John O'Leary | Crain's Connecticut

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

John O'Leary


John O’Leary is a speaker and author whose company offers books, DVDs, web-based media and other motivational tools and products. At age 9, O’Leary sustained third-degree burns over 87 percent of his body. His book, “On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life,” chronicles how the accident and his unlikely recovery shaped the person he is today.

The Mistake:

I think the big mistake that I made not just professionally, but personally, was trying to hide from the best of my story and the best of my skill sets. If you think about the most unusual job for a guy who doesn’t have fingers to assume right out of college, carpentry might be at the top of the list. That’s what I ended up stepping into. I became a carpenter, then a general contractor, then a business owner in real estate development.

Looking back on it, I think what I was trying to do was scream out at the world how ordinary I was. I was trying to be this version of me rather than being the perfect version of myself. I found financial success, but I did not find meaning. I certainly did not find mission. And I did not find myself totally energized to step into the office or onto the job site every day.

I found financial success, but I did not find meaning. 

My parents wrote a book, “Overwhelming Odds,” to thank family and friends who supported them throughout my recovery. I realized in reading their words for the first time that the story and experience that I always thought was tragic, something to run from or mask, was in reality one of the greatest turning points in my life. I’d never considered that being burned had led to my network, or led me to develop compassion, courage and vibrancy in life. It led to where I went to college, which led to a chance encounter with a brunette I ended up marrying. I never considered that it led to the foundation of faith in my life. When I read their book, I realized all these positive things I valued professionally and personally were a result of the explosion.

I think that freed me when I got a phone call in from a group of Girl Scouts in 2007 who asked me to speak. I thought, "I’m not a speaker. I’m a general contractor and business owner." I had never told anyone my story. But I’ve always thought that when opportunities present themselves, the answer should be yes. So I said yes, and I spent a lot of time practicing for a 10-minute talk to three Girl Scouts.

That was my first talk. I looked at my notes the whole time. About four months later, I got a second opportunity to speak. Then, a few months later, I got a third. Slowly, I realized maybe this is my calling. So I pursued it a little more vigorously my second year with maybe 12 talks. Then, after that, it was off to the races and I gave more than 100 by the fourth year. Now, I think I’ve spoken to 600,000 people.

The Lesson:

Quit waiting and start living. Most people in life look to the future for purpose. They wonder when they are going to get something, whether it’s a promotion or a new gig or reaching retirement. But what they are seeking is in their lives right now. We have the sacred miracle each day in front of us of stepping forward and meeting the rising sun with the answer, "Yes.” I think, in living more abundantly and vibrantly, we can become extraordinarily successful professionally. And that’s going to ripple into others areas of life that are going to make us feel not just successful, but significant.  

Follow John O’Leary on Twitter at @JOLearyInspires

Pictured: John O'Leary | Photo by Wesley Law 

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