For a long time – eight years in fact – the motivational speaker and mental health advocate was a self-confessed ‘thug’ and gang leader who roamed the streets of Sydney.

“I was stabbed twice,” Kennedy tells EducationHQ.

“I was a drug addict, alcoholic, and I came pretty close to killing someone. And look, on the outside to everybody I looked strong, confident, and even looked happy at times.

“But on the inside, when I was alone, I was scared, depressed. And I hated myself.”

Tortured by a gnawing sense he was exisiting under a false identity, and grappling with the disturbing reality of his life choices, Kennedy entered into a serious bout of self-reckoning – that ‘dark night of the soul’ experience that often precedes profound personal transformation.

Kennedy escaped the prison he’d created for himself, and now he’s helping others avoid the same pitfalls by sharing his story and unique insights on resilience, authenticity, bullying and detaching from labels in age-appropriate talks tailored to both primary and secondary students.

“I was trying to live up to different labels and expectations that were placed on me. I was called a fighter, a leader, a bad kid,” he shares.

“But I suppose it’s not just a ‘bad guy gone good’ sort of story, because there’s plenty of those. And we’ve all heard heaps of them, they get pretty repetitive after a while.”

Building an emotional connection with students is really the first step in having some cut through, he says.

“Although I do go pretty heavy into the [past], that’s to get their attention, and to open them up emotionally and mentally.

“Then I lighten things up with a good laugh [before] we dive deep into the individual, into building their resilience, getting back to their authenticity, taking care of themselves.

“And we’ll go deep into quality relationships and the importance of your friendship group.

“So ultimately, I suppose a session is a mixed bag of emotional story, insight, laughter, deep self-reflection, and giving them inspiration to connect in with themselves, each other, and to start looking after themselves in all areas – physically, emotionally and mentally,” Kennedy explains.

Kennedy has carefully crafted a 'PG version' of his presentation with content that’s suitable for primary students.

The speaker’s ease at being so vulnerable publicly hasn’t aways flowed as freely.

When a teacher first asked Kennedy to address her own students some years ago, a twisted knot of nerves and doubt almost got the better of him.

“Back then, being pretty socially awkward, I had some deep anxiety about speaking in public, [but] I said I would come and speak. 

“I even had the email drafted to pull out! I was actually pretty terrified...

“But just knowing what’s happened in my life, I suppose I stepped up and pushed past those doubts. I had to realise, it’s not about me, it’s about what I can do for the students.”

And so it was that Kennedy showed up to the school, absolutely petrified.

“But we had a deep connection,” he says of his first audience.

“And afterwards, the teachers came up and were commenting on some of the students that (usually) never really listened and how they were really impacted by the talk.

“From there, away it went.”

For those wondering how a former life fuelled by drugs, violence and alcohol could be packaged and shared with young children, Kennedy has carefully crafted a ‘PG version’ with content that’s suitable for youngsters.

“I do still go into the story, but instead of getting stabbed, I’ll get pushed over,” he explains.

“I talk about self-bullying. So, the language is around self-bullying and what they’re saying to themselves up in their mind, and how they treat themselves.

“And some of the questions afterwards, they’re just out of this world, just how aware they are,” he adds.

You only have to glance around the average playground or schoolyard to notice that many children are not doing so well today, Kennedy flags.

“There’s this obvious disconnection with our youth and their peace. The disconnection between who these young people really are deep down, and the false self that they’re trying to live up to is one of the main causes of feeling lost, without any drive and focus.

“Feeling lost leads to depression, trying to impress other people, social anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse ... these young people are looking for something – they’re looking for acceptance,” Kennedy says.

New research has revealed Australian boys are increasingly falling prey to a ‘regressive masculinist supremacy’ espoused by notorious ‘manfluencers’ such as Andrew Tate, with teachers reporting disturbing shifts in their behaviour and attitudes towards women.

Kennedy says in the absence of positive role models, too many kids are sucking up the wrong ideas about what being a man and success looks like.

“It’s a big one, because … they are looking for a leader and they’re finding it in the wrong places,” he says.

“Someone like Andrew Tate, there’s certain things that he’s said and done, and these kids see it, and then they see the flashy cars [and the portrayal of] what success is, and they’re just getting further into the deception.”

The speaker says he was initially surprised with how much young children connected with and understood his message.

 Kennedy also offers tailored PD sessions for teachers and school staff, as well as for parents.

“[These] are super special, afterwards we get cries, we get hugs. I get messages afterwards. So, they’re incredibly special,” he says.

The speaker is well cognisant of the demands teachers are under, and says he has no intent on adding to their workload in any way.

Rather, his staff sessions are all about forging connection and ‘letting go’.

“I open up the talks or the workshops with the teachers and say, ‘I know most of you have families, you’ve got a lot on your plate, you have emails to get back to, parents on your mind and performance reviews and everything else – and I honour that you have a lot on.

“But for this session, can we attempt as much as possible to forget about the outside world, kick back and chill out? I’m not really going to ask you to do much besides relax and keep an open mind.

“And straightaway, I can see the initial resistance fade away, their shoulders drop a little bit, a little smile comes on their faces, and then away we go.”

Kennedy hopes to show all participants how unlearning things from our past can unchain us from what keeps us feeling stuck and far from our true selves. 

“There’s a quote which says, ‘Our greatest advancements in life don’t come through what we’re learning, our greatest advancements in life come through unlearning the things that aren’t serving us.

“So, unlearning things that we may have heard from our parents that have formed a specific belief, and unlearning something that we witnessed that now causes some stress or anxiety, unlearning behaviours that we’ve been conditioned with over and over again.

“It’s about unlearning, first of all,” he says.