John O’Leary: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life
Welcome back to The Motivational Intelligence Podcast! This week, we are interviewing John O’Leary, a well-known international and inspirational speaker, podcast host, and author. When he was just a young boy, John was playing with fire and gasoline in his home and caused a major explosion that burned 100% of his body, leaving him with a 1% chance of living. With the help of his family, the hospital janitor and an incredibly positive perspective, he survived. He now inspires a great amount of people around the world to go beyond just “living.” His podcast, “Live Inspired,” is in the top 20 of the business category in Apple Podcasts and his book “On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life” was an instant #1 best seller, selling more than 40,000 copies in less than a year!
John’s story will inspire and change the way simple aspects of everyday life are looked at. This grateful, optimistic perspective all started when he was first in the hospital after the accident and his mom asked him if he wanted to live or die. “I want to live. I want to live vibrantly. I want to impact lives,” he says. John does that every single day and it’s evident even in the way he speaks. He even takes time each day to write a list of things he is grateful for daily, something he highly recommends everyone does. “Every single day of your life, what if you began not by checking your phone, but by watching the sunrise and asking the question, ‘why me?’’ he says.
Tune in and find out more about how YOU can live inspired and prepare to be blown away by John’s incredible journey in episode 25 “John O’Leary: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life.” As always, be sure to check us out on social media and let us know what you think!
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John O’Leary: The Seven Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life
David Naylor: Well, hello everybody. We have a fantastic podcast today. We’ve got a very, very neat gentleman on many, many levels with us. So, this past August, I was working with one of our clients and one of their executives had handed me a book at the end of a session. The book was entitled ““On Fire”: The Seven Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life”
The title kind of grabbed me right out of the gate. And so, I came back home and it just so happened that the week after that, I was taking off to spend some time with my wife and kind of wrap up our summer. So, I had a chance to sit down and read through the book.
It was authored by a gentleman, John O’Leary, who has one of the most incredible stories that I certainly have heard this year and perhaps have heard in a long, long time. So, the book is a number one best seller. It is a sold more than 120,000 copies been printed in 20 different languages.
We’ll put a link to it in the show notes in case you’re interested. And I’ll give you a little background on John as well. John has one of the top rated, in fact, I think it’s in their top 20 rated podcasts on iTunes it’s called “Live Inspired.” It has a very broad online following, more than 200,000 people.
He also speaks around the world and has spoken to more than 1,600 different organizations and one of the things I think is most unique about him, and made me smile when I read it is, that even given all of those great successes, he considers his greatest success his marriage to his wife to Beth and to his four great children.
You can tell a little bit about the man’s character just from that side of things. So, John welcome to the podcast!
John O’Leary: David, that was beautifully done. I’m really grateful and for those who have not met my wife, maybe not my kids, that is the greatest success of my life. I am a proud father of four and incredibly grateful that this girl, that I’m wild about, said yes to me 17 years ago. So I’m glad you started there.
David Naylor: There you go. Well, we were joking before we got started that one of the greatest successes of most men is the fact that somehow, they managed to convince the women that marry them, to marry them. So, you and I were pretty good sales guys in that regard, I guess!
John O’Leary: I don’t know if I could sell well in the marketplace, but I certainly sold above my pay grade on this one. And my buddies who like football referred to it as, “I’ll kick in the coverage.” So, I’ll kick the coverage in every imaginable way and just thank you also for having me on your show, Dave, and I’m a big fan and looking forward to following your lead today.
David Naylor: There you go. Well, fantastic. Well, John, in reading the book, there was a couple of things that jumped out to me. And I thought it was a great way to start off our conversation today. One of the things that I’ve often noticed in people is, you can tell a lot about a person’s awareness level, about how intuitive they are, how tuned in they are based upon the caliber of the questions that they asked.
What I find so curious is, you start in the book, the title of each of the chapters is questioning and your mom was one of those people who, I remember in reading the book almost right in the beginning, she asked one of the single most profound questions that I was just struck by how aware she had to be to have asked it in such an incredibly.
Oh, probably the single most difficult time that a parent can ever be in. And she asked you the question, “Do you want to live or do you want to die John?” Tell us a little bit about what led up to that question?
John O’Leary: Yes, so it is a beautiful question and it’s so stark so that I believe, and I don’t have the copy in front of me, I believe chapter one is called, “Do you want to die?”
Which is such a stark, shocking title, like subtitle for a book that is essentially all about life “On Fire” is 100% unapologetically selling life, selling possibilities, selling potential, and selling connectivity. So, in your journey going forward and yet, chapter one is, “do you want to die?”
So, like there’s your question. Why that question? Well, at age nine I was involved in a house fire and ended up blowing up a can of gasoline in my face that launched me 20 feet against the far side of the garage, set my world “On Fire”, trapped me in the corner of this garage. Eventually burns off one 100% of my skin.
Twenty minutes later, I find myself in the emergency room. I’m looking around, I don’t know anybody around me. I don’t know really where I am. I’ve never been there before. I’m looking down at my hands that no longer looked like my hands, my body that no longer looks like my body. I’m in intense pain, like wildly intense pain, and then my mother comes in and I have all these emotions going on, but mostly it’s around fear.
Like I just, I don’t know how she’s going to react. I don’t know how others will react to me. I’m not sure if I am going to live. I’m not sure if I want to live. There’s, I like division there and she walks in, she takes my hand in hers. She pats my bald head and she goes, baby, look at me. I love you.
And it’s like if the storm just blew away, like settled me for a moment. So, I looked up at my mother and I said, mom, knock it off with the love. Am I going to die? Am I going to die? And when I asked the question, David, I assume she would say, no, baby, you are fine. We are going to get you out of here today.
We’re going to swing you through Steak and Shake on the way home. Don’t worry about death. We’re going to move on, move forward. But instead, she did not give me false hope. She gave me truth, which is so important to provide those around us in life. Just honest truth. She looked at me in the eyes, my hands still on hers, and she said to me very sweetly, but seriously, “baby, do you want to die? It’s your choice. It’s not mine.” And I looked up at my mom and I said, “mom, I don’t want to die. I want to live. I want to live.” And her response was, “Thank God. Take the hand of God. You walk the journey with him and you fight like you’ve never ever fought before. Your father and I will be with you, John, but you got to want this thing. You’ve got to want this thing bad.”
And on that day, it was January 17th, 1987, my mother was to my right. Then my father steps in and he’s to my left. We made a decision as a family to fight forward together and that question, “do you want to die?” It’s so stark and so difficult, but I think we need to be able to answer that question.
For those of us who are ignoring the way we eat or drink or smoke or treat our spouse or handle our singleness or show up at work or show up in our spiritual journey. I think in one way or another we’re answering that question. But “do you want to die?” with a passive shrug the shoulders, man, I’m no longer shrugging my shoulders.
I don’t want to die. I want to live. I want to live vibrantly. I want to impact lives. I want to be an awesome spouse. I want to be a great dad. I want to be someone that you love having on your podcast, David, and you want to bring back. I want to touch lives through mine. And so. I no longer shrug my shoulders when someone says, “do you want to die, or do you want to live?” I know the answer, but I think it’s important, as we journey through life that all of us are able to know the answer to and then show up in that answer every day of our lives thereafter.
David Naylor: Yeah, and I think you said it so well. That so many people, it’s not a conscious choice, and by not making a choice, they really are making a choice.
John O’Leary: That’s right.
David Naylor: They walk through each day. They make shortsighted decisions. They don’t really think about the impact or the difference that they can have on the world around them. They just get through the day and I think that’s the difference between “a life lived” and “a life well lived.”
So, John, you’re coming through a situation. My wife’s a labor and delivery nurse and we talked a little bit about when she was going through nursing school, she had to do one of the, they rotate through different areas of the hospital.
So, she spent time in a burn unit. And so, I asked, “tell me about that experience, tell me about what you saw there” and she said, “it is one of the worst things that can happen to a person.” And to your point earlier, the most painful.
So, the battle that you had. In terms of your mom, she asked you that question, “do you want to die?” And by consciously putting a stake in the ground and saying, “no,” she set you up for that fight coming back. So, tell us a little bit about the fight coming back and what you learned through that experience.
John O’Leary: So, there’s a book called ““On Fire”” that I wrote three years ago. When I submitted the manuscript and the thing gets published, they go through a whole bunch of processes to kind of “clean it up a little bit,” but mostly to get branded up, if you will, to make a brand ready. And they sent me back the cover and it was a picture of me on the front of this book, my arms crossed kind of smuggling, looking at the reader.
So, I sent an email back and I said “did you guys read the book before you design the cover? Cause the book has nothing to do with the guy who wrote it. And it has everything to do with the people who are about to read it.” The reason that matters is because I think sometimes we learn lessons through our own intuition and our own wisdom, but most of the time, at least my experience has been, we learn it by someone showing up and kind of guiding us forward.
It could be a coach, it could be a rabbi, a pastor, a nurse, like your beautiful wife. It could be a whole lot of people, the book “On Fire”, and then the stories that have grown out since then, individual after individual, after individual showing up in a little boy’s life and guiding him forward to a possibility of a life journey that he could not yet see for himself.
And so, I have been blessed mightily to have remarkable people show up in my life and cast a vision for where I could go. We could spend an awful lot of time unpacking individual cases, whether they’re janitors who changed my life. The most important person in the burn center is the custodian.
The most important person by far is not the CEO of the hospital. It’s not the physician. It is actually the janitor, the guy, the lady who goes into the corner, gets the dirt, gets rid of it once and for all or chooses not to. And either way they’re going to get up out of a minimum wage paycheck for their efforts.
My janitor, his name was Lavelle, changed my life. He shaped the arc of my life. He became a dear friend during those five months in the hospital, and he had a team around some of other CNS and RNs and PTs and OTs, speech therapists, chaplains. The entire team. It took a village. Probably my favorite character shows up the day after I got burned.
His name was Jack Buck. He’s the announcer for the St. Louis Cardinals, and when he walked into my room, David, what he did not know, he was walking into his, I’m the biggest single Cardinals fan out there. I’m his biggest fan, although we’d never met, I’m tied onto a hospital, but at age nine it’s a very painful situation.
My eyes are swollen shut, so I can’t do anything with my eyes and my throat has a trachea in it, so I can’t even talk. But I could listen and into this difficult, painful situation comes the one voice outside of my family. The one voice that might bring light. And on that day, day one and a half of recovery, Jack Buck says to me, “kid, wake up. Wake up, you are going to live, you are going to survive. And when you get out of here, we are going to celebrate, we’ll call it John O’Leary day at the ballpark.” And then as soon as he walks out, he’s told by the staff that I’m going to die. There’s no chance. He goes home and journals on his favorite question, which we can come back to later on if you’d like.
The question is, “what more can I do?” What more can I do? And the following day, a little boy named John O’Leary on a Monday morning is dying in the hospital bed by himself. When a stranger walks in, now for a second time, and says the sentence, “Kid, wake up. I’m back. You are going to live, you’re going to survive. Keep fighting. John O’Leary day at the ballpark. We’ll make it all worthwhile.” So, what I’m hoping to convey to you and your listeners is, the greatest gift that I received was the truth. That I could not do this journey through life by myself. I needed the janitor. I needed the custodian. I needed the transporters. I needed the nurses, including your wife. I needed the entire village, including my family. I needed God’s grace and on the other side of the Hill, I looked back so grateful for all that I went through. It’s led me perfectly to where I am today, but I would have never got here by myself.
David Naylor: Yeah. I think that everybody in life can teach you something if you’re willing to open your mind and listen and learn from them. And whether it’s in their words or whether it’s in the lessons of what they do, what Lavelle did in terms of making sure that the room was clean, it was sterile, and that you weren’t getting infections because of that.
And that was one of the things that was so interesting to me, John, is that it was really in reading your book, that those stories and those people, that it really jumped out at me. And, and it was, it made each one of those seven choices. I think it brought life to them for me at any way as a reader.
So maybe one of the neat things to do as we’re talking today is this, to go through those seven choices and the people who helped to shape those choices in your own mind and the difference that those choices can make in the minds of all the folks who are listening today.
The first chapter in the book, the choices about entitlement versus owning it. And that is, we talk a lot with groups about that “victim mentality” that people have and the willingness to point fingers and place blame and make excuses and rationalize why something can’t get done or it isn’t doable.
And I thought it was interesting that that was the first session, because it’s so aligned with what we talk about as well, is that you can’t build anything on that victim mentality, but you can build an empire on ownership and conveyed it. So, on the book, when you talked about coming home from the hospital and share with us, if you will, as you’re sitting at the dinner table, what your mom did.
John O’Leary: Such a good question. I’m really glad you asked. And chapter one was originally chapter two until about a week before the deadline.
David Naylor: And what happened?
John O’Leary: I’m a speaker, leadership teacher, writer and podcast host. I got laryngitis and it was bad. So, for about six days I just could not communicate. So that was really it. Tough time on many levels, but I can’t use my voice at all. And it forced me, what a gift this is, it forced me to reflect on a whole lot of things, including this book that I was working on. And I realized that chapter one was actually not the way to open the book.
It’s the way to wrap up the book. It’s the stories that my dad and love and what that can do for us as we motivate going forward. So, that’s where the book eventually ends up. But that moved chapter two up. Which became this idea of beginning with this beautiful question, “do you want to die or do you want to live?”
Do you want to be entitled your whole life or do you want to be accountable your whole life? And the question you specifically asked was about the dinner table. My mother, my mother is one of the great heroes within the story, and on the day I came home from hospital, she is seated to my right.
She’s made my favorite meal. We’ve had the party. We’re celebrating the outcome of five months of all of us rolling up our sleeves and working and praying and fighting together. Now we’re home. She made my favorite meal. One of my sisters is scooping the food toward my mouth. And for your listeners, you may not know this yet, but I don’t have fingers.
They were amputated when I was in hospital. I can’t hold anything in my hands. Obviously, I’ll never be able to hold anything and as my sister is moving a fork with food toward my mouth, my mother says, “Amy, drop that fork. If John, your brother is hungry, he’s going to feed himself.” But you’re talking, kind of blowing up the victim mindset.
Well, this is a mighty explosion, but at first, I don’t think she’s blown it up. I think she’s ruining dinner. And she did, without a doubt, unequivocally. She ruined dinner that night for all of us. I flipped a plate. Later on, she made it up again. I flipped it a second time. There’s tears.
There’s yelling at the table. The night ends though with the mother to her sons, right? I’m to our left. I’m in a wheelchair and I figured out a way finally to push a fork between my two hands. I’m scooping up potatoes on my own. I’m moving them toward my mouth on my own, and I’m giving my mom a death look.
Yeah. Like, mom, I hate you. One of those looks. But the important part about that story is I see it a meeting. I’m feeding myself. I’m owning what I can. I’m refusing to live in the misery of yesterday and there is a lot of us, man, listen to your podcast and not today, who live stuck in the root of reliving what they’ve already weathered.
They’re stuck. They live in the regrets and the mistakes and the brokenness and the amputations of yesterday, and the beautiful thing about my mom, and she did it for me that night and many nights sense. She had this really bold, loving approach that demanded accountability and reassurance that it may not be easy, but it is possible. So yeah, the fork story is awesome, but it’s one of many stories of her teaching me that she would not allow me to be a victim to circumstances.
David Naylor: Yeah. What an incredibly powerful lesson. And I mean, I know for myself, I can clearly think the times in my past where the past did rule my present and my future, and the depression, all of the negative that that comes out of that and how incredibly liberating it is when you finally are able to let go of that and in reality, just move forward with what’s in front of you rather than being ruled by what happened to you in your past. So, once again, it shows just how incredibly wise your mother or like was.
John O’Leary: Yeah, she an unusual character and sometimes when I talk about the story, I almost feel like I’m talking about a fable or about somebody else’s story because it’s 33 years in my rear view mirror. And yet it has influenced profoundly in my life today. It’s why you and I are on this show together. So she’s a remarkable teacher back then, but even to me as a man today.
David Naylor: Yeah. Wow. As a parent, you and I both, we recognize that our greatest legacy is that of our children and the young men and women who we raised, and the ripple effect that they go out and they make in the world.
So, she did a good job and helping that ripple be made. The second chapter, the second choice was about denial versus self-acceptance. And this is one, it’s an interesting one on many, many levels. And I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last couple of months learning about Eastern philosophy and Buddhism.
You talk a little bit about that actually in the book. And in Western psychology, we spend so much time and so much energy trying to help people to the heel themselves or to get themselves right in their head or to get themselves right physically.
It’s why we spend so much money on plastic surgery and all of the other things that we do. Trying to get to a place where we can accept ourselves and love ourselves and be happy with ourselves. Whereas in Eastern philosophy, it’s not about healing the self.
It’s about coming to love exactly who you are right now. And what was interesting for me as I was reading the book is, you more than most, I mean, you’re coming through this experience, a miracle that you lived in the first place. I think you would, I don’t know if you mentioned in the book given about a 1% chance of surviving.
So, you’ve come through. But I mean, you don’t come through that level of burns on scape. I mean, you have scars, you mentioned you don’t have fingers. I mean, every physical aspect of who we are as people.
John O’Leary: it’s different for you.
David Naylor: I have to imagine that the self-acceptance takes on a whole new level. And you could so clearly see people really pulling within themselves, who have been through something, like people pull up within themselves if they haven’t been through what you’ve been through. In the book, you talk about Dr. Davis and likely Beth your wife probably had an influence on this as well, but tell us about that process of self-acceptance and getting to the place where you were okay with who you really were.
John O’Leary: Hmm. Well, there’s another beautiful question.
There’s a lot to the answer. I would begin by saying that we, for those of us who are addicts to one thing or another, I would suggest that as every one of us, we’re all addicted to something. Just choose your poison or choose your cure. But, we are like kind of an addictive type society.
And one of the things that addicts do, is they mask up. They pretend like it’s not a problem. And so for years, man, decades really, I just covered up. I did not even look at the scars. Not even like one, I have hope and I never acknowledged them. I never talked about the scars.
For the listeners, I have burned scars from my neck to my toes, not on my face. amazingly. But every other part of my body is burned. And if you’re burned third degree, it means you have scars there forever. So, I have scars over my entire body. And the way I dealt is by ignoring and I never spoke about it.
Never really looked in the mirror at them. Later on in life, as I became a little bit more mature, if you will, but not in a healthy way, I started coping by drinking. That was a great, what a mascot. For a long time, I coped with humor and then as we kind of work our way through this recovery, when I’m like 25 years old, mom and dad wrote a book about their experience of their son, John being burned.
So, it wasn’t my story. It was mom and dad’s, but I happened to have my picture on the front of this copy. So, it kind of is my story. They printed 100 copies. They’ve sold I think 85,000 copies subsequently, and I was one of the guys lucky enough to buy a copy. I get to read this book, David.
And in reading it, it changed my life for the first time I came face to face with this thing I’d always been running from, and now it had a name. But instead of it being victim, I’ve realized that this thing actually was a gift. I know it sounds odd, but it led to character. It led to humor. It led to faith. It led to connectivity with my family. It led to chance encounters with amazing individuals from around the world. It led to where I went to college, which led to a chance encounter with a brunette, named Elizabeth grace, which led to four kids later on. So, the best of my life today was actually the result of something tragic.
And I never took time to identify that. And not only that, but I’d always thought that would happen to me as a kid. Those scars, that fire, that pain happened to me. I never once thought about what happened to my mom and dad. Like, why would I, it’s my story and then I read their pain. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, look what they went through.”
I never once thought about my sisters, Amy or Susan and what it was like for them to be ages eleven and seven seeing their brother on fire in the front hall. What’s that like? What’s that scar like to not have your parents for the next five months for their navigating their brother’s recovery. And then for a couple of years of recovery afterwards, whether they’re taking them to doctor’s appointments and around the country, what’s it like to lose your parents and have all the attention on brother John. And yet they never complained. And not only did they not complain, they celebrated. So, they were like champions in the story, and I never even saw them as such.
So eventually I come full circle and this thing that I’d always run from, I began to embrace and it’s why I start slowly speaking. My first audience was three girl Scouts. If you can imagine, it grew a little bit from there. We’ve spoken live to I think more than 2 million people, in 50 States and 20 countries since, but it’s started at home with the ability to look in the mirror and not resent what you see and then eventually to love what you see and to be able boldly to share what you see with those around you.
David Naylor: Wow. I remember years ago, somebody gave me a wonderful piece of advice and as it related to professional speaking, and so many people their number one fear is getting up in front of an audience and for fear of being judged or the fear that they’re going to make mistakes or it looks stupid or whatever else, it might be rolling around in their head, but the advice they gave me is that you never truly become a great speaker until you can let go of yourself and write about the message.
John O’Leary: That’s awesome.
David Naylor: And I think that’s such a love the way that you put that, John, because we step back and we look at all the great things in our lives and all the great things that happen. They have happened to us. And to be able to recognize that, it’s the sum total of everything that you’ve been through in your life. That has brought you to this glorious place that you are right now and had it not been for those things, you wouldn’t be standing where you are right now.
John O’Leary: And so, man, I appreciate you saying it like that and saying it better than I could have ever imagined saying it.
But the truth is, we all have a story like that, and it’s not as dramatic sometimes as the gasoline explosion and the recovery that followed, but all of the experiences from yesterday have formed and moved as perfectly and very intentional with that word. Perfectly to where we are today and we can grimace and bemoan and be angry about it, or we can finally go and back to your Buddhist friends, and accept it. And when you jump into the river and float with it, it’s wild how we can not only better enjoy the journey, but influence and impact those around us. So that’s what I’ve learned in the 20 or so years since I began embracing the story and really just celebrating where I am, rather than fearing where I am.
David Naylor: Yeah. And it’s such a powerful story and that really so nicely leads to what you do and the purpose really behind it. And so, the third lesson in the book was, or choice in the book was, that between indifference versus purpose.
And earlier you mentioned Lavelle and the difference that, him having that sense of purpose made and I think in the book you made a reference to somebody who would ask you, “if would you do it all like.” And what would you response to that?
John O’Leary: So just, it’s ironic you asked that because very recently I had the opportunity of being on stage with Dave Ramsey and there were 10,500 people in this theater. Dave Ramsey’s a financial guru and a huge radio personality. Great network, trying to encourage people to not only live within their means, but to have a cause for their lives.
I think many of us don’t because of that. We wonder why debt won’t make us feel better. You mentioned earlier plastic surgery. We wonder why do we still feel old if we just had surgery to raise our cheekbones? Like why? Why is this not working for us? And so, I think Dave better than many, gets to the heart of “why we have this gaping hole and how we can begin filling it.” And he’s specifically focused on financial wisdom, but it’s much more than that. And he asked the question of being in front of all these folks that, “if you could go back in time and blow out the flame. Would you do it? Would you take away the pain and the scars and the struggle?”
And I would let your listeners think about that for a moment. If you could go back and take away the worst and it was a bad story. And David, just between us and your listeners, like the rowdies man, I’m still in pain. You don’t ever 100% fully recover from a burn experience. It’s with me every single day physically.
But my answer today, even my answer to his listeners, and now my answer to yours is, “no I wouldn’t want to change a thing.” That story, like you said a moment ago, led perfectly to where I am. And if I go around changing all the bad and there’s a lot, I also have to accept the fact that I’m going around changing all the good of today.
All of it, you and me being on this call, this book, on other touching lives all around the world. As you and I record this podcast, I’m in my office. I’m staring up at this wall. On one side of my office is a wall of my family. It’s my parents, my siblings, my grandparents, my wife, our kids. It’s great.
So sometimes while you’re asking me questions, I look at these little faces and I’m like, dude, this is my life. I cannot believe this is my life. And if I go around blowing out the bad, I also have to expect and accept that I’m blowing out all the good too. And so, I would encourage your listeners who are thinking they wish they could go back in time to considered making lists daily of reasons why they ought to be grateful every single day of your life. What if you began out by checking your phone for emails or what Trump tweeted out yesterday, or what someone else said yesterday, or some other war that started somewhere else in the war? Like now, what if instead you began by watching that sunrise and ask the question, why me?
And see if that list doesn’t grow from day to day? So, if as we try to build emotional resiliency into our journey forward. Maybe there’s not anything stronger to do exactly that thing. Gratitude.
David Naylor: No, it’s interesting. My wife is a big yoga practitioner and through the years has encouraged me to meditate, which is something that I’ve gotten more and more into this year and gratitude’s, it’s a decidedly big piece of that.
And it was recently, I was listening to another podcast and they talked about one of the, it was interesting enough, I think it was one of Peter TIAs, and he was talking with a gentleman who was a sleep expert and a was given advice about how you sleep better, one of the things he talked about was before you go to bed, taking a few moments and just go through and really thinking about what were the things that you are grateful for throughout the course of the day and about how that literally affects the brainwaves that people have as they’re going to sleep. And thus, the quality of the sleep that they have.
So, I think gratitude plays a huge role. And so often people pay a lot of attention to the bad things that happen to them, but not nearly enough to the great things that do.
John O’Leary: So last night, I was not keeping a gratitude journal next to me. I was in a hotel room and head off. What was the movie? Some war movie, some movie with a lot of violence and it’s on one of the shows. I’m watching this thing to its completion, and when I finally turned the TV off and go to bed, the scenes from that movie kept staying in my head, and I’m not this purist that says, if it’s a higher than G, I won’t watch it. I’m very realistic, have a wonderful life. But I’m also open to learning from people who see life very differently than I, but there is no doubt last night that my brain was focused on these scenes. So, I bring this back to your listeners. If the last thing you’re watching before you go to bed is the 10 o’clock news, what you should know about that, is 96% of those news stories are going to be negative. They’re going to tell you about puppy mills and fires and murders and conflict in tweets and disagreements. Politically, they’ll keep you on the line for sports and weather, although they won’t tell you how good things are. They’re going to tell you there’s a new storm on the rise and then you go to bed and that is going to influence how you sleep. So, I would encourage me and then all of your listeners to choose wisely what you’re paying attention to before you go to bed, because it’s going to impact your evening, which is going to impact profoundly your following day.
David Naylor: That’s exactly right. So, John, let me ask you this. And you decidedly follow a higher purpose in life, you give back, you make a difference in the lives of millions of individuals. So, your life has a very grand purpose for so many individuals as they’re going through, they don’t have a story like yours. They haven’t experienced the things that you’ve experienced, but yet purpose in their lives is no less important. So how does one, how would you advise somebody to really go about finding that sense of purpose and living with that being top of mind every day.
John O’Leary: Awesome. So, it might be the question that we should be talking about,
Why does purpose matter and how do we unpack it, discover it and live into it?”
What I would begin with was suggesting, you don’t need to be a bestselling author to touch lives and you don’t need to have a podcast to influence someone else and you don’t need to have been burned or whatever else. The big story is that, we’re going to use as our anchor story to elevate those around us through seemingly insignificant action, we change the arc of someone else’s story, including our own. And so the, the primary reason, if you get down to it that I wrote the book “On Fire” and that I did not put my picture on the front of it, is to ensure that people reading this book have recognized the power of the “Lavelle’s” in life.
And you’ve used the name Lavelle twice. I’ve used it twice now. Lavelle’s a minimum wage janitor, seemingly a dead-end job. Two bus routes to get to work, minimum wage and come overlooked, underappreciated, just the bottom of the rung. And yet, and this is not me speaking in hyperbole, it’s me being honest. He might be the most important person in my entire book, in my entire life. We have an ability in our lives daily to elevate forever the life of someone else through, look at the barista at the coffee shop in the morning, through the way we wave someone in front of us at the stop sign that they can make the turn before we do to the way we, we decided to serve.
Man, I’m, I’m done with people saying I got no friends. I’m isolated. And it’s like, have you ever thought about volunteering? Have you ever thought about engaging with a self-help group that you can meet with weekly and really keep this journey going forward? There’s a group that I’m involved with called “Big Brothers, Big Sisters.”
Currently in St. Louis alone, there are 1,600 kids on the waiting list. So, if you’re listening to this in St Louis, call today, they’ll match you up. But I’m telling you, anywhere you’re listening to my voice right now, there is need for love. It is dire and you can be that love. You have a purpose. So now it might be okay, so I get that, “John, how do I find it?” The question I asked myself and I encourage our listeners to ask themselves is, why should I choose to thrive each day? Like, why get out of bed? Why show up? Why wave that person in line in front of me? Why are you being nice to the barista?
Why serve as a big brother, big sister? Why is say for a day bigger than today? Why not just, , spend it all today because tomorrow’s not happening. Why do this stuff? And the answer to that begins with a statement. I choose to thrive because_______. So, I really encourage your listeners right now to write down that statement.
“I choose to thrive because_____” and then fill in the blank and I’ll take a couple of minutes. Take a sip of wine instead of coffee, whatever’s in front of you, cross it off. Write it down again. I choose to thrive because, and after you read it, if you yawn, burn that piece of paper and try again. I choose to thrive because eventually you will read something that will explain to you why you get up early, why you work like a dog, why you play like a puppy.
What are you, recognize that your life matters and sort of the lives of those that you encounter throughout your day. I’ll share mine just as an example. But the homework assignment is for everybody to come up with their own. And so the reason I got out of bed early this morning, and I will stay up late tonight, and I will love people all day long along the way, and that the reason I said yes to this opportunity to be on your show, and the reason I’m going to sit back later on and begin working on the show notes for my own live inspired podcast is this, “I choose to thrive because God demands it. My family deserves it and the world is start for it.”
Let’s go! I’m going to say that one more time. “John O’Leary chooses to thrive everyday even when he’s physically unwell, even when he’s emotionally not up for it today, even when he’s jet lagged or whatever else, I choose to thrive because God demands it. My family deserves it and the world is start for it.”
And so that’s why I parent the way I do. It’s why I love my mom and dad the way I do. It’s why I’m trying to be as vulnerable as I possibly can with you, David, today as I possibly can be. That’s why I love people in front of me in lines. It changes the interactions and I think it changes what happens afterwards.
David Naylor: Wow. The story, I think it was from the Dow where they talked about, the way you change a world is like dropping a pebble into a still pond and how you cast those concentric rings outward and as you’re talking, what goes through my mind, and I’m dating myself a little bit with the story, but I remember years ago, I was I was driving the car and I was listening to one of the Nightingale Conant, a tape series from Ken Blanchard. In there, he talked about every day and every opportunity, and in every moment, we have the chance to bring more love or more hate into the world and it’s always stuck with me.
You think about those simple day to day decisions, holding the door for somebody, your point, letting somebody in in traffic, telling somebody that, “I really like the jacket you’re wearing today,” or just complimenting them on something and you think about all of the opportunities that each of us have, regardless of what we do, to bring more love into the world and how different the world would look if everybody lived to that purpose.
John O’Leary: Yeah, so this morning, early, I have a buddy in Florida named Andy Andrews. Andy is a prolific author, a big-time speaker and a really good guy. And a couple of years ago he wrote a book called, “How Do You kill 60 Million People?” And it was basically the story of Nazi Germany. Maybe people forget, maybe they don’t forget but Germany is a beautiful, wonderful liberally minded, conservative, Christian, love-based community. It’s progressive. It’s all these beautiful things. How did the German people at that time kill 60 million people? How is this possible? And it comes down to this one at a time, one at a time, one line at a time, one person backing down when they could have stepped forward at a time.
One negative voice stepping forward when he could have been put down early in the day at a time. And so, one at a time for better and for worse, we changed the world. And so, your pebble example from the dial, that’s not just what, that’s a cute example. I’ll throw one starfish back today. No, this is true.
You change the world and it’s always been done this way. One life at a time. And the thing is, there are no passive participants. If you decide, John, I’m not playing well, then you are playing, and you’ve already opted into how you’re going to decide to change the world. We already know how the collateral damage from your life.
The cool thing about your podcast is the people listening to your voice are choosing, they’re opting in to progressively make the world a better place, starting with the ones at home. That’s awesome. It’s inspiring. It’s encouraging. It’s unpopular. But it’s important. I’m really honored to be part of your show now!
David Naylor: Well, and know to your point, it’s the curse of indifference. Everybody thinking that it’s somebody else who’s going to fix things and somebody else who’s going to make it better. And for those people that are standing on the sidelines, waiting for somebody to else to make their world better, hopefully they own some really comfortable shoes because they’ll sit in there for a long time.
But, the difference that they can make and making the lives of all of everybody around them. So now, I’m sitting here with a huge smile on my face because just listening to the passion in your voice and in the congruentcy behind your words you live, what you speak to, and it’s comes through so loud and clear.
John O’Leary: Let me just make sure it’s clear. I am no saint man. I try to share the stories of others doing it well, and then I try to quietly follow suit. So, I mentioned earlier that I’m looking at this wall right now, my kids, if I peer turn to my left a little bit, which I am literally doing right now, I see a wall of people that I’ve interviewed on our podcast.
Astronauts, authors, guys who take a couple of hundred dollars to fly to Africa and dig Wells, magicians, musicians, inmates, like you name the kind of trade professionally, we got them up on the wall, but ultimately these are ordinary people that decided to do one thing. And then do another thing and then do another thing.
And in doing these things, they change the world. So, these folks stare down at me all day while I’m working, reminded me that ordinary people can in fact make a difference.
And then if I look a little bit farther to my left on the third wall, I have a picture of mother Teresa holding a child, a guy from Latin America named Oscar Romero who lost his life because he fought for children. He fought for the poor. There’s a picture of Abraham Lincoln with a son. We forget that Abraham Lincoln was a dad. Like these are just ordinary people with their kids. He also lost his life fighting a battle first of all, and bigger than itself. There’s a picture of Martin Luther King down there holding his daughter.
It’s a beautiful picture. Her face just radiates joy and you see the father’s gentle touch. Above them all, is this picture of the prodigal son, this picture of a broken down board coming home to his dad being loved. And so, I try to surround myself in this office of individuals throughout history, in my family, and today walking around among us who are showing us a better way to walk forward because one person can change the world.
And man, I want to do this. I don’t want it to be my voice or my hands that change the world, but I want to want to become part of the team that does exactly that.
David Naylor: Yeah, there’s a wonderful quote, unfortunately, I’m forgetting who is attributed to right now, but the quote I remember seeing on a poster one time was “never doubt that a group of committed, dedicated individuals can change the world. A small group can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
John O’Leary: It’s Margaret Mead and it’s a quote I love, and it’s so true and too easily forgotten.
David Naylor: Thank you. John, the next decision in the chain, we’ve talked a little bit about, is choosing to, whether you want to be a victim or a victory, you talk about another one of your doctors and the difference that he made throughout the journey.
And it was interesting because, in that chapter that the two things I thought about afterwards was gratitude, which we’ve talked a little bit about and even stoicism men, and about accepting what life has really given to you, and then trying to find what is the upside or what really is the positive of that?
And for all of those people, sadly, I think our society does a wonderful job in perpetuating a victim mindset. How would you advise or how would you help somebody to recognize if they were trapped in that cycle and to break out of it.
John O’Leary: So early in our conversation, we talked about awareness and how unaware I was to such a degree. I did not even know what I didn’t know. I mean, how do, what you don’t know? And so, I would ask individuals to measure, but thoughtfully, how would they rate their days, good or bad, one to 10 and if you start seeing this progression of lousy day after lousy day after lousy day, I would consider that a trend and I would start paying attention to it.
And conversely, if you start seeing day after day, man, I’m killing it. I’m killing it. A nine out of 10, 10 out of 10, eight out of 10, nine out of 10, I would call that a trend and I would congratulate you on doing this well, and ask yourself, “so what can you do to make it even better?”
But both examples, I think give you an opportunity to recognize that where things are aren’t, where they need to stay, that a nine out of 10 can become a 10 out of 10, that a 10 out of 10 can share that with those around us. And that a two out of 10 does not delay there forever. There are periods of time when you lose someone or something close to you where you should absolutely stay on the path.
So, I would never preach Pollyanna gospel, where always walk into the room with a smile on your face as you bury a loved one. I think that’s a grand lie, but I also think many of us stay on the mat because the weather’s crappy three days in a row now. It’s been rainy here or I haven’t got all the dreams that I wanted to achieve in my life, and so my life just isn’t what I thought I would account, what I would measure up to, or I had a credit childhood at some point.
At some point, we’ve got to decide it’s my life and I choose to do better. You can’t always choose the path that you walk in life, but you can choose the manner in which you step forward that that is, that is on us. I learned this firsthand from my dad. I shared this story with a group of inmates in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas of how my dad embraces Parkinson’s disease.
This is a guy today that can’t speak, can’t work, can’t earn, can’t stand, can’t try, “I can’t do anything.” And yet he’s the most joyful, 10 out of 10 guy. I know he’s an amazing guy, and so I’m sharing with these folks who are behind bars for the rest of their lives. The story of my father’s gratitude.
And so, I said, “Hey guys, make a list of things you’re grateful for.” For being at Fort Leavenworth and it seems to like, “oh dude, this is not going to go well man. Hopefully you had some guards up there, but I gave him a couple of minutes. I came back, I had said, “Hey, anybody want to share?”
And of course in this leadership group, everybody wearing orange, nobody wanted to share. And then I said, “Hey, anybody want to share, I’ll give you a free book.” And so finally I got racist, his hand stands up, and then he says to me, “John, I’ll share. Not one damn thing.” And then he sits down and all the other inmates in this room laugh.
So what he’s grateful for being in Fort Leavenworth, not one damn thing. So I said, “okay, thank you for that. Anybody else? Anybody else?” And in the back of the room was a guy with kind of Sandy, rusty hair long in the back, and he said, “I’ll share.” And this man stood and shared a list, and I don’t have them all written down, but I believe there were 43 items on that list that he came up with in three minutes.
So, part of the list were things like “three square meals, a soft bed, air in the summer. Heat in the winter, the library once a week, access to the internet, the opportunity of redemption, mail day twice a week,” and he kept going on and on and all on about the blessings that this guy had. He sits down, and when the man sat down, the entire room rose to their feet.
So, when the first man mocked this, how crappy everything is, everyone laughed at him and life will do this. So, laugh with us. They’ll watch a Dallas Housewife or LA Housewives and they’ll laugh at how horrible their lives are.
And we’d laugh with it. But I think when you see someone stand up and say, it’s not perfect, but it’s good. Let me give you some examples. We don’t see it a lot, and yet when we do, it’s worth giving a standing ovation too. I think that’s what that band reveal that day. Yes, he found 43 things to be grateful for his time in Fort Leavenworth, but it’s much more than that.
Any fool can tell us how bad the world is, and if you watch your evening news tonight, you’ll see example of it after example after example of it. I encourage you. Instead, walk outside, look at the stars, look at the stars, look at the moon, listen to the trees, blow in the wind, and then come back inside and tell me how crappy life is.
You get to choose your perspective. You don’t have to, but realize if you choose not to choose, you’re choosing. And I just encourage your listeners to choose. Like the second end, they choose like my dad. He was like those great people who’ve come before us just to be victors. It’s going to change the way you experienced life.
David Naylor: Wow. You don’t mind? Unfortunately, my father is a very much along the same pathway that yours is and on, and so it’s difficult watching your parents get old. It’s difficult watching them battle the things that they are, but you’re right, there’s decidedly different ways to do it.
And it’s funny cause I had to smile to myself. I remember you and I were on the phone here, I don’t know, maybe a month or so ago. And it, it just so happened to be the first day that we had snow here in Rochester, New York,
And I was looking out the window, it was beautiful, but nonetheless, it was early to have snow and ice. I remember making some remark about the first snowfall of the season or something like that. And I loved your response. You immediately came back and you said, “Oh, isn’t that wonderful?” He goes, “you should put some shorts on and go out there and dance in it.”
And it instantly told me a ton about you, that you just immediately went there, and I think it’s been proven now that, the human mind has a negative bias. It’s a negative bias that we inherited through the course of evolution because it kept the species alive.
But that doesn’t mean, that even though the mind tends to grab those negative things more readily and may well have served our ancestors 10,000 years ago, that we need to grab onto it so much now.
John O’Leary: I totally agree with you and I think where we can begin pushing it back in.
The reason I responded in the way that I did to you a month ago is because I think we also talked about kids and how kids are crazy. Like when they see snow, it’s like, “Yes snow day!” and they’re outside shoveling, playing and then we see it and we’re like, “Oh dang, snow coats, gloves, scarves, misery, traffic.” So children have this mindset. In fact, I’m working on a book right now about how to return to being child, like in the way we lead forward. Because kids know how to handle snow and they know how to handle delays. They know how to dance in the rain, and they do so unapologetically.
And I think you’re right, the human brain tends toward negativity. But I would also suggest through this research we’re doing, it’s learned. It is learned and if something is learned, it also means it can be unlearned. Right?
David Naylor: Well and it’s interesting. And I know we talked a little bit about the book, when you and I were chatting a while back, and I’m very anxiously actually to have a chance to read the book and hopefully you will come back and visit again when it’s coming out because I absolutely 100% agree with you.
I mean, if you look at the purity of childhood and just look at, oftentimes we’ll talk about children and when they’re learning the walk and that willingness to fall down and to bounce right back and just constantly be learning, adapting, and keep pushing forward rather than getting down on themselves and labeling things as failures and, “Oh, I can’t do it,” and you think about how profoundly different life would look if we held onto that mindset that we had as children.
John O’Leary: Yeah. And when you go fishing with your family and you’ve taken away your cell phone and the headlines and debt and everything else that you carried out there, and your father’s Parkinson’s and all this weight, and you just spend time outside with family or friends, or even on your own.
Frequently, all that noise fates that the problem we have as a society is that we don’t do this anymore. We are tethered to technology, which is beautiful man. Like you and I are on it right now. We’re using it for good, but I think we become married to it. Detrimental level, and so we’ve got to turn the technology off.
We’ve got to leave the cell phone behind. We’ve got to shut the computer screen from time to time. Quit watching the evening news and engage with nature. They call it forest bathing, engage in life, engage the way that children do naturally. Nothing drives me crazy, this might have a couple of your listeners turned me off, then when you see like a really young child already on technology and I don’t mean like a seven or eight year old’s. I mean like a year old child, like give the kid a rattle man. They don’t need an iPad with bells and whistles and move this thing over here and over there and confusing the mind and stirring up all these thoughts they don’t need yet.
Give the kid a rattle. Let the kid have some fun. Let them experience the lifestyle as it ought to be lived. There’s a reason why engineers at Google and Apple won’t let their, their kids have phones. There is a reason why. There’s a reason why. So, I would ask yourself, why would they not allow that. And maybe we should do likewise.
David Naylor: Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree. And we’re out to dinner here about two months ago, and there was two couples and a small child, maybe one or two. I mean, it’s small enough that had to be in a highchair and the couples when interacting with themselves, and every time the baby acted up, they put the iPad back in front of it. Michelle and I just looked at each other and marveled at what message is being sent there. So yeah, I wholeheartedly agree.
John O’Leary: We’ve got to do it at a totally nonjudgmental way. And judgment is one of my great senses. Like, I’m aware of my own weakness in that regards.
So, like we’ve all been there. Anyone who’s been lucky enough to be a parent themselves have had to figure out how do you cope with this thing in front of me, this child, the concern is the way we have been coping as a generation, millennials and below is just by grabbing the phone.
Grabbing the dopamine hit moving on. And yet all research is saying this is actually, it’s negatively affecting the brain. All of it. If we are then going to tether our next generation, so this at such an early age, ah, man, we’ve got to really be concerned about what kind of effect this was going to have long-term.
David Naylor: John, let me shift our gears for a second. And one of the other big characters in the book was nurse Roy. And you’ve talked about nurse Roy and kind of your stagnation versus growth in that choice that we had to make in life. And tell us a little bit about nurse and the impact that he had on you.
John O’Leary: Roy was a CNA. A CNA is a wonderful active nurse. Not at the same level, I guess, professionally as an RN. Not at the same pay grade, I guess, as an RN, but they’re the ones who directly influence the patient’s life when I was a kid.
But it may be even more so now. I think registered nurses have so many responsibilities that the direct care frequently is delivered by the CNA. It’s an incredible profession. Roy was my CNA. He was a large gentleman. He’d walk into my room every day. He’d unhooked me from the bed, I was tethered down into it.
He would pick me up in his big old bear arms, dragged him back toward the bandage change, and on the walk back he would say in this deep, loud growl, bear, roar, “boy, you are going to walk again. You might as well get used to it.” And then he dragged me on back and back then my legs, in some areas they’re burned to the bone, so I can’t bear weight, not by a long shot, and he’s inflicting pain that I feel at the time is unnecessary because I’m never going to walk.
I know that. I know I’ll never walk again. And then the following day comes back into my room and he says the same thing, “boy, you’re going to walk again. I’ll walk with you, move those legs.” It goes on, day after day, for five months in hospital, and Roy never saw me walk again. But as I have taken this podcast with you, I have a standup desk and I’m like moving around and I’m circling around like a shark around it’s prey.
This laptop in front of me, just talking to you because I love standing. I love walking, I love moving, and I’m able to do all these things because of this incredible CNA, this guy named nurse Roy. Who saw for me what I could not yet see for myself, this vision someday through bandage changes, through physical therapy, three reconstructive surgeries, through willpower, and resiliency.
This little boy with no muscle mass would eventually figure out how to put his left foot in front of us, right? And then his right in front of his left and move forward into life. And that gift of walking and the vision that led to, it wasn’t mine. That’s not the mission of a nine year old’s. That was this beautiful guy named nurse Roy, he changed my life in that powerful way.
David Naylor: When you think about that sense of purpose and the difference that somebody can make in influencing somebody else’s beliefs, even when you didn’t have that in yourself. You talked about how you knew you were never going to walk again, but because he believed that he and your belief in it.
John O’Leary: That’s right.
David Naylor: Wow. What an incredible so, so in the, in the book you, in towards the end, you mentioned that one of the organizations that you are speaking for, they had invited nurse Roy, who you hadn’t seen for years to the event. Tell us what that had to be like after all of those years to see him again.
John O’Leary: Yeah. It’s amazing. It was 2011, mid-summer 2011, and it was the year some of your listeners may remember, but there was a huge storm cell that dropped 1,000 miles of four or higher tornado damage in Alabama. So, this big storm started sweeping up in Texas, right through the Southeast and demolished Alabama, just demolished.
And I had an opportunity that summer to spend almost 30 days going community by community, through the generosity and the guidance of a company called “Alabama Power Company.” That’s their utility company down there, encouraging their employees, but also encouraging these communities that they weren’t done yet.
They weren’t done yet. It’s so on the final day of this tour, the president of the organization kind of surprised me. He said, “John, you had a nurse, you’d take your great work for you. What was his name?” And I said, “man, his name was nurse Roy. You’ve heard me tell the story 30 times now this summer.”
And he goes, “Oh, what would he say to you?” So I said, “boy, you’re going to walk again.” And then the gentleman says, “I bet it would sound a lot more like this though…” And I hear the big boom and voice of the actual nurse Roy, and he comes out saying, “boy, you are walking again. And I am proud to walk with you.”
And it was this inquiry. It’s almost like when you see someone back from the dead, if like it’s been an old friend and I’ll coach an old teacher, just someone you haven’t seen in years and you almost think like they’re not even a real person anymore. I had been trying to get in touch with them. Lost sight, could not find them. They track them down with the help of a private investigator. They fly him down. He’d never been on an airplane in his entire life. Think about that. Never been on an airplane. Fly him down to Southern Alabama. We reconnect. We had dinner together that night. They flew in my mom and dad, because the only people that Roy may have touched, it inspired more than the patients was the parents of the patient. It’s this team approach. You need to keep influencing everybody. And so we just had this incredible time reconnecting and I remember at the very end with tears in his eyes, he gave me a huge hug. He said, “I can’t tell you how much this has done for me, John, because I never realized the impact that I was making in anybody’s life.” Let alone you and you think about the impact that we have, the ability to make in our lives, whether we are educators who are in sales or in roles of leadership, or your wife, Michelle as a nurse or you, and you’re your own business. David, every day of our lives, like it or not know it or not, we are influencing those around us.
Roy did not know that. I had a picture of him from the early days still hanging on my wall at home, but he does now. But even if he never found out, I think he’s got to trust the fact that you do great work. You plant great seeds, you water them as long as you can, and then you’d leave the rest to God. You just have a little bit of faith that this is about something bigger than you.
David Naylor: Hmm. No, that’s phenomenal. Well, I mean, what a magical moment that had to be. I can’t even imagine for you and certainly for him and seeing the outcome and again, that ripple that he had made in your lives and thus in the lives of all those other people.
John O’Leary: That’s right. I mean 16 patients on the burn floor and he worked there for 17 years. You’d think about how many lives, how many visitors, how many people in the waiting room, how many parents, how many other nurses, because he’s influencing not only me, but the entire staff nurses. Unfortunately, you can ask Michelle about this one have the bad brands of eating their young. And nurse Roy refused to eat their young he insisted that these young nurses were going to change their lives, and he insists that everybody else, he had a big personality. He has this, that everybody else was going to respect these young hires. What kind of ripple effect does that have? What kind of still having on that burn center? I haven’t been back there in years, but the echo of Roy’s voice continues forward no doubt.
David Naylor: Well, the last two sections of the book, and these two really rippled with me on many, many levels. And many of my past reference points very much aligned with these.
And the second to the last was choosing, whether you choose success or significance. And, in there you told a story of Glen Cunningham and I remember years ago speaking about Glen and I didn’t know the story of him being a burn victim. I knew would short of him becoming an Olympian.
That half or that’s relatively small portion of his life. It was an incredible, incredible story. But in your book, I learned the much bigger parts of historian, and that was far greater than being an Olympian or the fastest man in the world, in his day. And really the difference between success and significance.
David Naylor: Talk to us a little bit about that
John O’Leary: And there’s so much to unpack there and when I hear you setting up that question, the first thing I’m thinking about is I can’t not believe, I cannot believe that a guy as amazing as Glen Cunningham came into my life, and even more painfully that I never talk about it from the stage.
There’s just not enough time to share all these things, stories, and there may not be a better story than the one you’re asking about right here at Glenn County.
The turn of the last century gets burned terribly. Growing up thinking Kansas maybe gets burned terribly. The doctors want to amputate his legs while they’re struggling, whether they MPS hit or not, his brother dies because his brother was also burned in this terrible school explosion.
His mother, champions them not to take the legs, eventually keeps them, recovers a little bit, learns to walk along fence posts, then jog alongside of it, and then this scar, it always hurts them.
So one way to alleviate that scarring is to stretch it. We start just by running and then he starts running to and from school, I think a four-mile run every day to and from school.
It’s a wait. Hey kids, no buses. You better get to school on time. So, this kid would run. And then it becomes a champion in high school and college goes onto the Olympics, runs the fastest mile ever, all these cool things, and then Wikipedia ends it there.
Like that’s where his success ends and if it ends there, it really is cool, it’s like enough. But, Glen comes home. I think his wife’s name was Ruth, but I could be wrong on that. They have a couple of kids and then they raised their kids with such a fairness and they’re so equitably known as just being good people that one of the judges in their County has a troubled youth and he says, “Hey, Glenn, will you and your wife raised this kid for a while? Just until we could get a better home for him.” Cunningham said yes, and it worked. And then the judge asked again and then someone else in another County learns it. They got three kids and then another, and then another. So, they’re working on this farm, and the rule for these four kids plus his own was, as long as you’re under my roof, I’m going to love you like my child. But I’m also going to hold you accountable. You’re going to be loved like my kid and you’re going to work like my kid.
And so, he just treated them all as kids. Long story made much shorter, I think by the end of his life before he and I met, he had opened his door to more than 6,000 kids. It’s an incredible story. Some of them would stay a couple of hours, some of them would stay a couple months, some a couple of years.
But this man opened wide, his home, his heart, his life to encourage these little kids who are wondering that they no longer had to search, that they at least had one place that had love as a foundational element within it.
And for me, Glen is exhibit a of what significance looks like. Yes, he’s a stud. He won Olympic medals is the fastest miler of all time. He’s financially well off in some regards at the turn of the last century. But for him it wasn’t about success. It was about using that success for a cause greater than himself. He used all of it to champion the rights of those around him to touch lives and to remind them that they were not alone. It’s, it’s a beautiful redemptive story. About a guy learning how to run the good race and up and finishing strong.
David Naylor: Yeah, earlier this week I was talking with a gentleman, a former NFL player.
And he had grown up in a very impoverished upbringing, wasn’t even a single parent household. He said his two grandmothers were really the first adults that he ever knew, and yet he managed to escape that environment and sports helped him find his way out.
And he’s now started a charity and Academy to help inner city kids. And they’ve got now several thousand children who have come through this Academy who, when they first came in many of them had 0.0 GPA. And yet, came out of high school. Many of them wouldn’t even have graduated high school, but they ultimately graduated high school with, 3.0 and 4.0 again there’s another wonderful example of choosing significance over success, and in fact, you could argue that one success really is based upon the significance of the life that they’ve lived.
John O’Leary: And they play together. And I think the goal for you, for all of us, your listeners, for you and for me is to make sure we are keeping both in front of us. It’s so easy to lose track of what matters and what success is. Success is easy. My top line revenue, and bottom line profitability dollars in the bank.
Notches on some wall and some off it, like whatever you want to measure success by. That’s easy. Significance as much more about using the gifts that you have for a cause greater than itself. And that could be a whole lot. It could be plants. Think a city garden. That’s awesome. That is, that is significant, man. It can be taken on one child. It can be opening your doors to an animal that needs a new home. It could be a whole lot of things, but it’s important, man. So yes, pursue success, but also in line with that chase significance.
David Naylor: Well, I mean, our society does a wonderful job in marketing success to us and defining for us what it should be and what it should look like so they can sell us products.
Unfortunately, as you get olderyou look around you and people get sick. And sometimes people pass away who are younger than you think people should be when they’re passing away.
And that’s one of those things where I’ve had unfortunately, too many folks, but I’ve stood by the grave site and as I’m saying my final goodbyes, I’ll find myself saying, “you made a difference in the world. You made the world a better place.” And to me, that’s always the measure of a life well lived is that you make a difference.
So, John’s last chapter in the book, you said you had kind of rearranged things at the 11th hour on it. And boy, I’ll tell you, I think it’s a big chapter and it’s choosing love over fear.
And you step back and look at how many people’s lives are ruled by their fears and the “what ifs” and all of that negativity side of things. And what would you share with our, listeners in terms of how do you let go of those fears move past them, how do you really choose love?
John O’Leary: Wow. So, with addictions and with life awareness is a blessing. And I don’t think most of us know that we are negative. I don’t think most of us know that we live in fear. I don’t think most of us would even recognize, really how television, media, social media, name the thing, politicians, how they are spewing fear.
We don’t recognize this, I would think, well no, they’re talking about the environment. They are talking about tax plan. They’re talking about Medicare, but if you really pull back the curtain just a little bit farther, they’re using an angle based on fear to get you to vote, to get you to buy, to get you to watch, to get you to move.
And we begin to think that that’s just the way life is. And the first place to begin is to just recognize fear when you hear it or feel it for being what it is. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Like fear is a wonderful motivator, man. I use it every day. It’s why I get up early.
That’s why I stay up late. It’s why I watch what I eat and why I drink. It’s why I get to work early. But it’s also why I don’t miss family dinners. It’s why I work out. It’s sometimes why I call mom, sorry mom, but this is true. It’s why I call home. But it’s no place to live. Use fear for what is intended to be, which is a starting point, like fear is a good starting point.
But not the kind of place you want to live long term. That’s why I don’t watch the cable shows. I don’t watch the political debates. It’s garbage TV, man. It’s not helpful. It’s not beneficial. You can learn much more by going to a more trustworthy source than that. So how do you opt?
It’s a love because if you’re taking away fear, you’re going to replace it with something. How do you opt into love? OG Mandino said something like, and I’m going to get, I’m going to butcher this quote, but here it goes. “How do I greet every person I see? In silence and to myself. I say, I love you. Those spoken in silence. These words on wrinkle, my brow, they shine through my eyes. They bring a smile to my face and the echo on my voice” And I cannot believe, I think I just got that quote pretty accurate, but it’s from a guy named OG Mandino. How do you greet every person you meet? How do you greet every traffic jam you meet? Every delay at the airport, every deadline that the office, every work meeting, every objective, every time you see your spouse calling, every time you recognize you’re still single. How do you greet life? Well, OG Mandino’s devices “this in silence into yourself. I love you. Those spoken in silence. These words on wrinkle, my brow shine through my eyes, bring a smile to my face and the echo, the echo in my voice”. And so I’ve been practicing that OG Mandino quote for quite a while. It has radically changed what inspires me, what concerns me. What motivates me, what I’m working on, what I’m not working on.
When I say yes to, what I say no to, how I treat people, how I don’t treat people, it informs the way I operate in life. And it’s something you opt into it through omission and commission. We choose, and I encourage your listeners to actively engage and purposely choose to be motivated from a place of love and watch what happens.
Maybe more succinctly said, and I quote this in the book “On Fire” but the words “I love you, there’s nothing you can do about it.” I say that before every podcast interview, David, even with you, I say before, every time I come through the door, at the end of a long day, I say, before I walk through a TSA line or order a coffee in a coffee shop, “I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
It changes the tenor of the conversation being had. Every single time I am having a conversation, and sometimes those conversations are done with the person staring back at me in the mirror. So, love is a choice and it’s too important of a choice not to make.
David Naylor: Yeah. I had to smile when you made reference to OG Mandino. He was somebody who many years ago, I discovered. We’ll put some references in the show notes to many of OGs wonderful books. He was an individual who, I believe he passed away from cancer if memory serves, but far too young. And he was a great one to unfortunately have lost so young, but incredible, incredible wisdom in his books and ahead of his time.
John O’Leary: I mean, it’s still not completely popular these days, although culturally corporate environments, I’m seeing more of it. But when he was writing, I think back in like the ‘60s, no one really except for the people at the parties with weed in their left hand and flowers in the right hand. No one was really talking to my love. Corporately he was so, I think he was in some regards way ahead of his time.
David Naylor: Now, he was an incredible story too. If memory serves, he had a very early on in life, I believe it was challenges with alcoholism and I want to say it was W. Clement Stone, who was his mentor, who saw something in him and brought him into the business, really helped to launch his career.
John O’Leary: Yeah, he’s very much an incredible, incredible individual. I’ve got a few odd books in my library at home.
David Naylor: Well, John, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and your insights and your passion with us today. The seven choices decidedly are those that help people to live a more inspired life. And so if there was, just one last thing that you would like to have our audience take away from the conversation today. Maybe something that I didn’t draw out in the questions. Something that really resonates or rings true in you, what, what would it be?
John O’Leary: It’s almost like, what do you want in your gravestone? Pepperoni or sausage, man? It’s an awesome question. It is probably the question to ask and answer.
I think I’m going to answer that by saying, frequently when I’m done hearing a sermon and church listen to something powerful on the radio, some amazing podcasts or reading some beautiful book, I shut it and walk away, might forget about it because it’s OG Mandino’s story, or it’s that pastor’s perspective, or it’s this thing over there.
It’s David’s podcast, meaning it’s for them. And what I beg your listeners to receive today is that this whole conversation has been had for you. It’s not the “David and I blowing our own horn.” What we’ve learned for us is it’s been done very humbly, I hope, and very thoughtfully with you and mind, so that you may recognize that your best days are ahead of you without doubt, and the way to live into that is not to wait for it. It’s not to wish for it. It’s to pick up your fork. It’s to move on. It’s to let go of yesterday. Start living today and dream bolder about tomorrow and to do so, not only for yourself out of success, but to do for those around you at a significance. And if you’re trying to sum all that up in one statement, it might be two nights to ask the question of yourself before you go to bed.
What more can I do? If you can capture one idea from this podcast, it might be to ask Jack Buck’s favorite question, which is, “what more can I do?” And then tomorrow morning when you arise early to do it, and then if it works for you tomorrow, watch what happens when you do it again tomorrow night.
And then you wash and repeat day after day. I’ve been doing this for seven years, David. It has changed my business life. It’s what led to the launch of the “Live Inspired podcast.” It’s what led to the two books being produced. It’s what led to the speaking career. It’s what led to a great marriage, a charitable outreach.
All these things that we’re doing are the direct result of a simple question that frequently we get too busy to ask, “What more can I do? What more can I do?” And I just encourage your listeners today to ask it, to answer it, and to move forward down the path because their best days are ahead of them.
David Naylor: Very well said. “What more can I do?” So, I think that’s a great, great thought for us to wrap up on. So, John, once again, thank you so much for your time. I sincerely hope we can do a part two when your book comes out because it is definitely a topic that is near and dear to my heart. And so again, John, thank you very much.
John O’Leary: Well, David, enjoy the snowfall and I look forward to coming back. Maybe in the spring we’ll watch the snow melt and we’ll talk about OG together.
David Naylor: There you go. I’m going to put some shorts on and go out and dance!
John O’Leary: Put some mittens on too, but enjoy the snow, David.
David Naylor: Talk to you soon.
John O’Leary: Bye!
*Transcription was edited for clarity
Connect with John O‘Leary
Og Mandino is the most widely read inspirational and self help author in the world. Former president of Success Unlimited magazine, Mandino was the first recipient of the Napoleon Hill Gold Medal for literary achievement. Og Mandino was a member of the International Speakers Hall of Fame and honored with the Masters of Influence by the National Speakers Association. Og Mandino died in 1996 but his books continue to inspire countless thousands all over the world. Shop his books via Amazon
4:31- Shocking subtitles
5:15- The life changing incident
8:11- Dying or living
9:27- The fight to come back
14:08- Learning something from everyone
17:06- First day home from the hospital
19:19- No tolerance for a victim mentality
21:01- Denial vs. self-acceptance
29:27- “Would you do it all again?”
35:12- Sense of purpose
45:29- “I want to be a part of the team that changes the world”
47:40- Getting out of the victim mindset
51:22- “It’s not perfect, but it’s good.”
54:03- Children’s mindset
58:31- Coping with kids
59:35- Nurse Roy
1:07:33- Glenn Cunningham
1:14:07- How to let go of fears and choose love
1:18: 13- Og Mandino
1:20: 18- Final thoughts