What Makes Donal O’Neill Tick

 In ‘What Makes You Tick’ I get the chance to pick the brains of some inspirational people from all walks of life, in the hope that by sharing ideas we can continue to progress, push our limits, and inspire each other.

Donal O’Neill is a former elite-level athlete, and an innovative documentary filmmaker exploring health and nutrition. His first movie Cereal Killers was a cult sensation, and the Killeavy native has since produced two successful follow-up projects, Run On Fat: Cereal Killers 2, and The Big Fat Fix, and has more recently published a best-selling book, The Pioppi Diet, alongside British cardiologist Dr. Aseem Malhotra. 

In a nutshell I would say I’m probably a story-teller; I’m someone who is curious. In 2010 I moved into the field of documentary filmmaking to use it as a channel to bring stories to the general public, so I do other things but strictly speaking I’m probably best known as a documentary filmmaker in the fields of health and human performance.”

An unexpected episode involving his father- who was part of a Down side which enjoyed a spell of dominance in the 1960’s- drew Donal to a career in filmmaking. 

“I found myself on the path to filmmaking by accident. My father- who was a Gaelic football star back in the 60’s- suffered a heart attack in 2010. He did so having sailed through the various regular medical tests; he was always congratulated for being fit and healthy, and for maintaining his weight, and so it was a great surprise. When that happened I started to question some of the advice that he- and we as a nation in Ireland- were always given in terms of cardiovascular health, and I suppose the further I went into that domain, the more frustrated I became. I had no intention of making a film, but based on the information that I found, I decided it might be an appropriate route to take in order to try and share some of that information, and to let people make up their own minds as to what a healthy lifestyle and a healthy diet looks like.”

Donal was kind enough to take the time to share his insights and experiences. 

Would you say you are more introverted, or extroverted? 

It’s a good question. I’m probably a little bit of both, I’m very good on my own and I’ve worked on my own for quite some time now. Some of the folks back in Ireland might recall that I established the GPA when I returned home in the late 90’s, that thrust me into a spotlight of which I didn’t quite expect at the age of 27. I had to learn to handle things like the media, which I actually found came to me relatively easily. By the same token, I was establishing something based very much on my own vision, and was driven by my principles and beliefs; I didn’t really have a lot of support around me at all at that point.

In my first job, working with the great sports marketing entrepreneur Mark McCormack at IMG, we were encouraged to step into opportunities and take risks, and so I’m very comfortable if you put me in a boardroom, or out on a pitch, or inside a dressing room; I’m comfortable in and around people. In saying that, my latest movie is about spending time in the great outdoors, and the effect it has on human physiology and psychology, and so I enjoy time on my own too.

I’m probably bilingual when it comes to that particular question.

What are some of those values and beliefs that you mentioned, that drive what you do? 

One of the people who has influenced me greatly in life was my old athletics coach, a lady called Maeve Kyle. Maeve is still alive and thriving at almost 90 years of age. She’s a Kilkenny woman, and she was the first Irish woman to compete in the Olympic Games in 1956. She got hate mail as a result for doing so, and took a lot of abuse at the time. I came under her wing when I was about 15 or 16 years of age and in the short few years that I was with her, she instilled a phenomenal set of criteria by which one should live their life.

She was an incredible athletics coach, but everybody who came into contact with her became a better person. She was all about people, particularly young people, and essentially trying to do the right thing. There were drugs in the sport at the time- absolutely- and we would have been exposed to that; I would have known athletes who were taking performance enhancing drugs, and when I came away from my athletics career after sustaining an injury, I was able to look back and understand the importance of things like consistency and belief, and sticking firmly to your principles, which is something that my father would have instilled in me from a young age also.

I became very focused, and had the ability to reframe any setback and put it almost in a sporting context; I would view it as an injury, and I would do so on the basis that when you come out the other side, you will get stronger. Everyone takes knocks in life, but if your path is very clear, those knocks become easier to navigate, particularly if you stick to those principles and have a very firm goal (as athletes we would have all looked to the Olympic Games for example). Now, I never got there but that was the guiding light.

I think if you’ve got that beacon in the distance- that lighthouse- then it’s very easy stay on the right course, and to carry through with the conviction of those beliefs.

What are some of those principles you talk about

I think self-belief in what I do is very important. I ask very special people very difficult questions, and my first boss Mark McCormack always said, that if you surround yourself with people who are better than you, you will never go wrong. In making the documentary films I’ve made to date, that’s all I’ve done. I’ve found people who are brilliant in their space, and I’m fortunate that they’ve taken the decision to share their information and their expertise with me.

I suppose my own belief in that regard, is that there is always someone who has solved the particular problem that you are contending with; there is somebody out there who is world class and exceptional, and if you approach them honestly and with integrity they’re very likely to share their knowledge with you.

That integrity is probably the single thing I would look for in anything I do, and with the people that I choose to mingle with and whose story I choose to share, the thing that rises to the top every time is integrity. The movies that I’ve made have all been crowdfunded; the last movie was of interest to the BBC, but you’re giving up editorial control, and you’re at the mercy of the public purse, and you really do lose the freedom of the message, so I like to be in a position to be able to control the story, to own it, and to take responsibility for it.

What would you say is your passion? 

My passion is absolutely health and human performance. I think bundling in everything I’ve learned in my 35 years in and around sport, and with the expertise I’ve gathered up over the past 7 years, it’s put me in a position to relay some very useful information to the average person. You can get bogged down in diet and weight loss and all of that but, bottom line is I like to see people get up in the morning, look at themselves in the mirror, and want to go out and do better than they did the day before.

I suppose, I spoke earlier about the lighthouse and the beacon, that’s what it’s all about. I want to help people improve, to feel better and to perform better, and that’s where the passion lies.

What does success mean to you and how do you measure it? 

For me personally, I stepped into an industry I had no prior knowledge of, and had no right to engage in, but I was able to transfer skills acquired from a previous failure in the technology industry to my movie-making career; let’s face it, a production house would look at me and say You’re “small-fry”, but for me the success in the last 7 years has been the ability to tell my own story, to do it my way without any outside interference, and to hold on to that editorial integrity. That’s my own personal take on it.

I’ve been around some incredibly successful people and it’s very informative to observe how they go about their business. One such person I always point to is Sami Inkinen, who features in my second movie Run On Fat. Sami emigrated to the US, did his MBA in Stanford, and went on to become the founder of a disruptive, multi-billion dollar company, the real estate behemoth Trulia; more recently he co-founded and acts as CEO of Virta Health. On top of all that, he became a world Ironman (age group) champion. That’s success.

People often asked me after we put the camera on him, What is this guy like? you know, because he’s an absolute titan of Silicon Valley. Well, he looks like Matt Damon, runs like a Masai Warrior, and thinks like Steve Jobs, and he’s a man of absolute impeccable integrity at the bottom of it all. I have a huge amount of respect for him.

So when I think of success, he’s somebody that I think of, but it’s not so much what he has achieved, it’s more so the application. To win that Ironman title, when ten years previous he couldn’t even swim. I just find that remarkable.

You mentioned when describing your passion, how you want to encourage people to want to go out and do better than they did the day before. What are some practical things that people can do to find themselves on that path towards self-improvement? 

People would ask me that quite a lot and my answer often comes as a surprise, but the first thing I look to is sleep. I know I’ve perhaps been seen as being quite controversial in terms of my approach to diet, but I put sleep above all else. Irrespective of what you’re doing during the day, if you’re not sleeping at night, you’re not performing optimally. My rule is that your day informs your night, and vice-versa, so that’s really where everything must begin. Improve your sleep.

You said you see yourself as a storyteller. What would you say makes a good story? 

It’s always about the human element. When you focus on the individual, it’s a powerful avenue, and when you take it a step further and follow that individual along the arc of a story, be it for a day, a week, a month, a year, or even a decade, you’re left with something incredibly powerful, because there’s magic in people. That’s what a great story is, and certainly from a filmmaking perspective, that’s where I begin and end.

What it the greatest lesson you’ve learned from your parents? 

I would say just to meet people as people, and to never forget where you’re from. No matter where I go, I’m still a Killeavy man, and that’s something that was instilled in us from a young age; I’ve travelled the world and I’ve been around, but the principles I’ve taken on board from my early years in Killeavy are still very apparent.

So, I suppose they would have said just to carry that with me and that’s what I’ve done, without even thinking about it really. You’re one of the first to ever ask me that question, to be honest. I think that’s it really in a nutshell, to take Killeavy in my back pocket wherever I go.

Is it hard sometimes being away? 

Ah, it is of course. As you know Paddy, you’re over there in Shanghai; once you’re away, you’re very much away, and you can’t really keep your foot in both camps. That’s why I say Killeavy is in my back pocket, but everything else is in front of me. The world is there to be explored and I’m just trying to sink my teeth into it and keep going; it’s a great journey and I find that at the different stages, and in moving to different countries, it almost feels like you’re living multiple lifetimes, that’s my perception of it at least.

What was the most significant learning experience you can recall having?

I would say my first big job with IMG. I joined them in 1996 pretty much straight out of college, and was based in Singapore. That was phenomenal. The first deal I ever did in business- I’ll never forget it- was for 1.4 million dollars with the Japanese company JVC; I had the knees knocking under the table, and I wasn’t really sure what I was doing, but I had the might of IMG behind me, and I just felt like I was at the corporate Olympics. We just had an incredible group of people doing some remarkable things.

The one thing that probably changed the direction of my life in there, was when I was given the opportunity to establish IMG’s consulting division in Asia. I won a major contract with Texaco, but because I was so young- and looked even younger- I had to pretend that there was a very serious and experienced executive behind the curtain in charge of proceedings, but that we couldn’t get him on the phone because of time differences and all the rest. For a year I had to project this idea, and give the impression to the client, that it wasn’t really me that was in charge of proceedings, and that I was just a middle man; I created an entire consulting division, and sold it for a very large sum to a very big company. IMG was the type of company that said if you can go off and find some money, go do it. It taught me that I really could step up and do pretty much whatever I wanted if I committed to it. It was a great environment in that respect.

Then when the Asian economies collapsed- some may or may not remember it, but it was like waking up one day and you’re punt was worth 10p sterling, such was the extent of it- it was a case of do you stay in Asia and ride this thing out, or do you move along. That was the sliding doors moment for me. I had an offer to go to IMG in Australia, there was a new boss down there. He turned out to be a prick, and he was fired in the end. Anyway, he was jacking me around on the deal and I just turned it down eventually.

If I had taken that, my life would have gone in a very different direction. I let it go, returned to Ireland, and set up the Gaelic Players Association; I consulted with Bord Fáilte and things went in a very different but interesting direction for me, so that whole experience was a nourishing spell.

Do you ever experience moments of self-doubt, and if so how do you deal with it? 

Absolutely and again, I go back to the wonderful Maeve Kyle. I was a high jumper, which is a sporting discipline that ultimately always ends in failure, and you’re constantly confronted with an actual physical barrier; the same principles apply in high-jumping as in life. You don’t fail in the moment, you fail based on what you’ve done for the last week, year, five years. It’s all about the preparation, you’re either preparing to succeed or preparing to fail. And again, with that beacon in the distance, once you know where you’re going it’s hugely beneficial.

The ability to take those knocks and continue forward is crucial, too. You had Stevie McDonnell on before me. I remember watching Stevie as a young fella coming up in Killeavy, and you couldn’t put him off the ball; that ability to weave and take the hits and let your momentum carry you through is absolutely vital, and that’s something that was instilled in me as an athlete from the likes of Maeve, and it’s probably the one thing that continues to drive me forward.

The doubt is always there, you just don’t feed it.

What’s the best book you’ve read, and why?

I loved The Fountain Head, which anyone who has any interest in design or any such thing, would be familiar with; it’s an old book about a rebel architect. I was planning to go on and study Architecture at Queen’s, I got accepted and was about to step into it before I was told that if I did so, my athletics career would be over because the course was so demanding, so I didn’t go in that direction, but I’ve always had a great appreciation for design. In saying that I don’t like things to be too restrictive, as with filmmaking so too with architecture, and that book for me is a great story.

If you’re talking about an inspirational book that’s factual, I loved Andre Agassi’s book Open, which is just an incredible autobiography; there’s a guy who was forced into something that he didn’t particularly love, but came out the other side of it and went on to become world-class, it’s such an incredible story. He was a client of IMG, and you know, you get to know who the good guys are in sport when you work in that environment, and Agassi is absolutely a genuinely nice guy; he never let it go to his head.

What are some moments to remember or defining moments from doing what you do?

I suppose when I go all the way back to the early years the defining moments for me were certainly sport related, when I broke a national record and won my first international vest, and represented Ireland. Those achievements were hugely important for me.

Moving forward from there I think winning the job opportunity with IMG in Asia was a really remarkable coup; I didn’t even know who Mark McCormack was. I was out in Asia doing other things when I stumbled into the opportunity, I called my dad and of course he immediately told me to grasp it, so that was one that really steered my life in a particular direction. And again, it was almost like finding a Maeve Kyle in the corporate world. That company allowed me to grow and try new things, and then take those lessons with me into my business career.

The greatest feeling though has come in recent years, when we go to the crowd and look for support for the movies and the ventures; it’s hard work but it’s fulfilling, and you start to realise that it’s not about selling a movie in the moment, rather it’s about establishing a track record, doing the work, and then going to your crowd for support. It’s nice to get that endorsement and that support and that’s really one of the fresh ways of doing business; certainly when I studied accountancy there was no talk of crowdfunding. The ability to take ownership of creative direction because the crowd has allowed you to do so, that’s very fulfilling.

This year we landed a major publishing deal with Penguin which was interesting, because it was the first mainstream endorsement of what I was doing, if you like; we wrote a book called The Pioppi Diet with the British cardiologist Dr. Aseem Malhotra, which became a best-seller in the UK. That was fun, and it was something I found much easier than making a movie, and so as a result we’re pitching some other book ideas currently.

I’ve come full circle really because when I finished my MA in Finance at Queen’s, my professor said to me that I should write. I joked with him at the time saying, Well that’s not very helpful, I’ve just been studying Finance for 4 years. But here we are writing books all these years later, which is kind of funny.  

How do you nourish that curiosity that you touched on in the beginning, and encourage it to come through in what you do? 

I think it comes out in the people that I try to find; I’m fascinated by people who are themselves curious and have stepped into something quite amazing.

Here in Slovenia for example, there’s a guy who broke the world record for the longest range electric vehicle. Forget Elon Musk, this guy is an absolute world beater. He set up a business 10 years ago with two of his mates in his garage in a small village in Slovenia, and by 2014 he had built the best electric vehicle on the planet. When I got here I went to meet him. Silicon Valley have come looking for him, everybody is interested in him, but he loves to hike, loves being out in nature, and he has no interest in the bright lights; he’s quite happy to do what he does and create something beautiful from his own small corner of the world. Someone like that who is a genuine creator, and who has set out to truly change the world- to put a dent in it- and has succeeded in doing so from a small village in Slovenia, that kind of person fascinates me.

I love to meet people like that. How do you not get excited about interacting with people like that; I’m looking at this guy thinking, I just want to know his story. That’s what keeps me going. There’s so many naysayers, so many people whose first reaction is to say no, I just want to find the people who say yes, maybe.

Sami Inkinen, the guy couldn’t swim and 10 years later he’s a world Ironman champion. Don’t tell him he can’t do it. Now he’s disrupting diabetes treatment in the US with his new company, Virta. He’s a man that never needs to work again- still a young man- he’s done it all and he’s back for more because he genuinely wants to help people. It’s fascinating to meet these people.

Tim Noakes down in South Africa, one of the greatest endurance sports scientists of all time, he’s become a mentor to me; he’s been hugely controversial in the medical field because he turned his back on his own beliefs in terms of diet, but he stands firm against a tidal wave of abuse. The mentality of a man like that, who has no desire for money or glory or anything. These people are rare and they’re there to be celebrated.

What kind of role have mentors played in your life, and what do you think makes a good mentor? 

I think a good mentor is almost like a pat on the back and a hand on the hips; you’re being pushed forward but you know that you’re being guided also. It’s genuine and meaningful, and you know that the wisdom has been developed through their own experiences, and encounters with adversity. Certainly I wasn’t aware of Maeve’s challenges until the article in The Irish Times just a couple of years back, and later I heard an interview with her on Newstalk, and you start to understand why she became such an incredible coach and mentor to me and many others.

To be able to take advice without questioning it, that’s when you know you’ve a good mentor; when you have complete and absolute faith in the direction and advice they’re giving you. They direct you with wholehearted approval, praise, and hope for success. You just know them when you meet them, and you know, maybe they find us.

When I met Tim Noakes for the first time, we just hit it off because first and foremost, he’s a sports fan. He’s a fan of the athlete, as is Maeve, and that resonated with me instantly. He’s someone who almost frizzles with energy, he’s childlike in his curiosity and that’s what makes him an incredible scientist. He’s genuinely interested in people, and he thinks big. At 27 years of age he rocked up to a conference in the US and tore down the perception that marathon running would stop you getting a heart attack, and he did so as a marathon runner himself; he brought the house down. Probably 5 or 6 times in his career, he has torn away the curtain on major issues in the field of human performance.

When someone like that puts the hand on the shoulder, you know you’re in good hands.

Sami Inkinen is much younger, but with an absolute wealth of experience. He sponsored the Cereal Killers tour in the US, and he wrote me a note at the time that simply said, Do something exceptional. (And here’s a few quid to bring the movie to the US). You know, people like that, they just want you to succeed and contest life as you meet it, and like I say, when you meet them you’ll know it.

Jaysis, I’m after getting chills there when you said about the note. 

I know. I came back and said to Louise, this guy is going to do something remarkable. I wasn’t sure what it would be, but he had just stepped back from his first company, and himself and his wife had retired to France; he came back to the Bay Area after a short time away. I asked him, Why’d ye come back Sami?, and he said to me, This is where the people who are changing the world are based, and I gotta be in amongst them. He’s off again, and I just get a huge jolt of excitement just seeing what that guy’s doing.

You mentioned a couple times about the path. What advice would you give to those who may find themselves at a crossroads in life, unsure of what path to pursue?

I would always say to take the path less travelled; it’s more exciting and if you lose you’ll learn, and actually you’ll find that in the long run, you’re not losing at all. There’s nothing to lose if you step into it. And make sure you have the people around you who will support you because you know, a lot of people love to see others fail. The small minds are magnified in todays era on the internet in many respects, and you’ve got to feed off that, set out your stall regardless, follow that beacon, and screw the begrudgers because one way or the other, you will succeed.

What advice would you give to 16-year-old Donal. 

It’s funny, I would probably say not to go to university. I studied Accountancy at Queen’s, and I had a great time and all the rest, but I always felt that I was chomping at the bit to get out of there. I had great results in my A-Levels and I suppose that was just the path to follow in those days. I always loved the German system where they prize practical ability over all else; I think it’s something that we possibly forgot along the way.

I really think that you don’t need to be spending tens of thousands of pounds to go and get a degree. In this day and age, there are opportunities aplenty, there is education and information available everywhere, and technology is moving so fast. You know, by the time you study something- and I see this particularly in the field of Science- it’ll be 4 or 5 years before research that is being conducted today, gets peer reviewed and published for public consumption. So if you’re studying a topic today in the Sciences, you’re already 5 to 8 years behind; take something like nutrition, how long is it going to take for that research to appear on a university syllabus? I think information is much more readily available today, and I don’t see how a degree or a formal education will assist you.

I would say just to get out, and get on with it!

You can follow Donal on Twitter: @CerealKillers13.