through similar experiences with memory loss and false memories, as I went through, were either lying intentionally or losing their minds. I remember constantly fighting with my wife about who was right in our recall of situations and who was telling the truth. I remember when I told her that I could no longer trust my own memory, and I was giving her final authority over what was real. That in any situation where conflict was growing, and I was fighting her about what I thought to be real, she could say — Tommy, remember I have the memory. This was an agreed upon signal for me to stand down in pubic or in private because I was more than likely believing a false memory and needed to trust her version of reality.

This was so difficult for her, to watch me fight for things that she knew were not real, and yet to still have the grace and patience with me through it all while seeing me become a declining version of myself. She gave me the love and security I needed in order to find my way out on the other side. I could see the load and weight it put on her own mental well-being, and how she leaned into being the stability during tremendous times of hardships. I remember several years later, after I had self-recovered using the NESTRE training model I had developed, we were in our kitchen and she mentioned something, and I corrected her statement with how it actually happened. She said you know what, you’re right. We both immediately looked at each other and began to smile. It was the last piece of validation for us that I had recovered. We both began to laugh in a way that I could feel we were also about to start crying. I didn’t want to her to cry so I lightened the moment by saying — I’ll take my memory card back now, thank you! And we laughed even more. She was right there with me, guiding, supporting, and leading me through it all. In so many ways, she is the true hero and catalyst behind it all. Without her, there is no me, no NESTRE, and no testimony to the world to not let the fatalistic narrative about cognitive decline limit your belief and pursuit to better your life.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If someone has done it before, you can do it, too. If no one has ever done it before, you can be the first. Either way, you can.” — Personal Quote

For most of the significant experiences in my life, I have approached each with what I refer to as an unprecedented belief mindset. I embrace novel situations that may seem impossible or too difficult to attempt from the viewpoint of others. As a Black male, raised by a single mom in a high poverty and high crime environment growing up, I don’t recall ever doubting if I could make it or become successful. I am the first to graduate college in my family, and I did it at the highest level. I married Tomica at 18 years old while still seniors in high school, when everyone was telling us that we were too young and that we were making the wrong decision. My life has been all about doing what others have said could not be done. While experiencing mental and cognitive challenges and decline, I was told by my doctor to get my affairs in order, because the science showed it doesn’t get better, only worse. NESTRE is both a culmination and a continuation of my life’s journey. Our company mission is to change the narrative and shift the paradigm around brain health, mental wellness, and cognitive performance, and to build a better world through accessible and affordable solutions.

As a successful business leader, which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Integrity — our everyday lives and relationships with others are our true resumes. There have been numerous opportunities that were only made possible because of who I am as a person and a leader several years prior to the opportunities presenting themself. In many cases, it wasn’t what I was doing in the moment that created the opportunity, it was who others remembered me being in the past. Being true and consistent to who you are is one of the most important aspects of success. Integrity is like an investment that has a high ROI, you just don’t know when the return will come or where it will come from.

Empathy & Goodwill — I consider this one characteristic because having one without the other typically ends up not being a good thing. I just really care about people. I want to see them do well and succeed. I am a real byproduct of this character trait, as so many people poured into to me, for me to be where I am today. Their care for me was operationalized — they felt something and did something. I am forever indebted to empathy and goodwill because they serve as a bridge to help others move forward in their personal journeys of success.

Salience — I know this is typically viewed as more of a cognitive term as opposed to a character trait; however, vision, confidence, decision-making, etc., all come down to salience — having the ability to prominently see what needs to be seen. I believe individuals with high degrees of salience possess some of the most gifted and untapped potential we have in society. Since I was a kid, I’ve had this ability to see or tune my attention to things that others either couldn’t see or didn’t think was important enough to pay attention to. If you know individuals within your organization who seem to have things leap out at them — solutions, ideas, needles in the haystack if you will, do whatever it takes to keep them and engage with them because they have a rare character/cognitive trait of having a gifted eye for things. We can spend an entire conversation on this one, but salience has been instrumental in every aspect of success and learning I have experienced along the way.

Ok, now let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?

At NESTRE we are tackling society’s mental and cognitive challenges by changing the narrative and shifting the paradigm when it comes to mental wellness and cognitive performance. Mental and cognitive health continues to be a significant global health challenge facing our world. It has also become the top areas of concern for the global sports community. The sports world and society at large are recognizing the need for innovative solutions to the growing mental and cognitive challenges and demands that people face in our modern and ever-changing world.

At NESTRE our solutions are designed to support and leverage the science which tells us that as human beings, we are not inherently broken, but uniquely responsive. We focus on impacting the mind and brain in positive ways, to allow it to respond with positive outcomes. The key is being intentional about strengthening the mind and brain of our users at levels which allow them to withstand the negative mental and cognitive load of their unique lived experiences in a way that works for them. So, either we change our environment to lessen the load on our mental and cognitive systems, or we strengthen and enhance our mental and cognitive capacity to withstand the abnormal load. Through our digital solution and live NESTRE Neuro-Strength TrainingTM we are doing both to build stronger, better, more flexible, and resilient people, to handle the demands of performance in the modern world.

How do you think your technology can address this?

NESTRE’s customizable and innovative solutions are successfully utilized by elite performers including pro athletes and coaches, professionals, and executives, as well as the everyday individual looking to improve their quality of life from a training and performance perspective. NESTRE and our partners / investors including NFL Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson, NFL Pro Bowler Julius Thomas, and top global CTO/CIO and former VP of Verizon 5G Innovation, Toby Redshaw, are focused on mental and cognitive strength training using neuroscience, behavioral science, artificial intelligence and machine learning to customize the training experience to help people get better. Neuroplasticity tells us that every individual’s mental and cognitive state, preferences, responsiveness, sensitivities, and capacities are all different. As such, the way to positively impact a unique system that is in a constant state of change, is to customize your training to the individual and allow your training to adapt, learn, and become smarter as the individual changes in response to the training. Our NESTRE Mindset ProfileTM gives us insight on how to customize our mental and cognitive strength training tailored to someone’s unique mindset, lived experiences, and desired outcomes. Our three NESTRE solutions allow us to change the narrative and shift the paradigm by helping people get better, do better, and be better.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

As mentioned earlier, my football playing career was ended with several concussive blows during my college career, and I went on to suffer mentally and cognitively for several years. I was told that there was nothing that could be done for me to get better. I was in my 20’s, and just had my first child, and was being told to accept this fatalistic narrative that I couldn’t get better. After creating a model for self-recovery and recovering my mental and cognitive health, I reasoned if an injured or impaired brain can be moved to normal, then what are the possibilities for strengthening the mind and the brain beyond what is considered normal. I had the privilege to share at the Harvard Global Health Catalyst Summit about my model, recovery, and vision of bringing a new understanding of better to the world. This work is a personal passion because I know firsthand the importance of health, wellness, and performance in the life of every individual.

How do you think this might change the world?

We have yet to re-imagine the world through the lens of neuroplasticity. Most of our paradigms of society have been long entrenched before we knew this as an established science. Even still today neuroplasticity, which is the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization, is yet to become an applied science at scale from a societal perspective. Not only can the brain change, but it is in fact in a constant state of change as it is constantly learning, constantly responding and adapting. If we take a system’s approach to plasticity, the implications are potentially endless. It can change how we see just about everything — from healthcare, to education, to human behavior, to mental health, performance enhancement, human development; you name it. The application of neuroplasticity, or human systems plasticity, can truly change how we see and do everyday life. At NESTRE we talk about helping to build a better world with the human in mind. This is the potential impact that we are looking forward to pursuing.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

I think about the future of both unintended benefits, as well as unintended consequences of creating technology solutions, or solutions in general for society. The two challenges I think about regularly are narratives we are intentional about addressing: 1) the temptation for a human’s personal data to become an identity as opposed to an information source and 2) the threat that scale plays on diminishing the unique value of the individual.

In the first, with the growing development and use of wearable technology, more and more individuals are exposing themselves to constant feedback about data that is directly inferring about their state of being. The problem here is that the science of neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to learn, change, respond, and adapt has yet to be normalized in our society. This is important because the more we are consuming data about ourselves in a definitive way can quickly become an unhealthy obsession or deterministic portrayal of oneself. People can only take so much of their data telling them how poor their sleep is, or how not ready for the day they are, even though they are still required to go out a face the day head on. Eventually, the data itself can begin to impact how an individual sees and responds to their world. So, not being intentional about pairing wearable technology or human data with solutions to change the state of the data, or not creating the right narratives around the data, can potentially have some clear unintended consequences — the digital mirror and scale affect. This is why NESTRE was built as a solutions company to help operationalized human data in a way that helps people get better.

The second concern is the ever tension of customizing and generalization. The more technology advances and algorithms are developed to essentially create frameworks of scale, the more we run the risk of reducing a unique individual to an average, a median, or a formula. I have often said to people that there is no such thing as an average person because it is a false collective of unique individuals. At NESTRE we keep in front of us the saying that we customize in order to generalize, we lean into the tension of focusing on customization at scale. Our vision is to leverage science and technology to bring us as close as possible to scalable solutions that are built to the unique individual. In fact, neuroplasticity itself tells us that the only real way to scale outcomes at the benefit of the human being and not the companies is to create a solution that can customize and adapt to that individual.

Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experiences and successes, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)

1. There is really no such thing as the average person.

When we create averages, we run the risk of creating false profiles and as a result we can create solutions that we spend time and energy attempting to have people fit into, instead of allowing individuals to become the framework for which we create our solutions.

2. There’s a difference between doing good work and doing good with your work.

There will be times when there is tension between running a company and making a social impact. Learn to live with this tension and be able to recognize the difference between the two and act accordingly.

3. Desired intentions don’t guarantee desired outcomes.

We can have our ideal intentions with the technology we bring into the world; however, at some point the world will decide how it chooses to leverage your work in ways beyond your intentions. There will become a point when your intention gives way to society’s application and evolution of your work.

4. Have members of your team with expertise/experience in the social areas of impact.

You can do social good without having people on your team who have real world experiences, passion, and expertise in the non-technical areas of society you are looking to have an impact within.

5. Adaptability is the key to sustainability.

Build adaptive and responsive to technologies that serve as a piece of the puzzle and not the puzzle itself. Create technologies that can change with the changes of people and societal shifts. These technologies also need to be complementary as opposed to complete solutions. If everyone is building the end all be all — the consumers will be consuming non-congruent solutions. As a result, we won’t be helping society, but complicating society even more by exposing it to complete and competing ideas that are not able to harmonize in a way that can actually help them. If every technology is solely focused on trying to replace the next company, then the society as a whole becomes the benefactor of the unintended consequence of the consumption of non-complementary solutions by society. We need more collaborative solutions for the betterment of society.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

You have an incredible opportunity to help shape the future of who we are and how we live as people. There may be no greater impact one can have in their lifetime than impacting life itself.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

I’d like to have a conversation with Naomi Osaka. I really believe Naomi is special person because of her authenticity in a performance world that places abnormal demands on human beings. I would really like to discuss how she sees the world of high stress, pressure, and performance. Naomi is doing something that I have long wanted to see the high-performance world to pay attention to — she is forcing the performance world to deal with the issue of the constant tension between being a high-performance athlete and a human being. Often these two worlds do not agree. Naomi is moving the conversation and conflict forward for the betterment of the human being as opposed to merely the athlete.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Our website is nestreperformance.com and our Instagram is @nestre.performance. I can be found on LinkedIn, and my Twitter is @DrTommyShavers.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.

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