Dan Kieran“It sounds like you’re coming first in someone else’s race.”

It was December 2019 and I was explaining to a friend how little solace I felt from achievements I had expected would make me feel a ‘success’.

He was right. At the age of forty-four, on paper I had everything fifteen-year-old me would have considered proof of a great life. I was married to someone I adored, had three wonderful children and another on the way. I had fulfilled my ambition to become a Sunday Times bestselling author and started my own company that had won awards and made a positive impact in the publishing industry – enabling me to move out of London to find a better quality of life. I wasn’t rich but had never been in a better position financially, so why was I in such a mess? What was the matter with me?

Deep down I knew I was still haunted by the trauma of my early life and then my parents split up when I was fifteen. As my family fragmented, I embraced my peer group instead, whose weekly preoccupation was how best to escape using alcohol and marijuana. This led to below-average results in exams a few years later.

Feeling like a helium balloon no-one was holding on to, my life drifted into the mental torment of anxiety and panic attacks while trying to hold down minimum wage jobs. I clawed my way to university in London a few years later, taking advantage of being a mature student to get a grant to help pay for it, but my anxiety had morphed into agoraphobia before the end of my first year. Panic attacks meant I had gone from being too scared to fly, take lifts, the tube, a bus or train and now I was finding it harder and harder even to leave my flat. Fear then took control of my life completely and I dropped out of my degree.

Agoraphobia is a crippling illness because you live in fear of panic attacks whenever you go out, so you do everything you can to stay inside. The way you achieve that is to neglect your personal and family relationships so you don’t get invitations to things you can never accept. The taboo around mental health meant I never felt I could explain why I was so unpredictable and refused to go out. I was too scared to verbalise what was going on in my head in case it led to the nervous breakdown I was unwittingly already in the middle of. But I soon discovered it was frighteningly easy to achieve my objective, which was to be left alone.

Although I never wanted to end my life, things got dark and lonely enough for me to call the Samaritans who found a counsellor within walking distance of my flat. I had enough sessions with her to get a glimpse of the truth – that what had happened in my past did not have to define my future.

As I pieced myself back together, serendipity struck when I found the office of my favourite magazine, the Idler, was a few doors up the road from my flat. An enquiry about doing work experience turned into working every Wednesday for free. I could handle it because my home was visible from the office and I afforded it by signing up to all the credit cards that would accept me. For the first time in a long time the panic stayed away. I soon got offered a full-time job, new friendships developed and then I discovered the one thing with enough strength to counter the pull of my fears. I fell in love. I never told the person concerned the depths of my feelings and I lacked the experience and emotional maturity to turn the closeness we developed into a proper relationship, but the way I felt about her was powerful enough to entice me back out into the world.

Crap TownsThe next few years working at the Idler gave me my big break when the website I built for the magazine after teaching myself to code went viral and turned into a bestselling book called Crap Towns. I had a girlfriend by then, and over the next decade we went on to find happiness together, get married and have two extraordinary children while I built my writing career. But our relationship always reflected our struggles with the demons of both our early lives and fear soon began to claim me again. I thought I should stay in that marriage for the sake of our children, but on the train home one day I remember being unable to decide whether it mattered if I was happy. To try to work it out, I imagined if anyone I loved asked that of themselves and what I would say to them if they did. I broke down in tears at the thought and was horrified I had managed to ignore my own needs for so long.

The marriage break-up that followed coincided with the launch of my crowdfunding publishing business, Unbound, and I began to be treated as a success when it took off. I was unsteady on my feet, but felt I was on the right path. By now I had also painstakingly ticked off all my fears apart from flying, but the spectre of it haunted me still. Once again love showed me the way though, when I met someone who would change my life completely.

Within a few months of getting together with Isobel, I got on a passenger plane for the first time in two decades to see my brother in Jersey. As long as I was with Isobel, I felt completely free of fear. As the business grew, a course of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) to address my flying phobia allowed me to jet around the world, stand on stages and be applauded while I told the story of Unbound. People like Sir Richard Branson said nice things about me and the business grew exponentially, but despite all this outward success, the person I became over that decade to achieve what I thought I wanted, never felt quite like ‘me’. I knew I was drifting away from myself creatively, the nagging anxiety had never gone, and I feared my relationship with Isobel risked becoming dependency.

Dan KieranWhen we moved out of London into our new home in December 2019, my anxiety came back brutally. Instead of being happy with what we had achieved in our marriage together, all I could see was how much I had to lose if everything fell apart. And I felt so far from my creative self by this stage because in the quest to be a successful businessman I had even stopped writing, which has always been the core of who I am.

That was when I remembered conversations I’d had with my friend and fellow author Hilary Gallo about the Hoffman Process. I had known as soon as he told me about his own experience ten years earlier that I would do it one day, but could never find the right time. At the start of January 2020, I realised now is the only time. I rang the Hoffman office and explained that I felt as though an invisible plastic band was attached to me. I had no idea how to be free of the pressure that kept pulling me back to the patterns of behaviour and definitions I had come to accept about myself from my past. I was finally ready to confront them.

I tackled the pre-course work with complete commitment, even driving back to my childhood homes and schools for inspiration, and the day my Process began I remember pulling up outside the venue and promising myself that whatever else happened, I would not leave wishing I had been more committed. If I was doing it, then I had to go all in.

I don’t think I’m the first participant to find the first three days challenging and I fantasised about running away, but by the time I got to Wednesday I started to feel better than I’d ever done. I had to dig deep and it wasn’t easy, however the early phases provided insight, clarity, and breakthroughs and I enjoyed incredible support from my fellow attendees. One of the best things about the Process is that no-one knows anything about each other, so you meet people free of any unconscious biases or judgements you might make in normal life. I began to feel nourished and soothed in a way I hadn’t in a long time. And of course over that week I learned one of the most crucial elements of the Process itself, which is to have the courage to live from love rather than fear. I saw an echo of my future in my past then, because even in my darkest moments, deep down, I always knew love was trying to show me the way.

Dan Kieran surfboardIn my Process vision that week I saw myself writing books again, surfing and there were students around me, which was strange because I’d never done any teaching. But in the three years since leaving the Process that vision has become my reality. I stood down as CEO of Unbound a year ago. I’ve dusted off my surfboard (still by no means a natural), am writing books again (rather better at that, I hope) and last Autumn I was offered the chance to teach a module of the Publishing MA at UCL (University College London). That experience of sharing what I learned on my entrepreneurial journey with young people has been truly life-changing.

Since the Process, I’ve found the feeling I spent my life looking for – the feeling I had thought would be found in being a successful entrepreneur. It turned out to be much closer than I ever imagined. It was always in me, it turns out. And although I did the Process for myself, perhaps the biggest gift of all is that learning to let go of fear has liberated my whole family. Stepping down from such an intense job meant Isobel could retrain and return to a fulfilling professional career and I got more much-needed time with my four children.

Do Start by Dan Kieran book coverMy new book tackles these issues from a business perspective. It’s called Do Start: How to create and run a business (that doesn’t run you) and it calls out the fact that the mental health of entrepreneurs is still seen as collateral damage in the pursuit of building their companies. For the most part, business is a domain still run and ruled from a place of fear and all of us pay a price for that. My book is a guide to enable founders to create businesses without losing themselves and of course they do this by learning to run them from a place of love instead.

Despite living in increasingly anxious times, I’m loving life now that I have the perspective, tools and the courage the Process revealed within me. I’m not a religious person, but I am evangelical about the way it changed my life.

You can order Dan’s new book here, or visit his website: www.dankieran.com

Dan’s Do Lecture: You Think You Have Ideas But Ideas Have You

An impassioned talk from Dan on the greatest idea that’s ever had him.