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. He has a No. 1 national best-selling book under his belt, and a new one that just published. Clatyon Lifestyle asked John about overcoming adversity, and how best to navigate through these difficult times.
How did you turn surviving a fire that left you with third-degree burns over 100% of your body 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.
You met your future wife in college, but it took some time to capture her heart?
Yes, she thought of us as just good friends, so it took a little while for her to see if we could be more than friends. And I’d always viewed our relationship as what I could get out of it, maybe I could get a girlfriend or maybe she’ll go to the next dance with me. Then one day I pivoted from what I could get out of it, to what I could invest in it. I continued to hold the door and give her flowers. It changed my own psyche, and eventually changed the way she viewed me.
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.
How do you think your kids are processing everything?
One of the beautiful things about children is that they’re wildly adaptive, they embrace whatever the moment is, whenever that moment arrives, and whatever shows up within it. They can teach us a lot on how best to handle this pandemic, and how best to not only move forward with optimism, but to embrace the joy we can find even in the midst of it.
Can you see a silver lining…perhaps a kinder, gentler world?
If there is something good to come out of COVID-19, it’s that we recognize how important relationships are, how important it is to slow down, count our blessings and not take anything for granted.
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’ 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.