ep. 63 - John O'Leary: Survivor Helping Others To Live Inspired
In 1987, John was a curious nine-year-old boy. Playing with fire and gasoline, he created a massive explosion in his garage and was burned on 100% of his body. John was given one percent chance to survive.
This epic story of survival was first showcased in his parents' book, Overwhelming Odds, as a thank you to the family and friends who supported them on their journey. This book resulted in organizations around the world requesting to hear first-hand how John defied the odds.
ep. 63 - John O'Leary: Survivor Helping Others To Live Inspired
Gail Davis: As a nine-year-old boy, John O'Leary was burned on 100% of his body and given less than a one percent chance to live. His amazing journey of survival illustrates the incredible power of the human spirit. [00:01:00] John and his family kept their experience private until his parents wrote a book, Overwhelming Odds, to thank the family and friends who supported them on their journey of healing. The book led to organizations around the world requesting to hear firsthand how John defied the odds. Since then, John has empowered over 500,000 people to live inspired. John is a business owner, a writer, a husband and father [00:01:30] of four, expected to die and now teaching others how to truly live. Please join us in welcoming to today's GDA Podcast, John O'Leary.
Kyle Davis: Hey, John. How are you?
John O'Leary: Hey.
Gail Davis: Welcome, John.
John O'Leary: Kyle and Gail, it is an honor to be on your show, so thanks for having me on.
Kyle Davis: Thank you for coming on and for those listening, this is the second go-around of Gail remote, so there might be a little bit of a delay, but deal with it.
Gail Davis: That's right! [00:02:00] John, it is just so exciting for me to have you here. I remember, I don't know how many years ago, but I remember the very first time I met you when you came to our offices back when we were in Colleyville, and you were just getting started. Boy, a lot has transpired since that initial meeting.
John O'Leary: I remember the meeting well in Dallas. I was there for other business. A YPO friend of mine made the introduction. I think my largest audience back then, Gail, was maybe [00:02:30] 11 Rotarians or six Girl Scouts in a room. We weren't exactly setting the world on fire. What I remember most about it is this guy who came in without a book and without a brand and without anything really big to share at that time. You took the time to meet. You were generous to introduce me to all the folks that you had worked with. Then, I was getting close to missing my flight. You actually drove me to the airport.
Gail Davis: I remember that.
John O'Leary: You might not remember the details of the conversation or what happened, but I'll never [00:03:00] forget it.
Gail Davis: Thank you. I do remember that. Then I remember shortly thereafter, I believe Kyle and I were both in New York. I think it was Texas Roadhouse that had you in to speak. That was actually my first time to be in your audience. It's such a powerful story. For those that are listening, and I know, John, I don't expect you to tell the whole detailed story, but if you could just kind of briefly tell them what happened. I think it was a Saturday morning. I may be wrong on my day of the [00:03:30] week, but I know you're from a large family. I know everybody was running around, getting kids here and there and that's when this incident occurred. Maybe just set the framework so people understand where the story started.
John O'Leary: Awesome. I'm going to actually speed it up almost two decades, surprisingly. In some regards, where this story begins is about 11 years ago. I'm at home. I'm with my wife. We just got married, and my mom and dad called to [00:04:00] say that they're going to write a book about our experience. I asked him, "What experience? What are you going to write a book about?" They said, "We're going to write a book about you as a little boy, when you got burned." As a family, the question you're asking, we never discussed what happened. We never chatted about the journey. They wrote this book. They printed 100 copies for their community. It's gone on to sell more than 70,000 copies around the country, around the world. One of the copies was sold by them to me. For $10, I got [00:04:30] to read about how I got burned as a kid. That was the beginning of the story. That was maybe the greatest inflection point in my life, realizing that this story, these scars, I'd always run from and covered up were in fact profound gifts.
Where did that story originate? Where did the scars come from? At age nine, like you're saying, Saturday morning. You were right, Gail. My mom and dad were gone. I had seen some little boys in my neighborhood playing with fire and gasoline. I figured, "If they can do [00:05:00] it, so can I." I walked into the garage. I leaned over a can of gasoline. No one else was around. The plan was to pour a tiny, safe amount of gasoline on top of this burning piece of paper. Right now, I would imagine all the ladies in your audience are leaning back, thinking, "What is wrong with this guy?" All the men are leaning back on the podcast, Kyle included, thinking, "Oh, my gosh. I wonder if he put the GI Joe guys in first or second. How did he run the experiment, man?" [00:05:30] Because little boys are crazy. At age nine or 40, they're reckless sometimes.
Before the liquid came out, and we could rift on this one for a while, but before the liquid came out of that can of gasoline, what came out first was the fumes. The rift is, it's usually in life not what you see coming that burns you. It's not the liquid, generally. It's not the headlines in the papers. It's the vapors. It's the stuff we don't talk about at home, in the bedrooms, [00:06:00] in the board rooms, in the news headlines. It's the stuff we don't have the audacity to whisper about. It's one of the things that I think it's cool that we do on this podcast is, you talk about the fumes and how we can harness them for good, not bad. That day, the fumes got me, created a massive explosion, split the can in two, picked me up and launched me 20 feet against the far side of the garage, set my world on fire. That's the beginning of the journey.
Gail Davis: How many of your siblings were home with you that morning?
John O'Leary: [00:06:30] There were three home. I'm one of six. It's a pretty typical Midwest upbringing. I'm one of six kids. My oldest was 17. My youngest was two, and I was nine. Mom and Dad were out with a couple of my sisters, and so it's my brother Jim in the basement sleeping and then my two middle sisters, Amy and Susan, who were also upstairs sleeping.
Gail Davis: Do I remember that you literally ran into the house, through the house to the front yard actually in flames?
John O'Leary: [00:07:00] Right. When I speak, in particular to younger groups, but sometimes even to older groups, I'll ask, "What do you do when you're on fire?" Everyone happily says, "Stop, drop and roll." Then I say, "Good job, class. What do you actually do, though, when you're on fire?" Then everybody yells out, "Run! Run!" There seems to me to be a gap between what we know and what we do, frequently. It's very easy to train. It's very easy to say, "This is on your [00:07:30] next test. You'll need this for next Tuesday." It's much harder in life to actually be bold enough and audacious enough to take action and implement what we know. My role in any job title that I'm wearing at that time, whether it's as a husband, a dad, a speaker, a writer, whatever, is to make sure that what people know is also connected down to what they can do it through, which is their hearts, that the two become one.
That day for me, Gail, back to your point, I got so scared. I panicked. My nine-year-old training [00:08:00] went out the window. I took off running for my life, on fire, through the flames in the garage, ran back into my mom and dad's kitchen and through their family room. I remember eventually I made my way all the way into the front of the hall and just stood on top of our rug, screaming and burning and begging and praying for a hero. Man, I'll take anybody. I'll take anybody. That's when I saw my brother, Jim, racing toward me. He was 17. I'm nine. I'm his kid brother. As [00:08:30] Jim's making his way toward me, I remember thinking, "God, anybody else. Not this guy." I need a hero here. I need a firefighter or a parent, a neighbor. Yet what Jim is about to show and what I think we all know through our own experience is that it can be anybody. We can be anybody. We can be someone else's hero. It's usually the ordinary hero that saves the day. This is Jim's moment to change, to shine.
what he does, in short, is he picks up a rug. It takes him two minutes, but [00:09:00] he beats down the flames. He carries me outside, jumps on top of me, rolls around on top of me, runs back inside, calls 911. 1987, the Life Saver of the Year for the state of Missouri was an arrogant, pimple-faced 17-year-old boy named Jim who changed. What a gift that is to wake up to that truth and that possibility in all of our lives every day.
Gail Davis: That is incredible. I know was an [00:09:30] extremely long journey. Can you remind me how many days or weeks you were in the hospital before you got to return to your home?
John O'Leary: Yeah, sure. Five months in the hospital. The first several weeks, and really, months were spent tied down and really beat down, in pain and struggling. Gail, you know, and Kyle. You've read the books. You've heard me speak before. You also realize it's dark but there [00:10:00] are so many glimmers of remarkable light. It was a time of despair in some regards, but also, looking back up my life, and I've had a charmed life. I'm married. I have four kids, have a great lifestyle today. One of the highlights for my life is that period in the hospital during this darkness as people kept showing up right on time, doing the next best thing. From them, I think this little boy was learning how to do life a little bit better once he finally did go home.
Gail Davis: Of course, [00:10:30] the favorite, there are so many people. I'm sure there's numerous individuals that played a very significant role, but there's a really special story that involved baseball. Do you mind sharing that with the audience, because I love the story?
John O'Leary: We'll run out of time, probably about halfway through because it deserves volumes of books to be written about what this guy did quietly for a little boy that no one's ever going to hear from again. [00:11:00] He doesn't know I'll be on your podcast 30 years downstream, Gail. He's doing this because he can. The background of the story is this. I'm tied down to a hospital bed. I'm burned on 100% of my body, 87% is third degree. I am dying. I cannot move, obviously. I'm on a trach so I cannot talk. I can't eat or drink, and my eyes are swollen shut due to swelling. I'm just laying there, barely hanging on for life. [00:11:30] What I could do back then as a little boy was feel and be sad and mad and in pain, but also dream and hope and pray and imagine and set goals.
Listen, growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, a rabid St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan, the way we used to take our baseball was not through our eyes, but actually through our ears, through the lens of a guy named Jack Buck. Jack Buck was the voice of St. Louis Cardinals baseball. He is a Hall of Famer both for the NFL and [00:12:00] Major League Baseball. He's the father of Joe Buck, who I'm sure many of your listeners may have heard of. Jack Buck was my childhood idol and I had never met him. I got burned on a Saturday, like you remembered, and Sunday afternoon, I'm laying in a burn center, dying. Footsteps come into my room. A chair gets dragged across the floor. I hear somebody cough. Then I hear this robust voice say to me, "Kid, wake up. Wake up." Then this voice says, [00:12:30] "You are going to live. You are going to survive. Keep fighting. When you get out of here, John O'Leary Day at the ballpark will make it all worthwhile" He says, "Kid, are you listening?" I remembered vaguely nodding my head, to which he responded, "Good. Keep fighting."
He learned, Gail, that day as he left that the little boy was going to die, that there's no chance. [00:13:00] The following day, Jack Buck, the radio announcer for the St. Louis Cardinals comes back to a burn center, back onto the fourth floor, back into a little boy's life and he whispers that encouragement again. "Kid, keep fighting." This guy quietly, there are no cameras behind him celebrating how great he is. He quietly comes back. I get emotional every time I say it. Quietly comes into my life.
Gail Davis: I'm crying.
John O'Leary: For five months. Doesn't tell a soul. His wife doesn't know where [00:13:30] he's going. Doesn't tell his son Joe. Doesn't tell the media. He just keeps serving and in doing so, I think he's one of the great reasons why this little boy with no chance goes on to have a chance and then to go home and then to have a remarkable life later on in life, because of his incredible service and love.
Gail Davis: It's such a great story. Hopefully people can be in your audience one day and hear all that he did for you with the various signed baseballs and what have you, but it's just an [00:14:00] amazing story. I was looking on something. I think I was reading one of your newsletters recently. Didn't he later, did you get some award from him or he gave you some crystal baseball? What is that? That's fast-forward many years later.
John O'Leary: Yes. You mentioned the baseball story. I'm just going to encourage folks later on maybe to Google Jack Buck and John O'Leary and see what comes up. Get a box of handkerchiefs and maybe a glass of red wine or coffee [00:14:30] because you'll need it. What this guy does is nothing short of profound and the world should know about it. When I speak and write, I don't brag on how great I am, because that's a boring story. I get to celebrate how phenomenal my brother was and the janitors and the doctors and my parents and this guy named Jack Buck and so many others, what they taught, what I learned and what we can do.
The question you're specifically asking is, what's that crystal baseball story? That crystal baseball story is, I graduated college on time, which [00:15:00] is a miracle in and of itself. Invited some family and friends to join us for the celebration. Jack Buck was still alive and still broadcasting. He was out of town, but he sent a package and a note to the graduation party. The note read, "Kid," he began every sentence to me his entire life with K-I-D comma. "Kid, this means a lot to me. Hope it means a lot to you, too. Enjoy. It's yours." I open up the box, look inside, [00:15:30] Kyle and Gail and listeners, it was the crystal baseball that he received when he went into the Hall of Fame. I then went back to the note and the note read, "Kid, this means a lot to me. Hope it means a lot to you, too. This is the baseball I received when I went into the Hall of Fame. It's made of crystal. It is priceless. There's only one like it in the entire world. Don't drop it, and it's yours. Jack."
He drops the mic on this. When he gives this away [00:16:00] not to a fledgling speaker or writer or candidly, a guy who had any self-confidence at all, I'm a 22-year-old kid that has no clue what to do in life or what's possible in my life. He gives it away to the least among us. In doing so, one final time before finally he returns home, and he dies a year and a half later, he changes my life. What a gift his life and his example was to me, but also to [00:16:30] so many others.
Gail Davis: That's awesome. Are you friends with his son now?
John O'Leary: Yeah, just a book in that story. When my wife, Beth, and I had our first baby, we had a little baby boy. If you want to guess his name, go ahead while you're listening at home, but I'll just tell you. His name is Jack. Jack is now 11 years old. Jack Buck never met my wife. He never met little Jack, but Jack's legacy lives long after he passed. I think [00:17:00] it's true for all of us. We don't need to be Hall of Famers. We don't need to be giving away crystal baseballs every day, but the little things we do matter. They truly do matter, and they outlast us.
You asked about the relationship with Joe. It's one of Jack's legacy items. Jack never introduced us, but the cool thing about speaking and writing is eventually his son, Joe, learned about this kid named John O'Leary. He had heard a little bit about me growing up, but not to the extent that his dad was showing up in my life. He never knew [00:17:30] about the many, many, many baseballs that your listeners can check out later on. He never knew about the Hall of Fame ball, but Joe knew about Jack's love for some strange little kid named John O'Leary. The cool thing is now, years after Jack's death, one of my friends is Joe Buck and Joe's a great man, a phenomenal announcer, and has a generous heart just like his dad.
Gail Davis: What a beautiful story.
Kyle Davis: One of the things that people would not blame you for is to live a life [00:18:00] of disappointment and anger over what had happened to you, being burned all over your body and having a lot of resent. It's really unique when you hear people who have your story or stories that are similar to it, to have such an enlightened view of their experience. You said something that was unique as it is profound. You said scars are profound gifts. I'm just wondering if you could expand on that and what you meant by [00:18:30] the scars being a profound gift.
John O'Leary: Kyle, it's a deep question, man. Are you sure you're as young as you claim to be?
Kyle Davis: It's intentionally deep, yes, but, yeah, and I am young, too.
John O'Leary: There's a writer named Henri Nouwen. He's one of my favorite authors. He's no longer with us either, but Nouwen writes that scars exist because the wounds are healed. This is what I generally share from the stage, but I think it's something we all need to embrace off stage. The scars exist [00:19:00] because the wounds have healed. You go through challenges in life. You go through difficulties in relationship and divorce and bankruptcy. You lose out on opportunities at work. In almost every facet of your life, and we can go around, back to the origination of your question, and focus on all that we lost. It's real. I don't have fingers on my hands. That's real. Yet I play the piano today and I change diapers today and I have a phenomenal life today. I may have lost some of my physical [00:19:30] beauty from my neck to my toes because that's primarily where my scars are and yet, I think it softened my heart and it allowed me to realize what actually matters.
It also allowed me to attract the right kind of people into my life, which led to where I went to school, which led to this incredible chance encounter with a gorgeous brunette named Elizabeth Grace, that I eventually would date and then eventually marry and then eventually settle down with and start this incredible life with. It has allowed me to do some remarkable things. I spent three years as a hospital chaplain. [00:20:00] I get to travel around the world sharing this story now. Yet when I'm done speaking, people come up afterwards and they don't say, "Gosh, John. You rock." What they say to me, generally, is, "Can I tell you some of my story?" That's where it begins and then it goes on from there. The reason they say that is because they see some scars on me, whether they literally see them physically or they just feel them emotionally. It allows them then to connect not only to my scars, but to their own challenges, their own woundedness and their own desires [00:20:30] to become better versions of themselves because of it.
Brokenness, in any facet you want to claim has come into your life. It can drive us mad with what we've lost, or it can make us realize all we gained. That's a choice. It's not something Trump can choose for you or Hillary could have chosen for you, or your parents can choose for you. It's a choice that you get to make every single day of your life for omission and commission. My job today is to wake people up from accidental living so that they can truly choose to live inspired [00:21:00] lives.
Kyle Davis: Mm-hmm (affirmative). To that point, but you mentioned when you were describing the gas can, I can talk about the funny story about the time I set the garage on fire myself, but very similar, oddly enough, but anyways.
John O'Leary: We've talked about that, Kyle, you and I before. Your mom was not laughing when it happened.
Kyle Davis: No, she wasn't, but I tell you what. Those people who do the carcinogenic removal of buildings loved me. [00:21:30] Anyways, from there, though, one of the things that you did mention was it wasn't what you could see. Obviously people, probably naively so, believe that it's the liquid of the gas that burns and not the fumes, but you mentioned that it's the fumes. It's the unseen that burns you, not what's ahead of you that you can predict. I love how you used your life as a metaphor to get people, and your story as a metaphor to get people to look outside of themselves and observe what their blind spots are, [00:22:00] but also to live a more inspired life. I'm wondering if you could touch on being aware of those blind spots or at least thinking about it, but more importantly, how you could then pivot that into having a more inspired life.
John O'Leary: Awesome. I'll do this very briefly, to walk you through my daily process. I'll lead into it by sharing the daily process of many others. Victims, and that's a lot of folks. None of your listeners, I'm sure, but those who feel like our best days [00:22:30] are behind us, that they've been dealt a bad set of cards, whatever the analogy it is that you want to use. Victims love to ask three questions. The victim's favorite question, as they see the TSA line and it is long, as they planned a family picnic and it's raining, whatever the thing is. Victims love to ask, "Why me?" Oh, they love that question. Why me? Why the line? Why the wait? Why the struggle? Why the divorce? Why me? Why the scars? Where are my fingers? Not fair! Why me?
The second question they love to ask is, who cares? [00:23:00] It's asked, I think, out of self-preservation, but it actually leads toward death. They cross their arms and get their hearts cold, "Who cares?" The third question they love to ask is, "What more can I do?" I'm just one. It's a messed-up economy or it's a messed-up relationship or it's a messed-up life. What more can little old me do? That's what many people dance through their life with.
I like to go through my day, so I'm sharing with you my daily process now, but really my life as well, with three completely different questions. This is how I stay focused on the fumes [00:23:30] and how to harness them for good, not bad. This is true. The way I greet every rising sun in the morning, sometimes at 3:30 when I'm trying to catch an early flight, but I spend a couple minutes reflecting with a journal in hand on this question, and it's worth writing down. "Why me?" Why am I so lucky? Why am I so blessed? Why did I survive the fire? Why did my mom demand that I pick up a pen and start learning how to write again? Why do I have the opportunity to move and to speak and to travel [00:24:00] and to love and share and grow and expand, the freedoms that we all have? Why me? Incredible. It blows me away. Why me?
Which frees me to get out of bed early and ask the second-best question, which is, "Who cares?" If you have some physical challenges, a few, not many, who cares? If the economy or the political system today is not perfect, who cares? We're blessed. We're fortunate. We have incredible opportunities. We do something in life, all of our lives, that matters, so who cares if there are some [00:24:30] road bumps or some challenges along the way? It's part of the deal. Get over it. That's number two. The third question, anybody want to guess what it might be?
Kyle Davis: What more can I do?
Gail Davis: What more can I do?
John O'Leary: It's a question I learn from Jack Back. Nothing I share is mine. I'm a great thief of information.
Kyle Davis: If you're not stealing, you're not trying.
John O'Leary: Amen, and if you're not stealing the best, you're not really doing your best. I steal from the best. Jack Buck is one of them. His nightly question he asked every [00:25:00] night of his life for 60 years was, what more can I do? It allowed him to have a robust career, no doubt, to be a great family guy. It also allowed him to come back into a little boy's darkness and then come back and come back and come back and come back. That question I learned from him, but it's a question that I think has changed my professional life. It's changed how I show up spiritually, certainly it impacts how I show up emotionally and relationally and financially. What more can I do to ensure tomorrow is even better than today? That's how I [00:25:30] book-end my day. I journal on that. Then when I wake up, that's staring at me to ensure that I do even better today than I did yesterday.
Kyle Davis: When you, you're asking the same questions, which is brilliant, but when you share with people that literally, it's just changing the perspective. It's looking at one side of the coin and not the other. When you share that just simple trick and it clicks with people, what are the common reactions that you get [00:26:00] of just how, I guess, profoundly, stupidly simple it is, and so hard at the same time?
John O'Leary: When people, if we created a cute little business card with those questions and then you flipped it over and they're the same questions, I think people would throw it in the trash, correctly so, but when you hear this anchored to a story where you are in awe of how these ladies and gentlemen are showing up in a little boy's life and you are realizing the specific questions [00:26:30] they are asking, the answers they're getting, how it's touching someone else's life and what it might mean for yours, you can no longer throw that in the trash. I think it's easy to ignore that in some regards, but if you actually take the time and have an open mind and an open heart to realize this truth in your own life, how those three simple questions are taking you off track and how in asking them through a different lens it can bring you right back onto track into the possibility of your life.
The questions are the same, like you pointed out, Kyle, [00:27:00] but depending on how you ask them will influence what you see, how you feel about it, what you do, how you respond, the results you get, and the life you lead. It's profoundly important. Too frequently, we give this gift away to Trump or to Hillary, to the Democrats or the Republicans, to our parents, who didn't do a good job with us, to traffic, to TSA, to cold coffee. My beg of our audiences and now I say of your listeners is to realize [00:27:30] that they get the ultimate say on this one. Realize how many reasons you have to be grateful. Realize how they can live more boldly through who cares, mission in life. Finally, buy some of that compound interest back. What more can I do to ensure tomorrow's better than today?
Kyle Davis: What I like about it is, the operative word is choice. That was the word that you used earlier. I like how you said, taking the interest back, but maybe even to a broader sense, taking [00:28:00] ownership back of whatever may have ailed you and using it as something to strengthen you, because you can't build muscle without tearing it down.
John O'Leary: Right.
Kyle Davis: You've got to do what you've got to do. My follow-up question for you is that you mentioned that there's this gap between what we know and what we do. I know it's, I have an idea of what you're talking about, but I'd like if you could, through the context of your story or however you present this to individuals, what do you mean by that and how does [00:28:30] that shift how we float through the world? Float's not really a good one, but how do we navigate the world that we're in?
John O'Leary: Perfect. Most training, whether that's Sunday mornings or marriage counseling or sales training or safety training or pick the thing. Fire safety, kids, stop, drop and roll. It's all, whether it's intended to or not, it all meets people head level. When they pick up the phone, say this sentence and then follow it with [00:29:00] that one. It's all head level. When your wife triggers you and you get mad, react this way, but it's all head level. It's much harder when you walk through the exit of synagogue or church or the psychologist or the schoolyard to actually implement it. Frequently, what we do, training comes down to fear, but being able to implement it comes from a completely different motivation. One of them is, I have to do this or I'll get in trouble. I'll fail out of school. I'll lose [00:29:30] my marriage. I won't grow in my job. It's fear-based training, actually.
What I would encourage all of your trainers in the room and ultimately, that is all of us. We're all training in something, is to shift it from fear-based into love-based. That may sound trite, but I'm not speaking to love in a puppy-dog, butterfly, rainbow style of way. Love is hard, man. Love is, my mom, when I came home from the hospital, just to paint a picture of my incredible mom. She, the [00:30:00] first night, made my favorite meal, which is au gratin potatoes. I was a totally strange kid. I had one challenge that night. I was unable to eat those au gratin potatoes because I don't have fingers. My sister, Amy, picked up a fork to start feeding me, and my mom looked at my sister, Amy, and said, "Amy, you drop that fork. If John's hungry, he'll feed himself." My mother ruined dinner, man. I remember hating her that night and many nights that followed, trust me, [00:30:30] and yet today and yesterday and probably for the last three decades of dinners, I grab a fork. I used to wedge it between two hands. Today, I just hold it in one hand and I feed myself.
That's not easy. It's not easy to parent like that, to train like that, to love like that. Yet it is what ultimately inspires someone else to become the best version of themselves. We can't do this out of fear, though. It's got to come from a place of great love. I saw that in my mom. I've seen it in so many other remarkable leaders, and I try to model that [00:31:00] today in my own life.
Kyle Davis: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I like that.
Gail Davis: I was actually, I was thinking about how we dove into the Jack Buck story, but I know before we started to record, we were talking about your new podcast. You said that very intentionally, your mother was your first guest. Of course, as a mother, I love that story, but what I really want to ask you is, today, you're a father and you have four kids. Every time I hear this [00:31:30] story, John, I get so emotional. Yes, Kyle lit our garage on fire, but nobody was hurt. I just can't even imagine, no one prepared your mom for that day or your dad or your siblings. A five-and-a-half month hospital stay, I can't even imagine what that was like for your family.
John O'Leary: Gail, for me, my story is boring. When I view it through the life of a nine-year-old patient, [00:32:00] and I mean this sincerely. I'm very transparent. Ask my wife. I'm an open book. Here it is. What turns me on and breaks my heart but also lights me up is when I think about the story from my mom, who was at a dance recital and the phone call comes in. Oof, I lose my breath when I think about what it's like for a 38-year-old woman to get that call. She is not equipped to handle it. I think about my dad. He's an attorney. He ran his own law firm. He's getting ready for a case that's Monday morning. He's [00:32:30] at the office early. The phone calls comes in, and all of a sudden, work doesn't matter anymore for him. His life is upside-down and it will remain that way for a long time. I think about what my brother, Jim, saw and what he probably still sees when he shuts his eyes some nights. Oof, getting emotional thinking about it.
Like you, it's mind-boggling for me to imagine what they went through. And yet, that might be my favorite start of a sentence, and yet. And yet instead of being [00:33:00] mad at the world or mad at gasoline or mad at their nine-year-old brother or their little boy, son, they chose, Kyle, that's your word. They chose to come together. They chose to fight for something collectively. They chose resolutely to row in a direction for something bigger than themselves. My five siblings gave up their mom and dad for five months, which is basically what went down, and yet they have never held that against me. My mom and dad gave up their lives for the better part of a couple years, and they've never once held that against me. [00:33:30] It had this way, tragedy, of either pushing people and nations and families and couples and sales teams apart. It can, or it can pull us and galvanize us and make us even better because of it.
What I've learned from my family, not me, but what I've learned from them is how beautiful it is when you choose to allow tragedy to refine you and make you better. That's what my mom and dad have become. That's what my siblings have become, and I'm grateful to be their sibling and their son.
Kyle Davis: [00:34:00] And yet you're still inspiring people to do the best that they possibly can. My mom brought up the podcast. I know there's other things, like books and whatnot, but let's talk about the podcast first, and then we can segue into what else you've done.
John O'Leary: Sure. Everything we do is the result of how better can we serve our community? At first, my first, my mom and dad wrote that book. Theirs is called Overwhelming Odds. They wrote it about a dozen [00:34:30] years ago. I read it. It changed me from the inside out. I was not a speaker. I was not confident. I was not an extrovert, and yet I was open. There's a great quote from Frankl. Frankl writes, "When you know your why, you can endure any how." A few weeks after my mom and dad wrote their book and I had read it, I got a call from a Girl Scout who asked, "Mr. O'Leary," and that's me, apparently at age 28 like I was back then, "Would you come and share your story [00:35:00] with my little troop?" My answer to life, whether it's a podcast interview with Gail and sons or whatever it might be, is yes. Why not?
This introverted, self-conscious kid that doesn't know how to put two sentences together, let alone speak in front of a group, went to the Girl Scout Troop, spoke in front of three girls. I got sick in the parking lot on the walk in. That's not poetic justice or whatever. It's truth. I was terrified, and yet I said yes. When you know your why, you can endure any how. It began with [00:35:30] three girls, third graders. It's gone on from there. It's gone on from there. Now we have the opportunity to travel the world. Gail, you mentioned 500,000. We get to speak all around the world, sharing the story now.
Kyle Davis: Yeah, it's probably a much bigger number.
John O'Leary: It is, but it's one by one that we do it, so that's our focus. One by one, how to we touch more lives? Then we realized, newsletters, so we started a community of newsletters. That's now, our community is more than 200,000, so we're grateful for that, but how do you touch them deeper? So I wrote a book. [00:36:00] It came out last March. It's called On Fire. On Fire is this story, really laid out in paper. We had no idea what may become of that book. Had big dreams for it, but who knows? It became a number one national bestseller. It's being translated today into 16 languages. It's a hit! It's not about the author. It never has been. We're grateful for On Fire. After On Fire came out, how do we touch another life? How do we get in front of more people? How do we remind them how great they are? [00:36:30] Podcasting.
Last October, we came up with this idea. We launched about a month later. We have been rolling this thing out now for 42 episodes. There are, I think, more than 450,000 downloads to this point. We get to bring in phenomenal people on their life story, the mistakes they made, what they learned, and how we, the listeners, and I'm one of them, can do life better because of them. That's our professional journey, just continually asking yourself, "What more can you do so [00:37:00] that you can touch more lives through your message?"
Gail Davis: What's the name of your podcast, John?
John O'Leary: It's the Live Inspired with John O'Leary podcast.
Gail Davis: Perfect, okay.
Kyle Davis: Boom.
Gail Davis: Boom. I've been crying. I've been smiling. It's a story that just continues to touch my heart, and I am so glad you came to visit me that day in Colleyville years ago. It is just sincerely such a pleasure to know you. I [00:37:30] have to say, John, the thing that I'm always struck with is just your incredible humility and how it never is about you and it's always about the people you're talking to or the people along the way that helped you. That is just such an incredibly endearing quality, and I just really appreciate it.
John O'Leary: You're welcome and thank you. It's honest because I've noticed repeatedly in my life that I'm the result of incredible generosity. Just to put a bow [00:38:00] on this, my dad came into the hospital the day I was finally going home. We'd been in there for five months, dozens of surgeries, a little bit different little boy than the one that came in five months earlier, but my dad walked in. He came into my room with a big, fat, red wheelbarrow full of champagne and Life Savers. It was not for me, by the way, listeners. It was for the staff, these nurses and these doctors, janitors that were grossly underpaid and underappreciated for what they do, all of them. It's selfless, [00:38:30] a labor of love and healing. My dad sat down the wheelbarrow. He walked over to me, put his hands on my legs and said, "John, you did it. Man, you did it!" As a little nine-year-old boy on morphine, I said, "Yes, I did."
Looking back on the five months and now three decades that have followed it, there's certainty in my mind and in my heart of how little of it I've actually done. I am clearly the result of profound [00:39:00] love and service and grace and leadership. Humility is easy to come onto when you realize this in your own life. I think if we all took a closer look into our own lives and how we got to where we are, we realize we've done a few things, but for the most part, we are the result of some incredible ladies and gentlemen doing the next best thing for and with us. I hope you all heard that loud and clear today. Kyle and Gail, thanks for letting me share that.
Kyle Davis: Thank you. I guess we'll do a pun-filled one. If you want to have an event that's on fire [00:39:30] and yet you want people to leave inspired, feel free to contact GDA Speakers and we'll get you in touch with John O'Leary for your event. You can do so by calling us at 214-420-1999 or by going to GDASpeakers.com. For the audio transcripts, books, links to John's podcasts and everything else, I guess, you can go to GDAPodcast.com. With that being said, John O'Leary, thank you.
Gail Davis: Thank you, John.
John O'Leary: Kyle and Gail, thank you.