On 10th September 2012, Ivan Heneghan suffered a brain haemorrhage while preparing for a football match. He was 32 years old.
In the couple of years that followed, he had trouble swallowing. He lost confidence in his speech and, at times, would wake up in the middle of the night choking. And the worst part – this was just the start.
Just as Ivan’s recovery had got to the point in which he was able to exercise, his back gave out, causing so much agony in his lower spine and leg that he went for an MRI. The surgeon took one look at the scan and told Ivan it was a miracle he was even walking, and that they needed to operate ASAP.
Within a couple of weeks, Ivan was having a discectomy to remove the lumbar tissue compressed into his sciatic nerve. He was told that, if he exercised for an hour or two every day for the rest of his life, he may get away with no additional surgery.
But this isn’t a story of Ivan’s suffering. This is a story of Ivan Heneghan as a human being; as someone who has taken whatever negativity life has thrown at him and come out stronger; someone who has learned the fragility of life and chosen to live each day courageously anyway; someone who sees the true value in human experiences, interaction and connection; someone who does not shy away from honesty and vulnerability, but embraces it.
This week’s #KnapChat is one of the most honest, inspiring and open conversations I have ever had. I challenge you not to feel inspired to live what Ivan calls a “braver life” after reading it.
KW: The article you wrote entitled “A Brain Haemorrhage’s Impact on a Career” must have taken so much courage to write and publish. What made you believe July 2018 was the time to open up about your brain haemorrhage and surgery?
Ivan: Ah, thank you, and great question! I had written, deleted, rewritten, deleted that article a dozen times over the preceding year. I had almost published it, but always, always stopped myself because I was terrified of doing so. I was more than happy to talk about what happened to me at length face-to-face and on more personal social media, but there was a big barrier when it came to something that would live forever on the part of the internet that was my professional sphere.
But over the course of 2018, I found myself back in the working world, in a job I was loving, and time and again, I talked to people at work about the haemorrhage, my recovery, my very-slightly damaged speech, and I felt, in a world where people talk about how important it is to talk about things like vulnerability, and illness, and mental health – but where very few people actually do talk about it and their experience… Well, I just felt, whatever the consequences, it was time to talk more about it.
My haemorrhage, my recovery – they are part of me. I’ll never fully recover from it – I have some little issues that will always remain – but if me talking about it helps others acknowledge something they’re dealing with, it’s worth it.
KW: Your honesty is extremely refreshing and admirable, particularly when you write and talk about your worries and fears. Why is it important to be vocal and open about such things?
Ivan: Well, nobody really talks about these things.
Nobody tells you that after a brain haemorrhage, you need to start worrying about a will and the tax implications of not having one; or that you need to worry if you need to change your health insurer, as your new one will see you as having a “history”.
Nobody tells you that you’ll worry about falling in love, in case of another haemorrhage (but one that might be much worse), and so you’d rather not risk someone else being in the situation.
Nobody tells you that your communication skills need to be razor-sharp in the working world, but you now slur words at times, and it’s exhausting to talk, and you can’t just say “Sorry – had a haemorrhage a while back!” to explain.
Trust me – I had plenty of worries and fears sharing what happened in the professional sphere. But in the end, humans share experiences through story-telling – that’s how we relate, and understand, and learn – and my story, while far from unique, is mine, and if sharing it can help others…
KW: What can be done to change the perception of vulnerability being seen as a weakness in the workplace?
Ivan: Talking openly. It’s as simple as that.
Whenever discussions arise about showing vulnerability – whether it’s physical or mental – I always see people agree, but rarely people share their direct personal experience. For every 100 people saying how important it is to understand mental health in the workplace, I see maybe 1 person saying how their mental health is.
There’s still, and will be for a long time, a stigma attached to admitting to being vulnerable: whether it’s about physical health, mental health, fears and worries – all the things we’re told not to mention, not to admit to, not to let others see for fear of being perceived as weaker, as a risk.
In the end, if other people see showing vulnerability – and all the good that can come with it – as weakness, that’s on them.
KW: You’ve worked for some now-huge companies, notably Google and Facebook. How did you get into the world of tech start-ups? And what advice would you give to someone looking to go down a similar route?
Ivan: An accident, really! I qualified as a software engineer but realised I wasn’t a very good one (I did do a course when I left Facebook and found that I still wasn’t a very good one, but now I’m a not-very good one in a more modern programming language!)
I ended up joining a start-up – one of the first focused on online advertising in Ireland – and things just grew from there. I was lucky enough to get to be part of Google and Facebook at very early stages in their development.
My advice is simple – choose what you’ll do based on a few things: the role and what it’ll help you learn; the people you’ll work with and how deep a friendship you could build; your manager and what they will be able to teach you; and the company and how closely its values match your own personal values. The more of these you can get right, the longer you’ll stay and the deeper you’ll love what you do.
KW: Talk us through presenting at that first conference after your haemorrhage – was this a goal you had set while recovering? How important was that achievement?
Ivan: Being honest, no. My only goal was to make sure my words didn’t slur! I had talked extensively at conferences for Google, Facebook and in other roles. The haemorrhage had derailed that, and this conference just came along at a particular time, under a particular set of circumstances, when I felt confident enough to try my hand at presenting again.
It was in my home town, and it was an opportunity for my parents to see me talk in public for the very first time. In terms of my feelings, it was like I was never away. Looking back now, it was an important step – I’ve now moved on to do a little motivational speaking, delivering presentation skills and public speaking training for others, and more. My speech will never fully recover – talking takes a lot more energy than it used to, but it is what it is!
I love public speaking because it allows me to share something of value and see that moment when people get it – the look in their eyes. A nod. A smile.
KW: How difficult was leaving Google in 2008 and Facebook/Instagram in 2015?
Ivan: Not hard, in both cases. What they never tell you is, you know when it’s time to move on, deep down. Your inner self has its mind made up weeks, months, before you realise it, and when you make the decision, it sits well.
I miss both – the people, the culture, the environment – but life is very short, and the next thing to focus on is right in front of us.
KW: You’ve done some amazing things since leaving Facebook: hiking around the Northern Hemisphere, seeing the northern lights and exploring ancient cities across the globe to name just a few… How did these experiences affect your return to the working world?
Ivan: Those experiences, and the haemorrhage, inspired me to play for a year. To try a couple of things career-wise. I was lucky – no dependants, no commitments – so I tried my hand in true start-ups, as a consultant. I discovered some new skills, some new passions. And, to be honest, they also led to my current role – a role that I adore.
KW: What stands out the most when you look back on your experiences and achievements?
Ivan: A year after my brain inspira (and a few months later, major back surgery), I went from having speech concerns and not being able to walk properly, to dog-sledding kilometres across the Arctic, descending into and hiking through a 1,000-year-old ice cave.
Yeah… That was a good day!
KW: The quotes you share within your articles have no doubt struck a chord with many readers. But what is your favourite quote and why?
Ivan: There’s a few, but the one that never leaves me is from “Let Me Die Laughing”, by Mark Morrison-Reed.
“What we need to fear is not death, but squandering the lives we have been miraculously given.”
KW: What advice would you give to someone who feels they may have deviated from their life plan?
Ivan: First, read Jonathan Harris’ “Navigating Stuckness” – a short article on understanding why you feel that deviation, and what you can do. And then read Jamie Varon’s “To Anyone Who Thinks They’re Falling Behind In Life” – a short article on why you’re not – which includes this wonderful quote:
“We can’t game it. We can’t 10-point list it. We can’t control it. We have to just let it be, to take a fucking step back for a moment, stop beating ourselves up into oblivion, and to let the cogs turn as they will. One day, this moment will make sense. Trust that.”
You’re not deviating from any plan – you are where you’re meant to be. You’ll catch up if you feel you’re behind.
KW: Having worked and managed some tremendously successful teams, what do you believe are the key ingredients to a great team?
Ivan: First, diversity – mix a bunch of smart people together with similar backgrounds, and education, and experiences, and you’ll have a damn good team. But mix a bunch of smart people together with very different backgrounds, and education, and experience – and let them all spark off each other – and amazing things will happen.
Second, passion for each other – you’ll do more, go further, fight harder for the people around you when you fall in love with them all a little.
And finally, let each other fail safely – give each other the room to try new things, and when someone fails, pick up the pieces, get them back on their feet, and repeat.
KW: What makes a successful leader?
Ivan: To me, there’s a single quote that has stayed with me on leading – “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the [people] to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
Show people what might be possible, give them support, and let them go.
KW: What would you say is the most important lesson you’ve learned in life?
Ivan: That it is unexpectedly short. That no matter what you plan, life will mess with that plan, laughing as it does so. That it’s not about the number of days lived; it’s about what you do with them – the life in your days rather than the days in your life. That life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.
That I can spout lots of clichés. Sorry.
I have been fortunate enough to be heavily involved in #KnapChat, a project that has provided me with invaluable opportunities to speak to some truly inspiring people; a journey that has opened my eyes to some remarkable stories, insights and experiences. I have learned a lot along the way, but Ivan Heneghan’s journey is one that has struck perhaps the biggest chord.
There are many takeaways from my conversation with Ivan, but the biggest one for me is that life can be all sorts of things: it can be terrifying; it can be exciting; it can be overwhelmingly happy and heartbreakingly tragic; it can be cruel, and it can be kind. There are lots of elements to life that we cannot control, but that should not stop us from staring it in the face and striving for more. To “sing in the lifeboats” among the shipwreck, to paraphrase one of Ivan’s metaphors.
This is a challenge we should all embark upon, epitomised by Ivan’s answer to my final question: What does it mean to live a “braver life“?
“Life is very short, and very uncertain. I’ve realised that I want to go to bed each night thinking, if I don’t wake up the next day, then that last day was one I would have been happy living. This doesn’t mean every minute and every hour needs to be packed to the rafters – quite the opposite, I live a pretty quiet life – but it means making sure that most of my decisions were made from a place of wanting to experiment, and try, and play, and fail, and learn. That, to me, is braver.”
Loved this blog and want to discover more fascinating people doing extraordinary things? Check out our other #KnapChat interviews below: