25 September, 2020

“The bravest thing any person can do is bring their authentic self to the world”: Jack Kavanagh in conversation

Our Walk in My Shoes (WIMS) conversations want to highlight the importance of mental health and wellbeing, and break down stigma through dialogue.  

As we all learn to live with COVID-19, we recognise the importance of minding our mental health and regularly checking in with ourselves.  We hope these conversations spark communication, openness and support.

Our latest guest is performance and resilience coach Jack Kavanagh.

In 2012 Jack Kavanagh suffered a life changing spinal cord injury leaving him with 15% muscle function. This ignited a passion to explore both his own and others potential. In the years since he has become a noted life coach, speaker and pharmacist, motivated to help others live more aligned, courageous, fulfilling lives. Jack is passionate about creating environments where everyone can explore their potential and so joined the board of directors of the National Disability Authority and Center for Excellence in Universal Design.

Here, he chats with our Project Manager Amanda McArdle about keeping your mental health in check, lockdown challenges, and hope for the future.

Amanda: The last few months have been a challenging and strange time. How have you been looking after your headspace?

Jack Kavanagh: I very much believe in our wellbeing as being almost like a deposit account in the bank, and any one of us can make regular deposits and that adds up. For me, some of the things that I've been depositing in my account are daily meditation in the mornings… it allows me to create a bit of space just for me. I noticed that when I don't do it, I'm less objective and more reactive, rather than responsive.

I try to commit to movement every day, and that might look like a 10-minute workout, it might look like a cycle for an hour, or anything in between. Because my physical wellbeing and fitness were in jeopardy at a certain point in my life, when I had a spinal cord injury at age 20, I just have a huge appreciation for how much of a gift it is to be able to move my body, and so that's something that I am very deliberate about cultivating and nurturing.

Some of the other things that I have really focused on is learning and reflecting. We're all going through so much change at the moment. There are a lot to things to process and to learn from it, about ourselves and the world. I try to take a few minutes a couple of times a week to take out my journal, and just ask myself how I'm getting on and what's working, what's not working, what do I need to stop doing, what do I need to start doing and what do I need to keep doing. I'm just checking in with myself.

Your accident in 2012 and the journey of recovery from it must have been another difficult time and sudden change in your life. Did you learn anything from that time which is helping you get through the challenges today?

I was at a period of my life coming out of my teenage years, where like everybody else, you push out against the limits of your comfort zone and ask yourself all sorts of questions. I was starting to come up with some really good answers to those questions and was getting a bit of a sense of who I was...

I just finished my first year in college. It was the first day of holiday in Portugal with six of my best mates and, like I had done almost every day that summer, I ran down the beach and dived into the water, not anticipating how shallow it was. My head collided with the sandbank, and I broke my neck.

I went from a position of kind of having the world at my feet to feeling like I completely had the rug pulled out from under me.

I woke up the next day in intensive care with tubes going down my throat and nose to keep me breathing, and a cage around my head to straighten out my spine. I couldn't move anything from my shoulders down for a period of time. I was flown back to Ireland and got off the ventilator and learned to breathe on my own - I was literally like a child again. I had about 15% muscle function in my shoulders, my biceps and wrists. I was finding myself using a wheelchair and learning how to navigate the world in a very different way.

And, in moments like that, you start to get the opportunity to make some choices, and you're battling with the grief of what has happened and coming to terms with what has happened.  Everybody has been doing that over the last while, because what happened to the world over the last six months is traumatic – it’s challenged our perception of the world and it's taken us away from some of the people we care about the most for a while. It has inhibited the extent to which we can interact with the things that we care about the most and that make us feel alive.

And we're challenged during times like this to really look at ourselves, and to look at the things that are close to us and the people that are close to us, and to maybe find a whole new appreciation for those things, or to realise that maybe the way in which we want to engage with those things is different to how we have been engaging.

Over those months, particularly after the injury, I thought a lot about those kinds of things, but it was also a period where I had to have hope for a better tomorrow… During the lockdown, none of us knew for certain when we would get to engage with that hope for the future again. We all responded as best we knew how.

Have you taken up any new hobbies or skills since the restrictions began? Do you think you’ll continue them as times goes on?

I haven't taken up any new hobbies, but I’ve learned a lot of new skills. Within my business, I've had to completely pivot to online and so I have learned lots of new technical and design skills and started a podcast called ‘Only Human Podcast’. That has been an interesting learning curve and journey. New skills came with that - active listening, interviewing styles, and the actual production of it along with my friend Evan Balfe. I think if COVID-19 didn't happen, they would have been on the long finger. It's also allowed me to interact and add value to people in loads of different ways that otherwise may not have happened for a long time, if at all.

You are a pharmacist, a Performance and Development Coach and a podcaster. How do you juggle it all? Have you had to make changes to your work and roles in light of restrictions?

It's very easy to fill your calendar and not to recognise the slow creep of maybe doing a little bit too much...We can't be on all the time and, when you start to recognise the signs that you're overstretched, you can tweak a few things.

I haven't been practising as a pharmacist through COVID-19 because I'm a little bit more at risk given my spinal cord injury, but I’ve been trying to juggle and prioritise running online programmes, delivering talks, speeches, workshops, and my podcast. For a period of time, they were very happy outlets, and now, as I'm a little bit tired, it's starting to feel a little bit difficult. I realise that's 100% the right time for me to catch myself before I overextend and to put proper dedicated recovery time in the diary.

You’ve done a TedX Talk, Zeminar and massive corporate events; how does it feel speaking to such a large audience who are looking to be inspired?

You know, to a certain extent, the nerves never go away, but you do get better at managing them. The fear of public speaking is one of the really big ones because we fear the judgment of others… Instead of being completely in my own head and fearing the judgment, I asked myself, “what would these people miss out on if I didn't get up here and if I wasn't brave?”, so that I can add value for them.

Just remember that it's a real privilege first to be asked and then to be given any time in front of an audience - and that's a vote of confidence in you.

You’re known for motivating and challenging your audience: is there any key takeaway that your audiences have told you they take from your talks?

I'm going to say insight into themselves, because my story is just your story written in different words.

One of the things that I wrote a couple of years ago when I was at a really tough period of my life: “There is no right or wrong path, just a series of events that gives us a flavour of what it is that either sets our heart alight, or dampens our soul”.

What message would you send to young people to help keep them motivated as we continue to live with some form of restriction and uncertainty?

Asking them to be curious about what is important to them: what do they value and are passionate about? Get curious and ask them, rather than telling them. And when you get curious about something that makes someone come alive, you help them to set some goals and then some actions that will support them in fulfilling an ambition or spending time in the area of things that they value.

What’s the plan for the remainder of 2020?

My plans for 2020 got ripped up, as did most people’s!

For me, I look at things in two different ways; system-goals and outcome-goals. For example, I wanted to launch a podcast and my outcome goal was to get to 20 episodes as quickly as possible. We released the twentieth episode and my process for that was to do two episodes a week. And then I can go back and say, what needs to happen for me to do two episodes a week? That’s the idea of a system and an end goal.

A big thing for me was that I launched my first online course which is called RISE Academy (Resilience, Inner Strength and Energy). That has been amazing and I have loved doing that… I’m going to run that for three more months this year.   

We’ll continue to release a weekly podcast now, instead of twice a week, and all my other goals are time with my family, friends and my girlfriend. I have some business and health goals, but really, they all get achieved by us showing up and doing the simple things right day in and day out, and recognising that we’re only human and we all fall off the track and that’s ok… pick yourself up a day or two later and go again.