Paul had the privilege of speaking with John O’Leary on what and who gave him the strength and courage to overcome even the most devastating circumstances.
“The greatest generation wasn’t made great because their life was easy. It was actually extraordinarily difficult.” John O’Leary
Tough times expose our weaknesses so we can get stronger.
“We think, when the times are good, we can do it by ourselves…Then you go through the hard times, and you recognize how little you can do by yourself.” John O’Leary
The likelihood of you being born is 1 in 400 trillion. “Recognize the majesty and the miracle of your life.” John O’Leary
Consider this statement: “I choose to thrive because…” Tune in to hear John’s reasons.
“When hope becomes electrifying is when it’s not about just you.” John O’Leary
Learn more about John’s incredible story at JohnOLearyinspires.com.
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How do I live inspired? with John O’Leary
(Transcribed from podcast interview)
I walked into the garage, held a piece of cardboard over to a can of gasoline. And before the liquid even came out, the fumes created a massive explosion, splits the can in two, picks up the nine-year-old little boy and then launches him 20 feet against the far side of the garage, setting my world on fire. And I’ll, I’ll, I’ll put a bow on the story here, but eventually I would find myself in hospital with burns on 100% of my body—87% of those burns third degree—medically with no chance of surviving. – John O’Leary
Paul: Hello everyone. Paul Reilly here. And boy, am I pumped for our next guest. On today’s show, we have the one and only John O’Leary.
You may be familiar with John’s story. John, when he was nine years old, he had a fire incident. I don’t know how else to describe it. He was playing with fire, and he details what happened next. Basically, a gasoline can exploded, and he had burns over 100% of his body. This is an epic story of survival. And on today’s episode, John is going to share some inspiration that has come from that, but also the people in his life. It’s a great interview. And I know many of you out there are facing tough times or facing challenging times right now, and you may be looking for inspiration. Well, look no further than this episode—this interview with John O’Leary.
Now, John inspires 50,000 plus people annually at his live events. He maintains a very rigorous speaking schedule, speaking at over 100 live and virtual events per year. He’s extremely inspiring as you will soon know. And his two notable books are On Fire, and In Awe. We’re going to have links to get the books on this episode’s show notes, so you can have it there. Man, we are thrilled to have John on our show and to share his story of hope.
Now, before we get into that, though, remember to pick up your copy of Selling Through Tough Times. Right now, people are saying there’s going to be a recession at the end of this year—next year. There’s always a recession out there. And the worst time to try to learn how to sell through a recession is while you’re in the recession. So, pick up a copy today. You can buy it at Amazon or wherever you get your books. And in this book, we also talk about hope and how to remain mentally resilient as you go through tough times. On to the interview.
Paul: Hello everyone. And welcome to another episode of the Q and A Sales Podcast. On today’s episode, we have a very special guest. John O’Leary is joining us. John, how you doing today?
John: Paul, better now, man. So, thank you for making time for me.
Paul: Absolutely. Well, we’re thrilled to have you on the show and I’m familiar with your story. I’ve read your books, but gosh, could you please just share with our community a little bit about your background, your story? It’s-it’s such an inspiring story.
John: Yeah. And I’m going to begin the answer to this in a place you probably weren’t expecting because this is the truth, man. And in some regards, this is what makes our story so stunning. I never told anybody what happened to me as a little boy until I was 28 years old. And so, the question you’re asking is one that I could not have answered in my mid-twenties. Until I was 28, I was working construction. I got a phone call from a little girl, and she said, “Mr. O’Leary?”
And I said, “Oh, I think you want my dad.”
And she goes, “No. Mr. O’Leary. I want you. I just spoke to your dad. Mr. O’Leary, would you share your story with my school?”
And Paul, this was only 18 years ago or so now, but something in her little voice challenged me or maybe invited me to be bold and say yes. And so, I shared, man. I shared my story. I shared my heart of what happened, and it led to another speech and then another speech. And now, looking back on it almost two decades later, 2000 speeches, 50 states, couple dozen countries around the world, sharing the story of a little boy getting burned.
And what that story is—. When I was nine years old, I saw kids in my neighborhood playing with fire and gasoline. Monkey see, monkey do up in our neighborhood. You and I grew up not far apart from one another. And I figured if these boys could do this and get away with it, so could I. So, as a little guy, mom and dad were at work, the house was mine. I walked into the garage, held a piece of cardboard over to a can of gasoline. And before the liquid even came out, the fumes created a massive explosion, splits the can in two, picks up the nine-year old-little boy and then launches him 20 feet against the far side of the garage, setting my world on fire. And I’ll, I’ll, I’ll put a bow on the story here, but eventually, I would find myself in hospital with burns on 100% of my body—87% of those burns third degree—medically with no chance of surviving. So that’s both the long story of how I got called into speaking, but also the far shorter story of how I got burned in the first place.
Paul: And John, in reading On Fire, you’re your first bestselling book, it was such an inspirational story. And I was thinking about, at the age of nine, it must be hard to try to comprehend the magnitude of what’s going on and just battling for your life and given, medically, no chance of survival. If it’s alright with you, I’d like to learn a little bit more about where you found that strength, at the age of nine, to be able to survive and then inspire people today. But where did you find the strength back then?
John: That’s a generous question. You have, as we’re doing this interview—for the folks who are watching it—you have a copy of one of John’s books and there’s a picture of a kite on it and the words In Awe, and I love that book cover.
You also referenced a moment ago, the book, On Fire. When they put them in front of me, both of those books—and again, they were written four-and-a-half years apart—but when they put them in front of me the cover art, both times, they had a picture of me on the front of it. And both times I wrote back to these editors up in New York and I said, “Hey guys, before you create the cover art for a book, read the book. Because these books, and John speaking, and our coaching and our podcasts and our lives have very little to do with him, or with me.
And so you asked the question, “John, what, you know, what is it about you? Where’d you find the courage?” And to be honest, man, that wasn’t me. Through a faith lens, that’s God showing up in a mighty way for me. And then from a leadership lens, if you want to be more granular about it, I was led. I was led. You’ve read the book On Fire, so you read about what my brother did for me. I didn’t stop and drop and roll. A 17-year-old boy, who had never acted courageously for anyone outside of himself in his entire life, was my hero. He saved my life. And then two little girls, my little sisters, do some radical things to give this little boy a chance. Then my father comes in to the emergency room and a couple hours later. And no judgment, no anger, just love and grace.
And then I think where the story goes is my mom comes in shortly afterwards, and I’m still not sure if I’m going to survive or if I can survive. So I asked her, “Mom, am I—, am I going to die?”
And her question back to me was what changed the course, I think, of that first day and then ultimately the days that followed. The question back to her little dying boy, when he said, Mama, am I going to die? was, “Baby, do you want to? Because it’s your choice. It’s your choice. It’s not mine.”
And I said to her, “Mom, I don’t want to die. I want to live.”
And her response was, “Good. Then look at me. Take the hand of God. You walk the journey with Him, but babe, you fight like you never fought before. Your dad and I will be with you. You are not alone. But do your part. Fight. Fight.”
So, Paul, it was a street fight, man, even today, it’s not—. My life isn’t easy. It’s good. I wouldn’t trade places with anybody, but today, it’s not easy. Back then it was extraordinarily difficult. But in taking the hand of God and walking the journey, not only with Him, but with my family, and with having remarkable volunteers, servants, medical community, family, casting a vision of what was possible, a little boy with no real chance to survive has gone on to thrive.
Paul: Yeah, gosh, that’s so powerful. And you know, it’s something you mention—the hand of God. Lord works in mysterious ways and that, you know, that’s something I think we can all—we can all relate to it in some degree. And finding that strength and just the people in your life that were there, that showed up with love. The question your mother asked you, do you want to survive? And, as a parent myself, you know—I’ve got three daughters—I couldn’t imagine how tough that probably was for your parents. And you, I mean, you’ve got four children, I believe, as well. That had to be tough for them, too. And they could probably share some more insight on mental strength that it takes as a parent to have that belief as well
John: And in life, and in sales, I know that’s generally the focus of our podcast, but you can’t talk about one without talking about both. [Inaudible] hand in hand. We try to protect ourselves from hardship, and we certainly try our best to protect our children from hardship, and yet, all great generations that have preceded ours, recognize that in the hardship is where they grew. You know, the greatest generation, you know, looking back at your grandparents, the greatest generation was not made great because their life was easy. It was actually extraordinarily difficult. Whether great depressions or global wars, like their life was hard, but it was in that hardship, and then coming together, faithfully, ultimately for something bigger than themselves, that not only were they able to step up, but they were able to pour the foundations from which future generations also could do likewise.
So, when my parents recognized is they weren’t trying to protect me from the hardship. And what I try to do also, with my little ones, is not to protect them from skinning their knee. I don’t like when they get hurt, but I think there are some beautiful lessons to be learned in the struggle.
Paul: Gosh, that’s so true. You know, I think about that, and I think of conversations I’ve had with my own, my own dad about tough times, and he’s faced his fair share. I have as well. Everyone faces tough times to varying degrees, of course. It is relative. But one thing he always taught me is that some people simply go through it and other people grow through it. And that’s part of what you’re saying is how those tough times can be painful, but that’s how we learn. That’s how we get better. Tough times expose our weaknesses so we can get stronger. And without tough times, the world, as we know it, would not exist today.
John: You’re like lighting me up man. One, one little piece on that is we think when the times are good, we can do it by ourselves. Sales, leadership, life, family. We don’t need anybody, man. “Look at me, self-made.” And then you go through the hard times, and you recognize, candidly, how little you can do by yourself. Now you need to be engaged, no doubt. Either you keep going and growing and becoming a better version of yourself, and you need to have the audacity and the humility to lean into others.
And so one of the beautiful things that always, if you’re growing—to quote your dad—during these difficult times, if you’re growing during these difficult times, what will come out of them is interdependence—this idea that we are far better when we work, collaborate, sell, do life with one another.
Paul: Yeah, we need other people. We—. You don’t need to go through tough times alone. And, what’s interesting, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this shift over the past few years since the pandemic, but it does seem as though people are willing to be a little more vulnerable and sharing that, “Hey, I need some help,” and this whole idea it’s okay not to be okay. And being able to share that and reach out, I really think that’s a sign of strength, being able to do that.
John: I do to. And it is healthy when people are in need. I worry sometimes that we do it in the macro sense, so, like on social, and you don’t have a network of friends that we can say, “Paul, listen, man, you free? Can go for a walk tonight, man?” I think those are the relationships where we need to be sharing the true struggles that we’re dealing with. Not so much, “Uh, dear community. I need you to see how difficult my life is.” I think instead, that kind of community, that kind of sharing, ought to be done in the intimacy of relationships that are more enduring. You know what I mean? So, yes. I’m glad to see more of the public sharing. I just want to make sure that we’re also taking that to the places of the folks who care most deeply for us.
Paul: True. That real connection. Yeah. So, you know, I’d be remiss not to ask. We have salespeople throughout the world that tune in every week, just to get some tips and advice. And, salespeople, in general, are facing a tough couple of years. You know, they were locked up during the pandemic, not able to go see customers, still trying to hit their quotas. Everyone’s been affected by it. One thing that I’ve noticed in training and coaching and speaking to sales audiences is, in general business is pretty good right now for many of them. But at a deeper level, they’re still facing some struggle. You know, based on your experiences and just interacting with the people that you’ve worked out with, helping your corporate clients and people throughout the world, inspiring them, can you share a few tips and ideas for those sales professionals and sales leaders right now that are stuck in a rut, that are just mentally exhausted or just facing tough times? Anything that you can share with them that would, that would help them? And I know we’ve only got like 10 minutes.
John: That’s where my mind went first. I’m like, “Hmm. Yeah. [Inaudible] 45 minutes for this answer. A couple of things. Number one is, you’re not alone. And I know that’s like, “Okay, great, John,” but, for real. I think we alpha dogs—ladies, gentlemen, friends, colleagues—we try to do this stuff and we don’t oftentimes recognize how difficult the stuff is: life is, relationships are, singleness might be, marriage is, work is, sales—like, this is hard. So, the very first thing just to recognize is you’re not alone. That’s for me, a wonderful level set.
Another thing is to recognize the majesty and the miracle of your life. Sometimes when we’re dealing with the hardship, we’re looking at like, “She hasn’t even called me back yet,” as like the end of the day—the end of the story. And so, one thing that always like turns me back on for the miracle of my life and hopefully, Paul, for yours and your listeners, there was a study done on the likelihood of us being born. Just you, your mom and dad coming together at the right time to lead to your life. And the math works out to less than one in 400 trillion. So, the fact that mom and dad got together with Neil Diamond playing in the background, or whatever it was [inaudible]. Seriously, dude, it is so impossible for you to be here. And then we complain about the latte, or the sales call not going well, or “God, I think it’s going to be cloudy again tomorrow,” instead of saying, “My God, yeah, that stuff is hard, and life is good. It is a miracle. Today, I’m going to act like it.” So, yeah, life is hard. Let’s start there—fair enough. And it is a miracle. That will empower you to throw a little bit of wind into the sail. So those are two things.
Third, I always lead with why. I know you’re big into this as well, but like, why do you do the work you do? And sometimes it’s the calls. Sometimes it’s the success. Sometimes it’s not about those things at all, it’s about taking care of kids at home. Or about living a different path than your mom and dad led, whatever that might be for you. But the way I distill this down to my why is I ask the question, “Why do I do the stuff I do in the first place? And why do I choose to do it extraordinarily well?” And if you ask yourself that again and again, and again, you’ll come up with an answer. And so for me, here’s mine. I choose to thrive because God demands it; my family deserves it; the world is starved for it; let’s roll; no excuses.
And so that little motto gets me out of bed early, before most other people are even considering hitting snooze. So I’m up early. I’m attacking the day. I’m highly intentional. But you heard in that mission that none of it is about me. And it’s also, you hear the sales leaders. None of it was about the vacation home, or retirement, or I can’t wait for it to get easier. So listen, one more time. I choose to thrive because:
- God demands it
- my family deserves it
- The world is starved for it
- Let’s roll (that’s language I borrowed from 9-11). Let’s roll
- No excuses
So, for me, when I’m thinking about the work at hand or making a difficult call, or having a courageous conversation, I’m led forward from that place of mission. And I think the more we get grounded in our mission, the more, uh, the more we are liberated to do it well.
So those are some things I do each day. And the final thing, I guess I’ll hopefully hang the jacket on is this: every night before I go to bed, I ask the question, “What more can I do to make tomorrow better than today?” So, in grabbing compound interest every night, it allows me to have a far more proactive and effective tomorrow than I had yesterday. And if you can start stacking these on top of each other, not perfectly, but imperfectly, keep getting better a little bit each day, professionally and personally, spiritually, at home, at work. Dude, you look back a couple of years downstream and you can’t believe you used to do it like that. So, I just invite your family and friends and listeners to recognize they’re not alone, how majestic, how miraculous their life is, to discern their why, and then to determine, today, to do it better tomorrow than they did yesterday
Paul: That is powerful, man. Hearing that, hearing your mission, hearing the Why—that is inspiring. I’d say you’re achieving that daily. And especially as this message gets out there in the podcast community, people are going to hear that. They need to hear it. They’re hungry for it, as you mentioned. That is powerful.
John: The hunger for the world was originally meant for like The world. Like, in my office, there’s pictures of true hunger. I’m not here for me, but I also recognize now, 67% of us feel isolated. Last year in the United States, 1.4 million Americans attempted suicide. So, if we think the hunger—you need to board a plane, travel past an ocean to get to it—you’re wrong. It is everywhere. It’s in every family. It’s in every community. And Mother Teresa, who also hangs up on my wall. She’s part of like my Mount Rushmore. Mother Teresa says, “Find your own Calcutta.” You live in Kirkwood, man. There’s hunger in Kirkwood. Start here in Kirkwood, Paul.
Paul: Man. Well, speaking of Kirkwood, John, you know, one question I wanted to ask you, and I thought about this this morning. My parish at St. Peter in Kirkwood, Father Jack was a very highly-revered priest. We all loved him. I heard him define hope one time in a very unique way. And I’m happy to share that with you what he said, but, you know, given what you do, you know, not necessarily where you’ve been, but what you do now, how would you define hope to someone? How would you describe it? What does that look like for you?
John: That’s deep, and I know Father Jack, and I know your parish. And when I look out the windows from my office, I see it. So that’s how close we are to working together on this thing. When I think of hope, I think of tomorrow being better than today, and you having the agency to get there. So tomorrow being better than today, and you possessing the agency, the abilities, the capabilities to actually get there. And when hope becomes electrifying is when it’s not about just you. And by the way, I like, I love success. I love sales. I love top-line revenue. And like, that stuff’s cool. And, and this is me, so you may want to turn me off right now if you don’t wanna hear the rest of the sentence. At the end of the day, it’s boring.
I used to be a hospital chaplain, and one of the most moving conversations I ever had with a patient—he was dying, he was a business owner, he was successful, sales leaders, and he was lonely at the end of his days. And he shared with me the long story. And I won’t give it all to you right now. But in the pursuit of success, he lost sight of what actually mattered. He turned to drugs. He lost his family. He lost the relationships with his girls, and lost his health. And then he ended the conversation with me with this mic drop. He said, “John, I’ve made it to the very end of my life. I’ve climbed to the very tippity-top of this ladder only to realize I had the damn thing leaned against the wrong wall.”
Was my way of view this, nothing would be worse than to become successful at stuff that just doesn’t matter. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t become successful, but to make your entire life about stuff, and at the end of the day to recognize maybe that’s not the stuff. So I want to climb, I want to achieve, I want to make a difference, I want to earn, all that stuff. And I want to keep in line the things that will live far after I’m gone. And I think if we can do both those things in tandem, that’s when we not only achieve success, but also significance.
Paul: That’s powerful. You know, that that is absolutely powerful. And I can’t wait to read In Awe. I have not read it yet, However, just looking through some of the content and that, I did have a question. And what I was thinking about is my second grader. And you’ve seen this with kids. You know, I remember being in class one day and, you know, I was doing some junior-achievement type stuff, and you ask the kids questions, and their hands go immediately straight up in the air. And what I’m amazed about is they don’t even know the answer when they throw their hand up in the air. They just want to get called on.
John: [Inaudible] before they even heard the question.
Paul: Yeah. And it makes me think of your new book, In Awe, that’s out now. And you know, every hand goes straight up. The kids are so full of joy. And just reading the subtitle here, I can’t wait to flip it open and read through it—to be more childlike. Would you maybe give us a little teaser? Share with us a little bit more about your new book, In Awe.
John: Well, I mean, you’re quoting from it without even knowing it. But the, this idea of John O’Leary usually gets invited to speak at sales organizations or leadership conferences, or, you know, these pretty major events for adults. But when he’s on the road, he also likes to sneak into school houses. I like to hang out with kids, man. I think that’s where the passion is. And when I ask them questions, every hand goes up. And when I ask a group of executives questions, they sit [and look] at me waiting for me to give them the answer. And I’m like, “No guys. I’m being serious. Anyone have thoughts on this?”
And then eventually an awkward hand will go up. And so like, why is there this gap of lack of participating when we become adults, then what it was like when we were kids? Why do kids—? You mentioned St. Peter’s. Our office is catty-corner to St. Peter’s, which means from about 9:00 AM, till 2:30, when the bell rings, we have kids playing at recess all day long. It doesn’t matter if it’s 74 and sunny or 19 and miserable. Those kids are out there. There’s laughter, they’re skipping, they’re having the time of their lives. Why is there so much joy? Why is there so much hope? And what have we lost as we age that we can then regain sight of, recollect and re-animate as we get older in our lives?
So, the idea of In Awe came not only from the kids on St. Peter’s playground, or the kids in conferences around the world, but in my own kids. And I recognized the joy I saw in these four little kids slowly passing. And I wrote this book for them, to remind them when that joy faded that they could return to what they taught their father. That’s what In Awe is about. Jesus says, Let the children come to me.” And I don’t think he was really saying, “If you’re under the age of 11, come on. We’ll play. Awesome! We’ll have Easter egg hunt and everything.” I really think it’s this sense of childlike wonder and the sense of, “You know what? I don’t know if I believe that all, but I’d like to learn more.” Like, what adult has that anymore? We comment from certain of our convictions, arms are crossed, and we are ready to throw down against those Republicans or Democrats or atheists or believers, or like all this, all this wall-building nonsense. I think there’s something brilliant about kids who can come together around, not so much what they know, but about ultimately what they hope to find out.
Paul: You know, it’s interesting too? You know, just watching kids and seeing joy, how much that reminds me of what it’s like to be a child, and also how they connect with other children. You know what’s great is when you go on vacation, like you’re at the beach? The criteria to become your best friend when you’re 10 years old is, you’re within five feet of me and you want to play the same thing, and then they get along famously. (John: Always.) It’s amazing.
John: And yet, somehow, they never ask about party affiliation or class, or gender. Like, all this stuff that we are making such a big deal out of, kids don’t. And so, one of the—, we write about five senses. The fifth sense is the sense of belonging, which, if you ask yourself, “Why are we so isolated? Why is anxiety so high? Why is depression so high? We talked about suicide a moment ago. Why is all this stuff skyrocketing? Well, the more we feel like we do not belong, the more these things begin to mount in our lives. And so, I want to push back against that, and I think In Awe is one effort in doing exactly that.
Paul: Well, that’s amazing. I can’t wait to read it. On Fire as well. Highly recommend it for the podcast community. Wonderful book. And so, John we’re, gosh, we’re wrapping up the interview now. Appreciate you answering all the questions, sharing your thoughts, sharing your inspiration—truly inspiring. And one final question. How can people get a hold of John O’Leary? How can we get more insights? You got a newsletter or anything like that you can share with the group?
John: [Inaudible] I was afraid you were going to take this thing off the rails. So this is a layup question. I was getting ready for like favorite 1930s artist or something like this. So, no, I can handle this one. So the website is JohnO’Learyinspires.com. JohnO’Learyinspires.com. And when folks go there, they can learn more about our books. They can learn more about our free podcast, which is called the “Live Inspired” podcast. They can learn more about our newsletter, which is free. They can learn more about a Hope 21-day Challenge. We talked about that a moment ago, but we have a cool little thing called the In Awe Challenge. And it just drops little encouraging challenges into their inbox every day for three weeks to build the habit of living out hope. And so that’s where they can learn more.
And the coolest part about our website, I think, it’s a way to stay in touch. So, like social media and all that stuff, but that’s all me sending information outbound. What we love is collecting people’s stories, and collecting people’s hopes, and collecting people’s challenges and then doing life together. So, um, as odd as it may seem, if you ever need a “thing” in your own backyard, whether that’s here in Kirkwood, Missouri, or somewhere around the world, we’re in. I’m alive in my mind because of God’s grace, because my mom and dad were freaking fierce leaders. The medical community was awesome. But we had a bunch of strangers show up for me. Like just strangers from in our own backyard here in St. Louis, Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan, in the white house, Pope John Paul II, people planting trees in Israel, famous ballplayers and announcers. They just kept showing up. And so, what we want to do is build up a community of people who show up for one another. So learn more about all that at JohnO’Learyinspires.com.
Paul: Great, John. Thanks. Thanks for sharing that. And I did have one last hard hitting question, and I’m going to hold you to it, because it’s going to be recorded. So, what are the Cardinals chances this year for going all the way? I mean, we got Pujols back. What are you thinking?
John: So, this is going to make you mad. So, Mike Girsch is the GM for the Cards, and he’s a good friend of mine. And several of those guys are also buddies mine. Your big fans are going to resent this. I am so much more into the journey than the destination. In life, in sports, with parenting, with marriage, with retirement, with all this stuff, man. All I really care about is the journey, getting a little bit better. So I will answer your question by saying, I think Albert Pujols is going to give us some moments this summer that you will be telling your grandkids about. I think Wainwright will have a game that you still can’t believe an old 40-year-old man like that pitched that game. I think cute little Yadi Molina is going to finish strong. I think we’re going to have an awesome summer. I think we’ll make the play-offs. But I think more than ultimate— the ultimate destination is, we’re going to have an awesome time getting there, you know? Yeah, the one loss, we’ll get there. The trophy, maybe, maybe not, but it’s going to be a fun summer. And I hope, regardless of what ball cap your listeners wear, that they enjoy the journey. Because that’s where it’s at, man. That’s where the good stuff is. That’s what kids know. That’s what In Awe is about.
Paul: Absolutely. And it is about that journey. So, John, thanks again for being on the show today. And thanks to the Q and A Sales Podcast community. Just a reminder, make sure you visit the QandASalesPodcast.com while you’re there, you can ask us a question. I’ll turn it into a future show. Make sure you hit that follow button, share this with your colleagues. But most importantly, make it a big day.