He’s a best-selling author and one of today’s most sought-after motivational speakers. John O'Leary is also a man who found a way to turn a life-altering tragedy into a defining characteristic that led to fulfillment for himself and hundreds of others. The 38-year-old lives with his wife, Beth, and their four children in Webster Groves. His newest book, In Awe, is available now. John talks about overcoming adversity, and how to navigate through these difficult times.
How did surviving a fire that left you with third-degree burns over 100% of your body turn into a career helping others?
I don’t consider myself a burn victim. If you ask me what happened, it frees me to tell you a little bit more, and then if I’m really listening, I realize you’re probably asking for a reason.
You say it takes a village: How vital was that support during your recovery?
I believe I am where I am in my life today as a direct result of our community, my family, the incredible medical team, and the Grace of God.
Why did you become a motivational speaker?
I recognized through my story that people are able to learn a lot more about their own stories and the value of their lives. And, I realized I can utilize something I took for granted for the majority of my life, and put it to work to better those around me.
Your mother played a crucial role in your recovery.
I was a little boy in a wheelchair on a morphine drip with no fingers, and yet, when I came home that first night, she made me pick up a fork and try to eat, a skill I assumed was gone. Two days later she had a piano teacher teaching me piano again. My mom wanted to remind me there was nothing in life that I could not do, if I believed in fact I could.
COVID-19 has changed our lives. How can you help people see light through the darkness?
I’d encourage them to recognize this is a frightening time, so it’s OK to feel a little isolation and despair because these are dark, difficult days. But I think we have an opportunity to pivot and create a future we may not have been bold enough to create otherwise.
Any advice on how to remain patient during this difficult time?
We can grow in patience by taking inventory of what we have. My dad, who has Parkinson’s disease, taught me this. He begins each day smiling and reflecting on the reasons he still has to be grateful. I think one of the ways to grow not only in resiliency, in courage, and in life is to choose to be grateful. That grateful heart will not only allow us to weather any storm, but will actually free us to do so with a smile on our face.