John O’Leary: Empowering People to Live Boldly

BY Catherine Yang TIMEMay 20, 2020 PRINT

John O’Leary has an inspired view of life, and it’s something he realizes we need now more than ever.

“Just simply said, your mother and your father coming together at the exact moment that allows [you or me] to be in the room, what is the likelihood? Because I think we take our lives for granted, but the biological likelihood is less than one in 400 trillion,” said O’Leary, a husband and father of four.

“Strictly speaking of your father and your mother, biologically at the right moment with the DNA leading to your life. It’s impossible. And yet, here you are, and here I am. And so part of [what I do] is to wake us up to the fragile, beautiful gift of life.”

O’Leary is a businessman, author, and speaker who has reached millions of people in over 2,000 talks around the world, sharing his own life story in order to wake people up from “accidental living” and empower them to move into the storm that is life more boldly.

He has been home for many days straight, and counting—tucking his kids in at night, being around for three meals a day, and waking up in his own bed—for the first time in years. Despite the global crisis, it has been a great positive to come together as a family. O’Leary was already well aware he’s by nature an introvert and homebody, but he’s been driven in his 15-year speaking career because he says it is necessary. And though the trips have halted for now, his work has not. O’Leary started a series on his YouTube channel to highlight the countless creative and inspiring ways people have come together in this time of crisis as well.

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John O’Leary. (Susie Gaal)

“I choose to thrive because God demands it, my family deserves it, and the world is starved for it,” O’Leary said. “That’s why we started a speaking business, that’s why I write books, that’s why we do a podcast, that’s why I say yes to interviews. But that’s also why I’m on time for dinner, it’s why I put my kids to bed. It’s why I take out the trash and do the dishes even when I’m tired. It’s why I’ve got a grin on my face all day long, even though I’m in physical pain all day long. So it doesn’t make it easy. It just makes your choice more powerful and more intentional.”

From Surviving to Thriving

O’Leary was 9 years old when he saw some kids in the neighborhood drop a match onto a puddle of gasoline and make the flames dance. He wanted to replicate the experiment himself, and ended up holding a closed barrel of gasoline over a flame and creating an explosion that threw him from one end of the basement to the other. It left him with burns over his entire body and a 109 percent likelihood of death—a calculation arrived at by adding the percentage of his body burned, 100 percent, to his age.

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The resulting damage in the O’Leary family garage after the fire. (John O’Leary)

He fought for his life for five months in the hospital, regrowing his skin, enduring painstaking physical therapy, and relearning how to walk. All his fingers had to be amputated, and he was left with scars and burns that would never go away. He would have to undergo years more of surgery and therapy. Unbeknownst to O’Leary, still just a kid who had a rude awakening from his idyllic American life, he had become an inspiring national story. He only wanted to pull his long sleeves down and get back through life. His family too had come together to pull through in this tragedy, but they hadn’t let it define them. They put it in the past.

When O’Leary got married, this happy event so moved his parents they wrote a book about their journey, titled “Overwhelming Odds.”

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O’Leary married Beth Hittler on Nov. 22, 2003. (Courtesy of John O’Leary)

O’Leary had never even told this story himself, not even to dear friends. He hadn’t realized how much of a story he had, in fact.

“I never felt that my life was all that remarkable, and I always felt that what happened to me was a bad thing,” O’Leary said. “That’s the perfect storm for living in the ordinary, almost-pity party happy life, just thinking that what happened was bad and that you’re not all that special.”

Needless to say, he balked at the fact that they had slapped his face on the cover of their book. He set the book aside and gave it little thought, but elsewhere, people were picking it up and deeply inspired by Susan and Denny O’Leary’s journey. And then a woman called O’Leary, asking if he could speak to her third-grade Girl Scout daughter and two other girls in the troop.

O’Leary said yes, even though he was “not previously predetermined or predestined to become a professional speaker by any stretch of the imagination,” he explained. In fact, he nearly flunked his public speaking class in college. Now in his 20s, and a real estate developer whose business was finally starting to work, O’Leary felt this talk was something he needed to do and threw himself into rehearsing a speech he would end up stumbling over as he read word for word off notecards.

“But that was the first connection,” O’Leary said. “Afterwards these little kids came up to me and they gave me a hug. Me, I’m 28 years old at the time, it blew me away, to think that this story I always took for granted and viewed as a negative was somehow and powerful and helpful to other people and their lives. Even if only the third graders.”

One of the girls’ dads invited O’Leary to speak at his Rotary Club, and then one of the members there invited O’Leary to speak at his business.

The responses he gets from people, no matter how many times he tells his story, is gratifying. They approach him with hugs and tears in their eyes and share their own stories of adversity with complete vulnerability, and start to see what is truly possible in their lives.

O’Leary adds that in his books and speeches and videos and podcasts, he is not the hero.

“I always want the audience to come across the heroes of the story,” O’Leary said, even down to the book covers. “It’s their book, they get to determine where they go next in it.”

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O’Leary with his parents Susan and Denny. (Courtesy of John O’Leary)

And truly, O’Leary’s stories are stories of community. Once he stopped hiding and started to look at his own life, and what he had overcome, he saw so clearly what had been done for him. He saw how his tragedy, what his parents once called “John’s accident,” but what he now recognized was a choice—that, yes, lighting a fire under a gas tank might have been stupid, and he might have been young, but it was still a choice—and the journey had changed other lives for the better.

“They see, ‘well, gosh, if he can do that in his life, what is possible still for me in my life in spite of these adversities today?'” O’Leary said.

Love Multiplies

When 9-year-old O’Leary ran through his house completely on fire, his two younger sisters were the ones who saw him first. Then his older brother ran into the foyer where he wrapped him in a rug and carried him outside to smother the flames. In retrospect, O’Leary could see clearly the heroics of his siblings, and how they saved his life and changed their own.

He was saved by the selfless and unconditional love of his dad, who told him he loved him in the hospital when he needed it the most. He was saved by his older brother—who usually made him smell his stinky socks and eat hot sauce sandwiches—who wouldn’t give up trying to put out the fire when he burned himself. When O’Leary screamed that he wanted to die, his 11-year-old sister hugged him despite the heat and told him to “Have faith and fight!” His little 8-year-old sister ran back into the flaming, smoky house three times to get water to throw on his face, which might have been the only reason he had skin left on his face and scalp to graft onto his body as he recovered.

And he credits his mom for giving him what he needed, not what he wanted, during that crucial moment in the hospital. She asked, “Do you want to die, John? The choice is yours.”

And when he answered immediately that he wanted to live, it changed everything. There was never a doubt that he would leave the hospital to go home with his family once he said it. His mom had told him, “If you want to live, you’re going to have to fight like you’ve never fought before. You’re going to have to take the hand of God and walk the journey with him. John, it won’t be easy, but Dad and I will be with you. You can do this, but you must fight.”

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O’Leary receiving in-patient physical therapy. (Courtesy of John O’Leary)
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O’Leary and his older brother Jim, who saved his life, on a family vacation in the mountains the summer after the fire. (Courtesy of John O’Leary)

She wasn’t easier on him once they got home either, making the fingerless boy pick up his own fork, and continue to take his hated piano lessons. How mean, he thought then. But these are things that saved his life.

There were letters that poured in from around the country, and beyond, from the White House to the Vatican.

And then there was Jack Buck, the famed sportscaster, who learned how much of a Cardinals fan this little boy was and visited him in the hospital not just once, but throughout the five months of his hospital stay. Hearing Jack Buck’s familiar voice say, “Kid, wake up,” was a tremendous lifeline for O’Leary, as was his promise that if he got out of the hospital they would have John O’Leary Day at the stadium.

His generosity didn’t end there, because when he saw at the stadium that O’Leary would need to relearn how to write, he had a baseball signed by a Cardinals player sent to his home, with a note that if he wanted a second ball he’d have to handwrite a thank-you note to send back. That summer, O’Leary received 60 baseballs and learned how to write again in time for school. When O’Leary graduated college, Buck sent him his own Hall of Fame baseball as a present. But at the end of Buck’s life, as he battled Parkinson’s and spent five months in the hospital, O’Leary felt terrible he never visited—he hadn’t thought it would mean something to Buck. A meeting at Buck’s funeral changed O’Leary’s mind.

Jack Buck encouraged O’Leary to learn how to write again by sending him baseballs signed by St. Louis Cardinals players. (Courtesy of John O’Leary)

In a large way, Buck, even from beyond the grave, inspired O’Leary to live “more bravely, fearlessly, and freely,” and pay it forward.

And there are so many others. O’Leary’s books and speeches show us the ripple effect is real, that one good person can have an immeasurable positive effect on the countless lives around them, even if they sometimes will never know it.

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Jack Buck at O’Leary’s college graduation. (Courtesy of John O’Leary)

In Awe

O’Leary’s latest book, “In Awe,” comes with a 21-day challenge (, with actionable items we can all take, because sometimes rituals, even going through the motions, is what we need to help kickstart the mindset we want to achieve.

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O’Leary’s latest book, “In Awe,” comes with a 21-day reading challenge, at

As a speaker, O’Leary meets people from all walks of life and all ages, and the reactions of children versus teenagers or adults are starkly different. Kids are eager to participate, unafraid to question, and filled with love that spills over and moves the rest of us.

“Last year in 2019, 1.5 million Americans attempted suicide. It’s hit our families, affected us in our neighborhood, it’s affected us in our community,” O’Leary said. If this happened when unemployment was at record lows and the economy was doing well, what will happen to us going forward?

O’Leary was much more concerned about this than the fact that his own business with 100-flights-a-year had come to a complete halt. He wanted to do something where people could sign up for daily reminders of what they could control in their own lives and help them move forward, and see a reason for hope.

Kids are often a great example of exactly how to do that, and “In Awe” is what O’Leary calls an “invitation to return to childlike wonder.” It teaches you to use your five senses of wonder, expectancy, immersion, belonging, and freedom with heartfelt and eye-opening stories, often from the perspective of a child. The book is a wonderful antidote to cynicism.

O’Leary also hopes people can start their days with gratitude, and answer “why?” with a statement of intention (“I choose to thrive because…”). Then spend some time reflecting on the question, “Why me?” This is the sort of question that can be approached from a victim’s mentality, or a victor’s. Rather than wallowing in pity and wondering why something happened to you rather than everyone else, victors ask the same question from a place of learning and growth. And starting your day with gratitude can help put you in that mindset.

In the same vein, he advises, end your day thinking, “What more can I do to ensure tomorrow is even better than today?”

“I think if we are intentional and asking these three questions through the lens of the victor, we will not only have far better days, we will have far better lives and we will impact others along the route with profound optimism, I think for their lives as well, so it is contagious. Optimism is contagious,” O’Leary reminds us. His certainly is.

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