April 2020 update and prelude: This was the first ever blog post I wrote, published in May 2015. You can still see the original post here if you're curious! This update comes during the COVID-19 pandemic; I feel there are both analogies and lessons in my story.
Pressing publish on this post was a huge deal to me as I wanted to tell my friends and family the story behind the sudden, serious stroke I had suffered five years prior at just 30, but up until then it had been incredibly difficult for me to even talk about. This was the only way I could think of that would avoid deeply uncomfortable, painful in-person conversations about it.
I wasn't prepared for what happened next. The post was on a free WordPress site - you can see how rough around the edges it is - and was only intended as an easy way for my family and friends to read it. It went viral, I got messages from around the world, strangers donated to my fundraiser and in hindsight it was an incredibly cathartic event for me, signalling the last part in my healing and the start of my current professional journey in well-being.
Today I am much more comfortable talking about this all, but I rarely manage to share the story as eloquently as I did in this post. The full, unedited post is below, I hope you enjoy it and find it useful. Thank you for reading.
A stroke of good fortune…. (first published 12 May 2015)
I feel the time might be right to share this story of my last 5 years for two reasons:
- A lot of my friends, family & business colleagues know roughly what happened to me 5 years ago but only a few know much of the detail. Many people who know me don’t know at all as I’ve found this subject extremely difficult to talk about but I’ve always wanted people to know. Partly because it’s an important chapter in my life and although I rarely want to talk about it in person I do want you to know, but also because….
- I’m doing the Tough Mudder event on 30th May, my first event of any kind since a few fun runs as a kid, and I am raising money for those who have not been as incredibly fortunate as I have to recover to full health let alone consider doing a challenging event like Tough Mudder.
This is a long-ish post! So grab a coffee, tea or my favourite drink, sparkling water with fresh lime and read on. My sincere apologies to those who are learning about this for the first time in this way, I’d rather have told you in person but I still find it extremely difficult to relive some of the details.
Just over 5 years ago, in February 2010, at the age of 30 I was getting ready to go to my job when I suddenly collapsed; in a split-second I had lost the ability to stand and was throwing up violently. I was home alone as Khushi was working in Switzerland just like she largely does to this day. Somehow I had the presence of mind to call 999 and had just about enough words and speech ability for them to be able to reach me quickly. On reflection I was extremely lucky to have kept both my consciousness and my abilities to think and act.
I was rushed in an ambulance to our closest A&E department at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington. The doctors reassured me that I most likely had a very nasty ear infection such as tinnitus, which throws one’s balance off but would subside in 24-48 hours and they wanted to run some tests as a precaution. I was too drugged up and groggy to think about it much. By the evening I had been stabilised and Khushi was by my side.
The next day the doctors informed me that they had some worse than expected news… I had suffered a full-blown stroke. A cerebellar infarct to be accurate – a rare but serious type of stroke. When they told me that, I didn’t actually know what a stroke was, except that it happened to much older people, right?? I learned it was a type of brain injury caused by a temporary loss of bloodflow to the brain and that a part of my brain was now permanently dead.
The part of my brain that controlled my balance had died and I had lost the “knowledge” of how to walk – although I could still feel muscle strength in my legs I could not move them. We had a lot less visibility on what other brain damage may have occurred. I was coherent and could think but could not move my lower body and felt extremely tired.
As it happens, St Mary’s has one of the best Stroke Units in the country and this was the NHS at it’s very best, I had the most incredible care. They kept me for just over 2 weeks during which time they ran every possible test including some real outliers to try and understand the cause and then they ran them again for good measure. Being such an apparent rarity I also became a popular daily visit for groups of medical students and I had fun talking to them. By week two I was laughing and joking with them, testing them on their knowledge of my condition.
Although my father passed away from a sudden heart attack at the far too young age of 47, we have no family history of strokes or any other type of brain injury. In the year preceding this I had been leading a relatively healthy life, with a fairly low alcohol consumption, regular exercise, reasonably healthy eating habits and definitely was not stressed. The conclusion of the multitude of tests was that there was no conclusion. I had to treat it like being in a plane crash – just extremely bad luck for no specific reason. This has been one of the hardest things for me to reconcile, as the question “Why did this happen to me?” essentially has no answer. I have struggled with this most days over the last 5 years.
I have long held an unshakeable belief that everything happens for a reason that serves me, and it is largely that belief coupled with the incredible unconditional love and support of my wife, family and closest friends that got me through the emotional rollercoaster of the next few months.
Barely three months earlier in December 2009 I had made a firm decision that 2010 would be my last year working for somebody else and that come what may by 30 November 2010 at the very latest I would be handing my 1 month’s notice in. In the post credit crunch world I had become completely disillusioned with my work as a corporate headhunter and really struggled to find any more fulfilment or personal growth in it. Like many others I had decided that my career was not doing anything particularly good for the world or building the path to real wealth, two extremely important things to me.
I had started spending my evenings and weekends researching business ideas and how to go about starting my own enterprise. The one thing I repeatedly wished for was the time and space to do that properly – take it from me; you should be careful what you wish for!
I got released from hospital with the knowledge that statistically I was in a very bad place for the next two years, a partially recovered ability to walk, energy like a broken rechargeable battery, some very dark thoughts and a strict order to never miss a day of medication in my life. To this day I never have and hopefully never will.
Suddenly I had all the time in the world. All I did for the next 3 months was read, think, sleep (every afternoon!) and re-learn how to walk. I couldn’t really go anywhere or do anything physical except yoga. I started devouring business books and writing down my thoughts, ideas and goals. I still devour business books, write down my ideas & goals and practice yoga regularly today.
Within a few weeks I could walk properly, unaided and unaccompanied. Within 12 months I was flying down a sun kissed, snow covered piste on a snowboard again which is a fantastic test of balance and for me to this day the ultimate feeling of freedom and zen. The human brain and body is incredible. My elder brother Ajay, a talented doctor, had explained to me that although the part of my brain that controls balance was permanently dead the other functions of the brain would take over and artificially “recreate” it. That is exactly what happened and I can’t consciously tell any difference, although those who’ve seen me snowboarding may beg to differ!
I had prayed and wished for time and space and now I had it. After a 6 month recovery period I knew physically I was pretty much back to normal. Mentally I had some memory loss issues and some of my memories are gone forever, but I knew there was nothing to stop me getting on with my life. I had made a firm commitment to myself that I was quitting my job by November at the latest so there was no point whatsoever in going back in September and fortunately we had made some good decisions a few years before that meant we had the financial flexibility for me not to go back.
I spent the next 18 months researching and acting on several ideas in the health & fitness and technology industries whilst also working for a couple of start-ups but by the end of 2011 had got nowhere tangible with it. That was incredibly frustrating as I had been very active and doing lots of things, in hindsight I just didn’t have the experience to know what to do and it seems every entrepreneur goes through a similar “learning” phase.
I also learned that I have an incredible life partner. Whilst Khushi’s career was going from strength to strength as she was named a junior partner in a global strategy consulting firm before the age of 30, she never once questioned what I was doing or suggested I should get a job. I guess that’s what true faith is, she believed in me and could also see I was active and trying things. We joke about the time she once made a throwaway comment to me that “shouldn’t you be buying and refurbishing a property or something?” ? Listening would have saved me some time!
At the start of 2012 I turned to property largely out of desperation and frustration. I had one more throw of the dice before I’d have to get a job for my own sanity. I had no interest in the property industry but as an experienced investor I knew it was an extremely sensible place to go. I decided I would commit and focus for 12 months with no other distractions, and I’ve never looked back.
The real estate sector has worked out well for me. I could never have imagined that I would be involved in some of the projects I’ve done or been part of so far. I’ve built a niche property business that gives me great cashflow with little day to day involvement, we have a strong asset base of several properties now, I’ve moved into small property development projects as well as joint ventures with larger developers, co-founded a peer to peer lending business (www.CrowdProperty.com where everyone can get up to a 10% return on their money from just £500 upwards) and generally learned a lot about the business world.
Most importantly I am healthy and happy. The other type of book I devoured after the stroke were health books, I took it upon myself to learn everything I could about this subject from exercise to nutrition to energy and so on. Even though there was no cause identified, I needed to give myself the best chance of it not happening again. Currently I’m easily in the best shape I have been for over 10 years but still have some way to go to get to where I want to be physically. It is now within reach though and Tough Mudder is a part of that journey that I’m really looking forward to.
Mentally it’s been tough. I’ve rarely talked about what happened to me to anyone but my closest friends and associates. I know now that it took between 2-3 years to make a “full” mental recovery (well 99%, I’ve accepted that I may not fully get over this but I’ve also made peace with that) and certainly finding some modest business success was a massive factor in that as it helped give me a sense of purpose and self worth again.
I’ve alluded to dark thoughts, in those first 2 years I was in such a bad place statistically that I held the subconscious belief that I would almost certainly suffer another stroke and I am pretty sure that sabotaged some of my earlier business efforts. At the same time, consciously I held on to the belief that IF nothing else happens then this stroke is the best stroke of good fortune I’ve ever had and I stand by that belief today.
I woudn’t wish what I’ve been through on my worst enemy, yet it’s also been the making of me as a person. I don’t think it’s fundamentally changed me but it’s definitely sharpened a few thoughts. Some of the major lessons I’ve learned (i.e. beliefs I’ve now adopted and ingrained) over the last 5 years are:
- Your choice of life partner is probably the most important decision you will ever make so make it carefully and wisely.
- Life is fragile. Anything can happen to anyone at anytime so don’t put off doing the things that are truly important to you.
- To live in a Western democratic nation is to truly win the global demographic lottery and the only true “luck” – I detest being called “lucky” for any other reason other than that or being physically and mentally intact after suffering a stroke. The opportunities open to us to make anything of ourselves are ridiculously abundant if one just has the courage to see and take them and the urgency to realise they need to be acted on or lost. As the saying goes: “Everyone is self made, but only the successful ones will admit it”.
- Commitment should never be underestimated. Everything changed for me when I committed to one sector and some simple goals, cutting off all other distractions and ideas so that I could focus completely on my outcomes.
- Vitality – the state of being strong and active – is everything and without it we may as well have nothing. Everyone has heard that “health is everything” but most people subconsciously define health as the absence of illness – that’s as ridiculous as defining wealth as the absence of poverty.
That leads me on to possibly my most meaningful learning so far. Almost all of the major health problems sweeping the world today are largely preventable. Heart disease, cancer, stroke and mental illness are largely preventable in many cases and of course obesity, a major trigger for all of those conditions, is almost 100% preventable. The problem is twofold:
- Actions in our 20s and 30s generally have consequences sometimes up to 40 years later in our 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s – not everyone is lucky enough to have the hard reality hit them squarely in the jaw at 30!
- There are many parties such as governments, various food companies, pharmaceutical companies, the alcohol and tobacco industries and many others who have a vested interest in muddying the truth.
The upside is that by adopting certain food and exercise habits people can live with more energy and vitality today than they could ever imagine possible as well as protecting their healthy longevity. Every day I wake up with more energy and verve than when I was 25 and it just feels incredible. It’s a major part of the reason why my productivity in business and enjoyment of life has shot through the roof in these last few years. The last 3 years have quite easily been the best years of my life, each year getting better and better as I feel younger and younger!
That brings me onto my conclusion, for now. Whilst I will continue doing property projects for the next 20+ years, I am shifting my focus to the health/wellness or healthcare industries. I see them as a place where I can have a lot of positive impact in the world and they also have some favourable business characteristics, not least being growth markets as people are integrating them more and more into their lives.
In the meantime, it’s rare to have a stroke that also seems to be a such a stroke of good fortune, let alone be able bodied and minded to even tell this story. It seems right to raise money for the Stroke Association who do incredible work in supporting stroke victims less fortunate than me and their families.
If you agree with me please do donate generously here. (April 2020 note - link no longer accepts donations)
Thank you for reading and I hope something I have written resonates with you to take positive action to improve your health and life right now. I would love to hear the thoughts of anyone who has read this far whether we talk all the time or I haven’t heard from you in years, please feel free to email me or message me through the contact form below.
All the best and thank you for reading,
EDIT: I was a little unsure whether to actually publish and share this blog post, I’ve always been quite self conscious and this story is very personal. This morning (12th May), hours after writing the post, I saw this story trending on BBC news which made my mind up for me. Perhaps it was a sign : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-32690040
May 2015 to May 2020 — the aftermath: As a whistle-stop tour, I spent the next two years slowly getting to know almost every business model in the wellness industry through mentoring a range of wellness entrepreneurs, whilst re-organising and scaling down my property business so I could be less involved.
In 2017 I started an experimental mental well-being side project and also began helping a non-profit network of Silicon Valley based mental health technology entrepreneurs with big dreams to increase their global reach.
Today in May 2020 my property business still gives me a good, reliable income and I’m still doing projects, but in ways that don’t involve a lot of my time.
The mental well-being side project has become my full-time business focus — Mind: Unlocked — after I picked up a great co-pilot to grow it with me.
I am also Co-Chair for Europe for the Transformative Technology Lab, now the largest global group of entrepreneurs and innovators creating and leveraging technology to boost emotional well-being, with members in over 70 countries and 450 cities.
My primary focus for the next several years is to have as much positive impact on as many people around the world’s mental health and emotional well-being as possible.
I can’t wait to see what the next 5 year update brings!