Living a Life on Fire
John O'Leary is the author of On Fire, his personal account of surviving a near-fatal house fire at the age of nine. Filled with hope and possibility as a result of his experiences, O'Leary is now an inspirational speaker who runs a successful business inspiring people around the world with a 7-step plan for living a life "on fire."
John O'Leary, welcome to BB&T leadership series. We're glad to have you in Winston-Salem. Glad to have you be on our leadership series. And you're going to be speaking to our senior leadership team in just a little bit. So thank you for being here. We really appreciate it.
Kelly, it's an honor. To be part of your team and part of this interview means more than you know. So thank you for the chance.
You're welcome. So in this leadership series, John, what we're trying to do is provide opportunities for our clients, our prospects, to community leaders, to be able to learn more about leadership. We blend this in through the BB&T Leadership Institute, which does a variety of things. And so we look for speakers that have a story to tell that helps people be better leaders. And when I read your book about your life, it just struck me that this is a man that has learned and chosen to deal with obstacles in life. Which is what leaders have—the good leaders figure out how to deal with obstacles.
Not so good leaders let obstacles—
—end their career. So for some people who have not yet read the book, tell us what happened to you.
Yeah, so your question's set up beautifully. I think everyone has a story. It's just usually not the story we're telling the world. And so my story is, I spent decades running from what really my story was. I tried everything in the world to mask what happened to me as a kid.
And what that was, was at age nine, I was burned on 100% of my body. It happened in a garage explosion, Kelly. Nine years old, curious little kid. I wanted to see what might happen if I mixed a little gasoline with just a little bit of flame. Which of course was the poorest idea maybe of my lifetime.
It created a mighty explosion. Split the can in two. And launched me 20 feet against the far side of the garage. Set my world on fire.
Left a little boy with burns on 100% of my body, 87% was third degree. I'm dying. There's no chance of survival. And that's just the first couple of moments of this inflection point, this challenge you referenced.
Yeah, and as I recall from the book, the doctor said you had a 1% chance of living. And I was really struck because at one place you were meeting with a group of people and someone asked you, would you like to do your life over? How would your life be if you could go back and change it? And you said, I wouldn't change it. Tell us about that.
It was a beautiful question that the guy asked. He said, John, if you could go back in time right before the gasoline came out of the can and hit the flame, and you had a chance to blow it out, would you blow it out? And it's pretty easy to say heck yeah, blow on that flame.
Because none of us like adversity. I don't think any of us like challenges. None of us like being burned, literally or figuratively. But the truth is, I am the net result of those challenges. I'm across from you today because of being burned as a kid.
I grew in my faith. I grew in my character. I grew closer to my family. I grew in areas of network that I would have never expanded otherwise. I went to a college that I would not have chosen, where I met a brunette that I would have never met. And now have four children that I would have never been blessed with.
So would I go back in time and do it again? Absolutely not, because in blowing out the bad, you also blow out the good.
Yeah. So my experience has been, frankly sometimes in my own life, in my early journey, and in observing others, most of the time when people encounter obstacles, they give up. But you didn't give up. I recall from the book your mother said to you, John, do you want to live?
Pretty powerful question. Tell us about that.
You know, I don't think any of us as leaders are prepped for the next big explosion. We don't know what storm's coming next. We know it's coming, we just don't know yet what it's going to look like. But I promise all of your followers, the storm is blowing our way.
So my mom gets a call Saturday morning, January 17th, 1987, that her little boy is in a hospital bed. She walks in and nine-year-old John O'Leary's laying there with no clothes, no skin, no chance, I'm dying, I'm in pain, I'm looking up for hope. And I ask her, am I going to die, mom? Am I going to die?
And rather than providing false hope, which I think we leaders love to provide—everything's going to be rosy. Just hang with me for a little bit longer.
She provides truth. Which I think we as leaders are called to provide those around us truth, which is painful. But it also sets all of us free. She took my hand in hers, patted my bald head, looked me in the eyes, Kelly, and said, baby, do you want to die. Do you want to die. It's your choice, not mine.
She's forcing me for the first time in my life to be accountable, which is bold. It's the first step, I think, in leadership. I said, mom, I do not want to die. She said, good, then look at me, take the hand of God. You walk the journey with him. And you fight like you have never fought before.
And on that morning we had no clue what the next morning might look like. Or the third morning may feel like, or the 1st skin graft, or the 23rd skin graft. All we knew on day one, the fight is on. And I think when the storm blows our way, to make that sacred covenant in ourselves and also with our team, that's enough. The fight's on.
And then from there, it strikes me that you walk through life developing what you wrote about in your book. About seven choices that you kind of make them—I don't think you need to necessarily go through them—but pick a couple of the choices that you think are important that our viewers might enjoy hearing about.
So there are seven, and seven's a sacred number. I think it's a big deal, and it's a perfect number, I think, for this story. Because I received that information. I'm not the author of even the book. I'm the recipient of the book. I'm the recipient of great love, and extraordinary leadership from my mom, and my siblings, to my dad, to the doctors, the nurses, the volunteers—so many incredible people.
So a couple of my favorite choices. Number one's accountability. My mom on day one begged me to choose life or death. And I said I don't want to die, I want to live. But when I got home from the hospital, she maybe provided an even more important lesson.
I'm at home, I'm in a wheelchair, my five siblings are around the table with me, and my dad and mom are here, the house has been rebuilt. Potatoes are sitting in front of me. And the only problem was, Kelly, I don't have hands to pick up a fork.
So my favorite sister Amy—I'm sure she's tuning in right now, she watches everything we do—she grabs a fork, picks up potatoes, moves it toward my mouth. And right before the cheesy goodness enters, my mom says, Amy, you drop that fork. If John's hungry, he'll feed himself.
And I remember looking away from the potatoes, and away from my sister Amy, toward my mom thinking, what are you talking about. I can't. I don't have hands, I'm tied in to a wheelchair. I can't do it anymore, mom.
By the end of the evening, she had ruined dinner, Kelly, truly. A plate was flipped. Everybody else was away from that table. A little boy, nine years old—it was supposed to be my party, now I'm crying at it. But by the very end of that evening, I had a fork wedged between my hands, was bringing it toward my mouth, staring with great hostility toward my mom, eating.
On the day I was burned, this is important, she taught me not to die, don't die. But on the day I came home from the hospital, just as importantly, I think she told me to start living. Both are choices we make each day through omission and commission. But ultimately, we choose it. Accountability is important.
That's outstanding. And I can't help but tie in to that a question about you, with your limitations—
—you did what I can't imagine doing, or I can't imagine most people who are viewing this would do. You started a construction company. And you started hammering nails.
I'm a mess. Don't imitate or emulate me in your own journey, find much greater heroes. Like the ones I was lucky enough to bump into in my own journey. But, Kelly, for me, my whole life story was about masking who I really was.
So as a kid, it means playing soccer, playing football-- tackle football-- I'm tough just like everybody else. High school and college, if I'm not really good academically, I'm not really strong athletically. I'm not a playwright. I struggle in public.
What I turned to was drinking. It was the one mask that I could put on and fit in. So that's what I did in college. And then after college, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do when I grew up.
So I figured, why not start my own business. And the only thing I thought maybe I could do was real estate. I became a real estate developer. And with hands that are completely beat down, started swinging that hammer, and hanging drywall, and sheeting roofs, and hanging kitchen cabinets with hands that, I think, others would say are deformed and unable to do anything.
Looking back on it, I think it was my cry as a 23-year-old boy to yell out to the world, look how normal I am. Aren't I normal now. Do you finally believe that I'm normal.
What finally changed me from being in real estate, eventually in to a hospital chaplaincy role for three years, and then eventually in to speaking and writing, was when my mom and dad wrote their own book. My dad has Parkinson's disease, he's one of the great heroes of my life. He wrote a book called Overwhelming Odds, which is about their son John being burned.
It's an unauthorized biography of my life. Well they knew it, they wrote it, they printed it. They printed 100 copies, they've sold 65,000 since, which is a big number out of a garage.
One of the copies was sold to me. And it was the turning point of my life. For the first time ever, 29 years old, I saw my hands differently. I saw my scars differently. I saw the experience differently. I saw my whole life differently. Which freed me to not only change what I did for a living, but more importantly, how I viewed the reflection in the mirror.
So my mom and dad provided one more great gift to me.
Yeah. You know, I think we all have to go through the reality check of what we are and what are we going to become. I know in my own case, I grew up very, very poor. And my dad was an alcoholic. And I had all the reasons why I didn't have to be successful, but I chose to try.
But I must admit, in particularly the early years, I had a lot of fear. I was really afraid that I couldn't come away from where I had been, that I did not want to go back to. I've found for leaders, dealing with fear is a big deal. You had to have been really scared. How did you deal with the fear?
I'll just be super vulnerable. I'm scared right now, man. I have a bank president interviewing me. I don't know what your next question is. When we're done, we're going to walk in front of 120 of your finest leaders. There are butterflies going on right now—fear.
So how do you handle fear, O'Leary? Whether it's speaking to one fella, a friend now, speaking to 120, or speaking to thousands who may check this out later on. Or going through TSA with your chin up. Or coming home and loving four kids the right way. Whatever the fear is.
There are two constant pulls on our motivation in life, and fear is one of them. It's extraordinarily powerful. Fear is a powerful motivator. It's generally what drives us to drink. Your father was probably motivated by fear.
It's generally what drives many business owners. It's what drives many people in sales. It's what drives terrorists. It's what drives media.
But the alternative to it, the one I think we leverage in this family and certainly in this conversation, is love.
And both are powerful motivators. The cool thing is we get to choose. And if you haven't been purposely choosing, you're probably accidentally choosing fear without even knowing it. It's OK.
But the higher calling on your life is to recognize the butterflies for what they are, to push them to the side, and to recognize that we have an opportunity—right now one-on-one, or in a moment with 120—to become better versions of ourselves. And to utilize our life, our experience, our words, for something bigger than ourselves.
There's a quote that I will share with your team, I'll share right now with your followers, and I shared every day in the reflection in the mirror. I think it's done more for my marriage, my faith journey, my speaking, my writing, than anything else. And the quote is, "I love you and there's nothing you can do about it."
It has chased away so much anxiety, so much fear, so much trepidation in my life. It has allowed me to be more bold, more authentic, more vulnerable, more real. Which then, in turn, allows others to be more real, more vulnerable, more sincere back with me. So I love you, there's nothing you can do about it. It works at a bar, I don't encourage you to use it there. But it works at a leadership function, it works with spouses, it works with children, it works in every facet of your life.
By the way, talking about nervous jitters and speaking and all-- I've certainly had nervousness virtually every time I've ever given a speech. And I'm nervous about doing this too. But one of the things we both, I think, would say to leaders is, virtually everybody that I know that is successful gets nervous when they are in important roles and positions.
And I heard one professional speaker say, look, every professional speaker I know of will tell you, if they're honest, that they get nervous. The key is to teach the butterflies to fly in formation. I said that—
That's a cool term.
—kind of makes sense to me. Because frankly, some have said, if you're not a little bit nervous, you're probably not serious enough about it.
I think that's right.
You don't care enough about it. But then the love, the fact that you're OK and nobody can change the fact that you're OK, you're doing your best—
—gives me a sense of peace about all of that. So it's a—
I love that. I'll be using that. Teach the butterflies to fly in formation.
Fly in formation, yeah. So related to the fear, again I know in my life, I had times when the fear was so strong, I was really, really close to giving up. I suspect in your journey, you had many times where you just said, it's just easier to give up.
I think all leaders go through that. How did you keep that perseverance to keep going?
So I encourage anyone listening and watching right now to find people bigger and greater than themselves in their own walk. And if you don't have someone in your backyard, or in the office next to you, go to the library. Because they're there waiting for you.
Shut your eyes, and they're there waiting for you again. One of the heroes of my life is a fellow named Viktor Frankl who survives the Holocaust, writes a phenomenal book called Man's Search for Meaning. And in this book, you're going to bump into a quote.
The quote is, "When you know your why, you can endure any how." I'm going to say it again. Because I think sometimes we hear things in life, and then we wait to hear what the guy says next. And then we miss what happened previously. "When you know your why, you can endure any how."
So the why compelled me in the hospital bed to get out. All I really wanted was homecoming. And then later on, John O'Leary day at the ballpark. And then later on, go back to grade school. And then later on, I'm going to walk again, I'm going to be normal again, I'm going to get married someday, I'm going to start my own business, I'm going to be successful in that, I'm going to live to a cause greater than myself.
Today, my why is very, very clear. It is what I was on a red-eye flight to make sure that you and I were able to hang out today. I don't sleep on planes. I don't do well flying, I get anxiety big-time before I fly. So what allows you to get on an airplane. What allows you to teach the butterflies to fly in formation before you go out and speak again.
For me, it's my mission, which is this. Because God demands it, my family deserves it, and the world is starved for it. That has fueled me to move through so many brick walls in life. Fueled me to move past so many insecurities that I have already.
Because I have a strong mission, and it is way bigger than anything I have myself. It's not about me, ultimately. It's about what I can do through my time and talent for those around me.
Yeah, so that ties into exactly, ironically, what I had written down as the next question. And that is, I found that the leaders that are the most effective are the ones that are genuinely, deeply passionate about what they—I mean, we just met. You are clearly passionate. You can read it through your book, you can see it in your eyes, you can see it in your embrace when we meet. Tell me about passion, and how important it is to leadership.
It is leadership in many regards. Leadership has a lot of elements that are part of it. But I think if passion is missing, the rest of it's hollow. So you may be asking yourself, so where do I find my passion?
It ties right back into, Kelly, what we were just chatting about—the purpose. So maybe the next question is, well, where do I find my purpose? I just encourage businesses—because we are made up of individuals. 36,000 at BB&T of individuals that make us who we are.
But also families. I have a family made up of six individuals. I'm individually made up of one. The question we all should ask ourselves is, why do we choose to thrive? Why will we choose to do the next hard thing? Why will we choose to do something better today than we did yesterday? Why, why, why.
And as you continually ask yourself that question, the answer of mission is going to come out of the reason why you do the things that no one else is willing to. And when it comes out in your own walk, in your own life, it's going to light you up. You're going to walk into a room with a little bit more of a skip in your step, and a glitter in your eye.
You're going to be on fire for possibility, and on fire for life. And that's not just a goofy buzzword because your book is called that. It's sincere, it's authentic, and people know it when they see it.
Yeah, exactly. So to me, Webster's should define passion as on fire. To me, cause that's—
—it captures it.
So you may not know this, but at BB&T we have a leadership model that we developed 35 years ago. And it's kind of a simple, but powerful concept. And it is that, if you're going to change results, you have to change behaviors. Most people get that. But if you're going to change behaviors on a sustained basis, you have to change beliefs. That is to say, people behave in a manner that is consistent with their beliefs.
So what I've found is that people really, as an effective leader, need to first understand that they can change their mind. They can change their beliefs to move in a direction that may be different from where they came from, or the direction they're going. You clearly adopted certain beliefs, hard core beliefs, that have helped propel you forward. Is that consistent with your concept?
Oh, gosh. I had not heard yours, and it's right on. I think frequently, we view ourselves as almost like in the cockpit of our lives. And there's a lot of other air traffic around us, and it's a mess all the time. And we're looking around, and it seems all scattered.
But then occasionally, we hear a higher voice talking to us, recognizing that it's scattered. That's the belief. That's our higher self, I think, talking to us. Those are the guys in the tower saying, 7432, you're clear for take off.
I think we too frequently give away that call sign to someone else. We don't realize, that's our voice, that's our life, we can tell our beliefs what we think. We can direct them in a charge that matters toward us, and will impact lives because of us. So yeah, I think beliefs absolutely drives us toward action, which drives us toward results.
Yeah, so related to beliefs, another famous author that you and I talked about briefly earlier is Dr. Carol Dweck, who wrote the book called Mindset, which is another one of my favorite books. And Mindset, of course, is all about beliefs. And when we're talking about passion, we're talking about drive, we're talking about commitment—all that is beliefs. And if people can change those beliefs, it gives them hope, doesn't it, for the future. How do you think about that?
So I think right now we're in a very politically charged season. I don't know if you're aware of it, but there's some negativity out there in the marketplace politically.
I noticed that, I noticed that.
There's also some negativity out there in the media. People are buying, and selling, and trading, and voting, strictly right now on fear. We as leaders, though, can come in with a different tune. And I think this is what all great leaders do. They play a different song. They sing a different song.
And then everyone lines up and dances differently because of the song they're playing. We need hope. Hope is not a strategy, but hope is fuel. And I think right now more than ever, we're in a marketplace that is starved for hope. And we as leaders can go out there and provide an awful lot of it to men and women, boys and girls, who are looking for it.
And that's what leaders do, they help provide opportunity, and a sense of prosperity and opportunity, and hope. And that reminds me very much of another good book recently called The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. I mentioned that he was actually in Winston not long ago.
But he talks about we can choose to be happy. We can choose to change our mind and be happy. And it strikes me that you have to have dealt with that issue. You had so much that anybody could have said, look, you're unhappy, you deserve to be unhappy. But you haven't chosen, I don't think—you appear to me, your book appears to me to be, you've actually found happiness. Tell me about that.
And so I appreciate that. I would encourage folks—the word happiness is used a lot. I would encourage people to pursue joy.
Happiness to me is always a fleeting experience. I have four kids. When I give them ice cream, they're happy. Then it melts or it's gone, and they cry. If they're angry at the end of the night, I give them a cell phone, they're happy. Then I come back in five minutes later and I take it away, then they're mad.
So I think really what we're looking for is not just happiness, it's joy. It's this ever present experience within us that we're lit up regardless of what's going on around us. That's something we can choose. All people love to ask victims specifically three questions.
Why me? Poor me. My dad was an alcoholic. I grew up poor. And I know a part of your story, it's a phenomenal story, Kelly. We have a lot of excuses why we could never do anything bigger than that in life. Why me? So that's one way to ask the question.
Alternatively, though, we can ask it like this. Why me? Why was I lucky enough to be born in the biggest, wealthiest country in the history of the world? Why did I have this shining example in my own life of who I did not want to be when I grew up? Mistakes that one other person made that I knew I would never make as I grew up in life? Gosh, I'm blessed. Eyes to see the rising sun, ears to hear those singing birds. Whoo! Why me?
The second question I think we all ask is, who cares? Most people ask it arms crossed, cut off. But we as leaders who are able to breathe life and possibility into experience around us, instead uncross our arms, and say, who cares if it's hard?
Who cares if it's difficult? Who cares if there are hurricanes blowing right now? Who cares if there is wind blowing at us? We are on a mission, our lives matter, we're part of something bigger than ourselves right now, let's get after it.
And then the third question is, what more can I do? And the victim believes the answer to that is nothing. It's a big country, it's a big industry, it's a big company. 36,000 employees, geez, what can one little guy do? But Viktors—and that is a leader in other words—will ask the question instead, what more can I do to ensure tomorrow is even better than today? Because I'm part of this thing.
Yeah, so like you, I like to think differently about happiness, joy. I talk about it in terms of having a sense of peace, a sense of self-esteem, a sense of pride in how you live your life. And I tell people it's like if you're really at a good place, you work really, really hard, you might work 14 hours a day. You go home, you're really, really tired, you lie down in a bed, you take a deep breath and say, this is great. You feel good about myself.
I'm self-enriched. I'm ready to go. You get up the next morning, and you go have another day—all ties into passion—
—as we talked about. But most people in life, unfortunately, don't find that. And one thing I want to maybe get close to closing on, John, is that you made a really important point that I believe deeply. And you said, your life matters. And I think, unfortunately, so many people in life don't realize how important they are. I tell people—I think you referred to this in your book about the butterfly effect—a single butterfly can flap its wings on one side of the earth and create a hurricane.
And I say to people, look, you know for a fact if a little bitty butterfly can do that, your life matters. Your life. And if you had given up, we wouldn't be here today. We wouldn't be impacting, you particularly, hundreds of thousands, millions of people. But how do you share with people that sense of ownership of their life mattering?
So in speaking and writing, I do that by not making it all about myself. You notice on the cover of the book there's not a picture with me and four beautiful kids and a gorgeous wife holding our golden retriever. That's not there. Even if you flip it to the back cover, it's like, well, where's John? He's really not there.
And he's not even in the inside of the book, because the real heroes are who we celebrate. And in speaking, you don't hear a whole lot of Is when I'm holding the microphone. It is about parents, and it's about siblings, and it's about strangers, and announcers, and volunteers, and janitors, and doctors. I provide example after example of ordinary individuals who did something extraordinary, and because of that, I'm here.
And because of that, maybe someone else is still here with us as well. Maybe my favorite example—my doctor's name was [INAUDIBLE]. He used to come into the room every morning—so this is the bigwig—but in line directly behind him rounding was the janitor. The lowliest, minimum wage guy named Lavelle.
Dr. [INAUDIBLE] would bring in Lavelle every morning. He would sit him on the bedside, and Dr. [INAUDIBLE] would say Lavelle, you see this little boy laying here? You. You are keeping him alive.
Because with burn care, it's not the physician that actually saves the child's life. They'll eventually recoat me with new skin. The therapist will eventually stretch my joints and get me to move again. The nurses will do their bandage changes. Everyone has their role.
But without the janitor—this is not just intended as a trite story, it's fact—I get an infection, and I die. The least among us is actually the most important among us. Not only in the hospital, but always, and in all things. The ripple effect, the butterfly effect of our lives is profound. We don't need to know how far the wind goes to believe that it will matter. So start flapping.
Yeah, that's fantastic. So we say at the beginning of our mission statement, we want to make the world a better place to be. I think you kind of have that mission as well. You're well on the way. How do you think about the future in terms of how John O'Leary can continue this great story of changing the world.
Going back to the butterfly effect, the greatest leaders among us of all time very seldom start with armies. They very seldom get seeded with 36,000 employees immediately. It's normally one, then two, then three, and then 36,000.
So I believe in dreaming big, but playing small to get there. And being totally humble about it, hard-working about it, faithful about it. And believing that the little things we do today, will have a profound ripple effect tomorrow.
So how? I hope the book gets out there, I hope it touches lives. We have a media channel that's beginning to grow, I hope that touches lives. I hope speaking continues to influence lives. And I hope the little things we say, the little seeds we plant, will take sprout in someone else's field, and that they will go on and do remarkable things in their lives. I have absolute faith in that.
Yeah, you should have faith in that. It definitely made my day. You're getting ready to make the day for 120 of our top leaders in this company. And through this BB&T leadership series, I am certain you're going to impact hundreds of thousands of people in the not too distant future. And clearly, you will continue to help change the world.
We at BB&T are happy to join you in trying to make the world a better place to be. Thanks, John O'Leary for being with us. Hope you have a blessed day.
Kelly, thank you.
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