#20 Niraj Shah: A Stroke of Good Fortune

30 year old Niraj Shah was going about his daily routine getting ready for work when he suddenly collapsed. He began vomiting violently and could barely get words out as he dialed for an ambulance. It would be a strange occurrence for anyone on any day, but for this young and healthy man, it was implausible.

At the hospital the next day, Niraj learned he had suffered a cerebellar infarct, a rare but serious stroke causing part of his brain to die, permanently. The part of his brain that controlled balance had perished and Niraj could no longer move the lower half of his body.

Niraj had never shown symptoms of disease and in the last year of his life, he had been exercising regularly, drinking only in moderation, he had a wonderful relationship with his wife and was living a relatively low-stress life. It didn’t seem to make any sense that this would happen now and, after many tests, Niraj would learn that there was no conclusion.

In this 180 interview Niraj shares how the power of his beliefs 180’d his life: from bedridden to yoga, walking and resuming an even stronger, healthier life. During his recovery, he also successfully 180’d his career: from a corporate job to a successful real estate entrepreneur. Today he uses all of that momentum and perspective from what he refers to as the “stroke of good fortune” to forward him in giving his unique gift to the world through his newest endeavour, The Present of Yoga which empowers yoga leaders with tools and resources to share their message with global audiences.

It is through the incredibly encouraging yoga Instagram community that I had the opportunity to connect with Niraj and that I now have the ability to share his story and wisdom with you: I’ve noted that in every scenario, Niraj has trained himself to ask the question, “how does this serve me?” versus the question, “why did this happen to me?” The difference between empowering yourself and giving your power away is crucial, but in the case of something as extreme as what Niraj suffered, it’s the difference between life and slow death, the difference between creating the life of your dreams or allowing your life to leak away in your sorrows.

Talk about 180! Years after recovery, Niraj is nimble on the mat and the slopes.

Talk about 180! Years after recovery, Niraj is nimble on the mat and the slopes.

His determination and perseverance exemplary, but what stands out loud is his clarity. An expert in 180, from the pits of 180 sadness to the glory of successes, Niraj stresses the importance of creating goals, checking in with them and understanding the why.

Without further adieu, here is 180 wisdom from Niraj Shah.

You were already set on a career 180 before the stroke, how did the stroke propel your career 180?

Yes, I was already set on the path to entrepreneurship and committed to it. The main thing the stroke did was act as a catalyst. It took me out of the employed world for a period of time and gave me the space and time I was wishing for almost every day at that point. In that sense it gave me exactly what I had wanted, just not in the way I had expected or would wish for if given the choice!

Of course a brush with death or incapacitation like that also intensifies and clarifies what is truly important, so it’s fair to say it helped me both streamline my activities and stop unconsciously treating both health and time as if they are limitless resources - they’re not. It created a sense of urgency.

Can you tell us about the changes that followed after your stroke?

My list of permitted physical activities during my initial recovery were re-learning how to walk and then walking, sleeping and yoga. That was all I was allowed to do and in hindsight I can see how this situation forced me to come back to yoga. I had done some yoga as a child but forgotten about it in my teenage years and came back to it, in the end, because I literally had no other choice - it was do yoga or do nothing and doing nothing was not an option as I had set a goal to be back on a snowboard within a year.

Aside from that I suddenly had a lot of time to read, think and plan. As I had to sleep every afternoon, I believe that process helped some of that learning, thinking and planning to become internalised.

Additionally I now had a lot of uncertainty in my life... Statistically I had a pretty high chance of suffering another stroke within the next 12-24 months, a thought made worse by there being no diagnosis as to what had caused the stroke in the first place. In hindsight this unconscious belief may have held me back in my early business attempts. I’m pleased to report that those thoughts are now well and truly banished. Living with them helped me to learn to cope with severe uncertainty which is a useful skill for an entrepreneur.

In conclusion I feel it all forced me down a certain path of specific actions and also taught me how to manage so many situations that in the past would have triggered a stress response. “Normal” situations are no longer stressful because the threshold for stress has been raised so high now!

During your recovery time, you devoured books, what were some of the most influential for you in creating 180 in your life?

I have been reading a lot of books since I was a teenager so the influence of books stretches back for over 20 years, my recovery time just allowed me to devour at a faster rate! These are three books that I consider the most relevant specifically for creating a 180:

  1. “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek - I consider this to be essential reading for anyone who wants to lead a purpose driven life. Simon also has an excellent TED Talk on this subject.
  2. “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyne - this explodes the myth of innate talent, an eye opening read.
  3. “Hard Goals” by Mark Murphy - one of the best books, if not the best book, I’ve read on this subject. Especially useful for those looking to do something big and overwhelming.

You now refer to the stroke as "a stroke of good fortune" - can you share your perspective on that?

I chose that way to frame the stroke quite soon after it happened, possibly from my hospital bed, even if it didn’t feel like that was the case every day. I didn’t feel sorry for myself; I was extremely grateful to be alive and mentally and physically intact. It stems from a belief I’ve long held deeply in my core - “everything happens for a reason and a purpose, and it serves me.” I learned this from Tony Robbins, I was lucky enough to meet him at one of his first events in London in 1994 when I was just 15 years old and his philosophies have had a big impact on my life. Whether that belief is “true” is utterly irrelevant, the point is that adopting it is unbelievably empowering therefore it is highly logical to do so. Suddenly no matter what happens the immediate question is “How does this serve me?” - that’s a far more beneficial place to live than “Why did this happen to me?”

I wouldn't wish the process of what I’ve been through on my worst enemy, but now I can see it’s given me everything I wanted and more. It’s shaped me as a person and is still shaping my contribution to the world, which is in it’s infant stages. I am genuinely grateful that it happened - not what happened but the results it has created. That’s possibly easier to say now that I’ve regained my self worth & experienced a modicum of “business success” but even in the darkest days it was the belief that “everything happens for a reason and purpose, and it serves me” that got me through.

Are there tools or mantras that supported you through the tumultuous times you've faced in the past six years?

Yoga has been a major habit in my life over the last six years. After I had recovered physically, which took around 6 months, I continued the practice around 3-4 times a week because my body felt good after doing yoga. It became a nightly ritual when I started my first business, because it was the only thing that would calm my hyperactive mind down enough to let me sleep! Since then, whilst there are multiple physical, benefits it’s the mental benefits that have kept me practicing daily.

Aside from that there are no formalised tools or mantras as such but something I think is extremely important is proper clear goal setting which is something I did before starting my first business and regularly review from time to time now. This is essentially deciding what you want, in detail and why. Done properly it can take ages and is hard work, but in reality nothing that can’t be done in half a day of focused effort.

I have learned and started practising vedic meditation in recent months, this would have been a very useful tool to know before and and I am enjoying the journey into deeper states now.

What's the most important thing someone can do to prepare for a career 180?

First of all I would strongly advise to get clear about what you want and why you want it. If you’re going to make dramatic changes, make sure they’re the right changes! Most people drift through life without taking the time to figure this out. Why? Because it’s not easy! It’s much easier to go with the flow, or jump on whatever bandwagon, but neither of those things lead to fulfillment or happiness - in fact they lead directly to the opposite of both.

Secondly read the books above - I’ve recommended them for a reason. We are programed to always seek new information, but I believe in immersion - better to read the same few books 5 times each until you’ve internalised what they really mean and gleaned everything you can from them.

Specifically career 180 related is to make sure you understand what calculated risk is and the importance of being able to put food on the table. Make sure you fully understand exactly what doors you are opening and closing and whether the closed doors can or can’t be re-opened again. Talk to people who’ve made a similar move, find out what they regret, make sure you can live with those same regrets. If they aren’t a problem to you or you can at least live with the consequences then you are ready to jump in with both feet but now also with both eyes open!

You're working on a yoga startup now, The Present of Yoga. Can you share a bit more about it and what inspired you to create it?

In a nutshell this is intended to be a globally relevant resource sharing and connection platform whose goal is to empower yoga leaders and teachers around the world so that they may serve more people, more effectively. The area that interests us most is empowering those who teach and share – the yoga/meditation teachers and the people who own, run or work in studios, create retreats, make products such as mats, clothing or technology etc – today and tomorrow’s yoga leaders.

Last year, in summer 2015, I wrote this blog post about my stroke, the aftermath, starting my first business and my intention to move my focus and energies to the healthcare or “wellness” industries.

In May this year, when my co-founder Ben and I were making a final decision of which wellness related problem we would commit to solving, I got curious about the “business of yoga”. I couldn’t find the quality of information that I was looking for – “What interesting things are happening in yoga? Who’s innovating? How is the industry evolving? What is driving the growth? How does it address the world’s needs? What problems exist in yoga? How are people’s needs and wants not being adequately met?” And so on… so we decided to build what we couldn’t find!

I am a British-born Indian who has largely been guided in yoga by Westerners, I am spiritual but not religious, I care deeply about humanity and am simultaneously an entrepreneur and investor. I feel in these respects I reflect much of what the yoga universe has become in the present day. For that reason I am in a relatively unique position to build a resource that is essentially about the business of yoga. However it goes deeper, a lot of what we will share can be readily applied to wider entrepreneurship and indeed to life, because the core principles of success and happiness apply to everything. Our goal is to unlock the tools, strategies and insights beyond the superficial.

How can the 180 community support you on your journey?

A great question and thank you for asking it! I’m not 100% sure. The Present of Yoga, whilst created for the yoga community, is not just for yogis. A lot of what we are going to be sharing there are universal principles of success and happiness, so they can be applied to anything. I suspect the platform will be of some interest to entrepreneurs and anyone interested in improving their life - the specifics might be about yoga (which I believe can benefit absolutely anyone) but the principles are universal - yoga is my subject matter & vehicle, but at it’s core this is a project designed to serve humanity.

Going back to your question - I suppose by taking a few minutes to check out The Present of Yoga out and if it’s interesting then to subscribe and pass it on to anyone relevant. If it really resonates with you then get in touch! In a world where there is so much competition for people’s attention, I would be so grateful if members of the 180 community could spend a precious few minutes with us!