When John O’Leary was 9 years old, he suffered burns over 100% of his body and was expected to die. He is now an inspirational speaker and author, teaching more than 50,000 people around the world each year how to live inspired. His first book, ON FIRE: The Seven Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life was published in March 2016 by Simon & Schuster
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3 Key Points:
- Be humble. Not matter what success you find, keep asking ‘Why me?’. You’ll stay grounded and give more value to others.
- Everyone starts somewhere. If you’re bad at what you do for the first 5 years, or 100 episodes, or 50 speeches: keep going. Improve every time and you will become a master.
- Find people who cover your weaknesses. No one can do everything: invest in a capable and passionate team and you’ll multiply your success.
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Time Stamped Show Notes
(click the time stamp to jump directly to that point in the episode.)
- [00:56] – Welcoming John to the show
- [02:41] – John makes most of his revenue from speaking
- [04:47] – “It’s my absolute belief that revenue follows passion”
- [05:12] – Worst Entrepreneurial Moment: Failing at his first gig out of college
- [08:25] – “You were born an entrepreneur, you’ve just been taught how not to be one”
- [08:39] – Humility is the mark of a great entrepreneur
- [09:40] – “Be happy; be humble”
- [10:22] – Entrepreneurial AH-HA Moment: Reading the book his parents wrote about his story – and seeing himself as a triumph
- [14:33] – No one crushes things straight away. Just try to be better tomorrow than you were today
- [14:30] – You won’t be good when you start doing something: keep doing it
- [15:00] – Biggest weakness? – “I’m a dad first and an entrepreneur second”
- [16:30] – Biggest strength? – “Finding people who cover my weaknesses”
- [18:12] – What has John most fired up today? – “What we’re doing right now: speaking online”
- [21:00] – The Lightning Round
- What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur? – “Not embracing my true self”
- What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? – “When you know your ‘Why’ you can endure any ‘How’.”
- What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success? – “Asking three questions: “Why me?”, “Who cares?” and “What more can I do?”
- Share an internet resource, like Evernote, with Fire Nation – Evernote
- If you could recommend one book to our listeners, what would it be and why? – On Fire
- [23:44] – Connect with John through his website
JOL: JLD, I am ready, my friend.
JLD: Yes! When John was nine years old, he was burned on 100 percent of his body and expected to die. Today he’s a speaker author, and he teaches 50,000 people each year how to live inspired. His book, On Fire: The Seven Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life, is a national best seller, and obviously very on brand for this podcast. So, John, take a minute to fill in some gaps from that intro, and give us a little glimpse of your personal life.
JOL: Yeah, so personally I am married. I’ve been married for a little over 12 years. I live in St. Louis, Missouri. My wife Beth, who is gorgeous inside and out, and I have four children – they’re ten, eight, six, and four. And, man, I’ve built two businesses doing what I love to do, and today’s it’s no different. I get to travel the world teaching other people how to live, John.
JLD: I love living. I love people who teach people to live. And I think it’s so sad that so many people are walking around with just this veil over their eyes. It’s like this zombie opilexis going on, and it’s your voice, John, and it’s my voice, and it’s so many other people’s voices out there that are waking a lot of people up, frankly. I remember I was woken up by a podcast. I was woken up by being at an actual event and seeing somebody on stage just kind of virtually reach out and backslap me because I needed it. So these are really important things, Fire Nation, and if you can be that voice, that message, that mission that you’re sharing with the world, join us. This is the ripple effect.
Now John, I like talking about money, and Fire Nation likes hearing about money, because if we wanna do what we wanna do, we need to be able to generate revenue doing that. So how do you, today, 2016 generate revenue in your business?
JOL: Right, so I’m a speaker. I’ve been speaking for about eight years. The first year I generated about a $20 gift card in revenue. Now we do a little bit more, but the majority of our revenue is speaking based. We do our own conferences. We speak all over the world. We have about 15 to 20 percent of the revenue that comes in from products. That can be online courses; it can be books and DVDs, that kind of stuff.
JLD: Now one question that I have is because here I am, I’m an entrepreneur who’s, frankly, willing to speak for free when the audience is large and targeted because I have products, Podcaster’s Paradise, I have books, the Freedom Journal, I have opportunities for people to listen to my podcast so that just grows my download numbers, and therefore increases my sponsorship revenue that I make on a monthly basis. How do you compete with people like me if generating revenue at an actual speaking event or as a speaker is important?
JOL: That’s a great question. So what we’ve found all the way through is that when I started speaking, it wasn’t as a business owner. I wasn’t doing it to drive revenue. I was sharing the message, because I had a message, a story, an impact that I think really can change someone’s life. And I started, John, candidly, in front of three Girl Scouts. The message was not even rewarded with so much as Samoas in the back of the room. I got nothing. But I did not show up that day to be paid. And I did not show up three months later when I got an opportunity to speak at a small Rotary club.
In the past seven years, we’ve spoken in all 50 states, 15 counties, hundreds of thousands of individuals. The revenue has come, I think, following the purpose and the passion that drives the business. And I realize some of us have to make widgets, but gosh, to have a business that you wake up early to drive and to succeed in, and you stay up late to impact other people’s lives, it is my absolute belief that the revenue will chase that passion.
JLD: So, John, you’re a story-teller. You know the power of being on stage and connecting to the attendees, to the audience, through story. I really base EO Fire off of stories, because I know how powerful the listeners right now connect with stories. Because, again, it just resonates through the human core. So I’m gonna challenge you right now to take us to what you consider your worst entrepreneurial moment. Not your worst life moment. I’m sure I could probably guess what that is. But take us to your worst entrepreneurial moment, and John, really to that moment in time. I wanna be there with you when this happens, when this unfolds. Take it away.
JOL: Yeah, awesome. So one thing your listeners should know about me is when I was nine years old, I was in a house fire, burned on my entire body, which means today, yes I’m alive, yes, my life is awesome, but it also means I do have some physical challenges. I have scars from my neck to my toes, and I’m missing the fingers on my hands. So this is important for you to know because my first job out of college, my first entrepreneurial gig, was as a real estate developer. So if you can think, John, of the worst possible job for a guy without fingers to take on, it might be carpentry. It might be general contracting. That might be it.
But that’s what turned me on. That’s what I stepped into after college. So I buy this six family. My thought is it’s gonna be easy. It’s gonna be fun. I’ll flip it real quick, turn it into condos, make a lot of money, and do it again. And the reality is it was far from it. It was far from easy or fun or quick. It took me three times longer than I expected, cost almost twice as much. Eventually the project becomes a gross failure because the units won’t sell as condos. And so I can’t sell them at this price. I lower it by 10 percent, then by 20 percent; it still will not sell.
So I have to go back to the city hall where I had to go through all these hoops in the first place to turn apartments into condos, and I remember turning in the paperwork, and the lady looks at me, and she goes, “I have never seen a guy turn condos into apartments.” And I said, “Yeah, me either, lady. This sucks for me, too. It sucks kind of for both of us. Here it is.” But that’s the deal. I licked my wounds, went back to the bank, apologized, learned the lessons, tried again, tried again, did over 65 projects successfully after that – some failures along the way – but each failure, I think, if you have your eyes and your heart open, allow you to do your work and your leadership even more effectively afterwards.
JLD: Well, John, let’s talk about your work, because you have taken a lot of lessons from these multiple failures that you’ve had, as well as from all those successes you had. I mean, 65 projects, I mean there’s a lot of wins there. For me, kind of looking at that, I say, “Hey, sometimes you just need to jump in the game, and just take action.” That imperfect action – you’re going to just flop or you’re going to wildly succeed, which can sometimes, by the way, be worse on your first venture to wildly succeed, because then you think that you’re stuff doesn’t stink for lack of a better phrase, and you go out and really whiff on the next one, and then you’re really up crap’s creek, so to speak.
So what do you wanna say to Fire Nation about your worst entrepreneurial moment as far as core lessons that you learned that you think our listeners can really apply to their lives, to their entrepreneurial journey?
JOL: Yeah, man, it’s a great question. And I think entrepreneurs, first of all, I am one, I hang with them, I love them, I think they are the lifeblood of this nation.
JLD: They are.
JOL: And all nations. So it’s a big deal to be an entrepreneur. I would encourage anyone listening, if they’re not an entrepreneur to realize, yeah, actually you are. You were born an entrepreneur. You’ve been taught how not to be one. So we are this. I think it’s just time to rediscover who we always have been. So that would be something I would encourage. But one of the traits that I see in great entrepreneurs is actually humility. And you don’t get humility by coming out of the gates hot, successfully, high fiving all the way to the finish line.
Typically we learn humility by falling flat on our face, skinning our knees, being embarrassed, being vulnerable, hanging out with a bunch of other guys, sharing your scar stories, and then, in that room, in that vulnerability, they might look back at you and say, if they’re real about it, “Me too. Here’s my story.” Because none of us come out of this thing clean, and a great entrepreneur knows that. They’re humbled by it each day, but it also keeps them hungry to learn, to be open, and to do better tomorrow than they did today.
JLD: There are four words, Fire Nation, that have really been impactful in my journey as an entrepreneur, and they’ve helped me more recently than earlier in the days, because of course I was humble back in the days when I had no success under my belt. But my uncle, growing up, would always look at me when I would have success in sports or even in school, and he would say, “Be humble. Be happy.”
And so thanks to those four words, I grew up really equating happiness with humbleness, and really just kind of absorbing that, both consciously and subconsciously, so that even when I started to have success with EO Fire, I was still saying, “Happiness comes with being humble,” so I’ve been able to maintain that humbleness. And Fire Nation, I would challenge you, too, to equate those words – be humble, be happy – and, believe me, your journey will be a much smoother, and really, more beneficial ride.
So, let’s shift John, because we got some stuff going on here, and you are a story teller, as I mentioned in the last episode. Let’s talk about your aha moment – what you would consider one of the greatest that you’ve experienced to date. And just like you took us to that moment where you were handing that in to that woman and she made that comment to you, take us to your greatest aha moment, and walk us through that story.
JOL: Another great question. I’ve had many, of course, in life, but I think professionally, because I know that’s why a lot of our listeners tune in, I was working real estate development. I loved it, but it was not a passion-centered business anymore, and I was seeking something else to do in my life. My mom and dad, my dad got Parkinson’s disease. He came home from work. He started reflecting on his life. And he and my mom wrote a little book. They printed 100 copies.
I begged them not to do it because the book they wrote was about their son, John, John O’Leary, about the time when he was nine years old, when was burned in a house fire, what happened to him, the community that supported them, and what they learned through that experience. So I tell them not to do it. They ignore me. They print 100 unauthorized biographies of my life. I get to read this thing, and John, it quite literally changed my life because this horrible tragic scar-riddled story that had always held me back, in reading their truth, I realized that it was actually the greatest gift of my life. It led to vulnerability. It led to boldness. It led to risk-taking. It led to my network. It led to where I went to school, which led to a chance encounter with a brunette named Beth, which led to four little babies.
It led to all the good stuff in my life, and I’d never paused to realize, “Wow. This story is not a tragedy. It’s triumphant, and it’s a gift!” And in realizing that, when the Girl Scouts – I’m not trying to be funny here – six months later, I got a call from three Girl Scouts, and they said, “Mr. O’Leary, will you share your story with us?” It’s a story I had not told my college roommates. I’d not told my work crews. I had barely told my wife.
But in life, when opportunity knocks, and entrepreneurs, I really hope you’re listening right now, but when opportunity knocks, there is a very simple answer. It’s three letters long. It starts with a Y. Yes, man, even if it’s awkward, even if it’s a stretch. Even if you think you may fail terribly. Yes! So I said yes to those three Girl Scouts. We’ve been saying yes since. We have built a large, purpose-centered business by saying yes to the next best opportunity in front of me.
JLD: Fire Nation, it’s always awkward. It’s always scary. All of these things happen. I mean, I leave mine online. Go listen to the first hundred episodes of EO Fire. They are no bueno. No bueno, because I wasn’t good. I had never done this before. I had never interviewed somebody. I was never a podcaster or broadcaster. I had never majored in communications. I had no idea what I was doing. It was ugly, but you know what? I kept doing that thing. John kept doing his thing, and it went from three Girl Scouts to John, what’s the biggest crowd you’ve spoken in front of?
JOL: About 22,000.
JLD: 22,000 – three Girl Scouts to 22,000 people. I went from a really bad podcaster who had eight downloads to 1.25 million listens last month on my show. That is what happens when you’re willing to be ugly, and you’re willing to face fear, and drive forward despite. Now, John, what is the one lesson you wanna make sure Fire Nation gets from your aha moment?
JOL: I think it plays up what you’re talking about right there. It’s we want overnight success, right? I mean that’s what we crave. But you did not go from those eight downloads, and probably back then, John, seven of them were from your mother or something. We aren’t crushing it, man, when we come out of the gate. We’re brutal. But it’s like erosion, and if you stay focused on it, if you just keep doing the right thing, day after day, getting a little bit better today than you were yesterday, and even better tomorrow than you were today, like erosion, it will wear true.
And then what’s gonna happen is someone’s gonna come back into your life from high school or from college or from even earlier in life, they are gonna look at you, and they’re gonna say, “Oh my gosh! You’re an overnight success! How’d you do it? You got here so quick! One and a half million downloads, or you’re a best seller. You did it so fast.” And the reality is it was not fast. It was not easy. It was not always fun. But it was worth it. It was absolutely worth it. So I just encourage your listeners, man, to keep doing the next best thing, to follow their purpose. There’s a mission out there for us to step into each day, and all we gotta do is say yes to it.
JLD: Seven of those I think were from my mother, and the reality is, she called me up, and she said, “John, you’re not good. You’re just” –
JOL: Right, stop while you’re ahead.
JLD: “you’re not good.” And that’s the thing, Fire Nation. I could have stopped there, but I didn’t, because I knew my mother loved me, and she was hoping that I would find something that I was good at. But I said, “You know what? I can get good at this. It’s just gonna take time.” Now, John, what is your biggest weakness as an entrepreneur?
JOL: I think sometimes we try to silo up our lives, and so we try to do one thing over here. That’s where we work, over here we play, over here we worship, over here we stay healthy. So candidly, man, I try to live a very undivided life. I want to be the same onstage as on this podcast with you as the same when I’m tucking in my babies later on tonight. I’m a very vulnerable guy, man. What you see is what you get in every interaction with John.
All that to say, some people are driven to grow revenue, driven for success, and I’m driven to be the best freaking dad ever. I wanna be the best husband possible. I wanna be the most amazing child of God, man. However many talents God gave me, man, I wanna quadruple them and then even do more so with it. So, in other words, I work really, really hard before my babies are awake, and before my wife is awake, but when they are awake, they get the best of me.
So if I have a weakness, it’s that I strive to be at home, maybe too much. I strive to tuck them in every night. I strive to serve them breakfast and hang out during pancake time and everything else. So my weakness might be that I’m not your typical entrepreneur. I’m your dad, first, I’m a husband second, and then I’m a whole lot of things third, and then eventually an entrepreneur.
JLD: I think most people are gonna find a challenge to find a weakness in there, John, but we’ll let you slide by on that one. What would you say your biggest strength is?
JOL: So how about I answer your first question from a different angle by answering this one?
JLD: Well, I would like that.
JOL: My best strength is to find people to find people to cover my weaknesses. This took me a long time to figure out. But to pretend like you’re bulletproof or that you’ve got all the bases covered is an illusion only to yourself, because everybody else sees what’s really going on. I made my first hire in my speaking business – this gal who I brought on, her name is Deanna. I’m sure she’s listening right now –
JLD: Hi Deanna!
JOL: because she’s a rock star. Yeah, Deanna, you rock. But she was asking for more base salary than I had made in revenue the year before. But my weakness was sales. My weakness was follow-up. My weakness was systems. And this lady was coming from all three of these places where I knew if I could just invest in her, that the business would take off.
JOL: I talked to my wife about it. We reflected and prayed about it. I called her back after she wrote me a letter that said, “Let us determine” – it comes from Abraham Lincoln – “Let us determine that the thing can and shall be done, and together we shall find the way.” I just sat on that for a day or so, called her back, and I said, “Deanna, it’s on. Let’s do this.” That first year after I hired out my weakness, we went from, candidly, $42,000 to way over $25,000, and we have gone exponentially up, year after year after year for the last seven years.
I credit that not to my speaking prowess or to our network, but to covering my weakness. Again, in marketing, I did the same thing. On logistics we’ve done the same thing. Now we’re hiring another person online. So every time we’re trying to grow in an area where I’m weak, I hire the best person over there to cover a weak area, and then together, man, the water rises, the ship rises, and we prosper and impact together.
JLD: John, what’s the one business thing that has you most fired up today?
JOL: What you and I are doing right now. It used to be if I wanted to really impact a person’s life, I would have to be wearing a microphone, or a headset, or holding a handheld speaking to people in Houston, or Branson, or somewhere else in St. Louis. Now I can hang out with you in my office. When you and I get off, I’m gonna run out, pick up a couple kids from practice. I’ll be bathing them, tucking them in, while touching thousands and thousands and thousands of lives from my home office. That is awesome. So how we can engage with people through technology is no joke. It is not shallow. It is real relationships. It inspires, and it empowers, and it turns me on.
JLD: Now, Fire Nation, I want you to be turned on by the lightening round, so don’t go anywhere. John’s not going anywhere. We’re gonna take a quick minute to thank our sponsors.
John, are you prepared for the lightening round?
JOL: I’m ready for it, baby.
JLD: What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur?
JOL: Not embracing my true self. Not being vulnerable. Not being authentic. Not being who I was really intended to be. And until you can honestly embrace not only your light but your shadow, you can’t live up to the fullness of your potential.
JLD: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
JOL: Probably from Victor Frankl. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, when you know your why, you can endure any how. I think entrepreneurs need to hear that one and live it each day. When you know your why, you can endure any how.
JLD: What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?
JOL: I ask three questions every day, and JLD, they are first in the morning, I journal on this – why me? And it’s a question around gratitude. Why am I so lucky? Why am I so blessed? What do I have going on in my life that I should celebrate today?
The question I ask throughout the day is who cares? Not in a negative way with my arms crossed like a teenaged kid, but who cares if I fail? Who cares if the connection with John doesn’t work at first? Who cares if the audience doesn’t get what I’m talking about today? Who cares if I get – before I printed my book, John, there were hundreds, I think, of rejection letters that came my way. Who cares, man? Keep chasing it. So I think that’s a really important question to ask. Who cares? Be driven by purpose and passion.
And then thirdly, I ask the question what more can I do to ensure tomorrow is even better than today. And I promise you, John, if your listeners right now ask those three questions tomorrow and the next day and the next day, it would transform their life.
JLD: Share an internet resource, like Evernote, with Fire Nation.
JOL: Google Hangout is a good one. We get a lot of great work done through that. Skype. Those are some of the big ones we use in our work every day.
JLD: If you could recommend just one book for our listeners, what it would be, and why?
JOL: Baby, how can you put me on the spot on this one? We got Fire Nation on the call. You got O’Leary on the call, and I wrote a book a couple weeks ago called On Fire. This one’s a layup question. I love this book because ultimately it is not about the author. It is about individuals from all walks of life who showed up in a nasty situation, made the best of it, transformed my life, and ultimately, what it means for us, the listeners. So I love the book, On Fire. If you say you can’t pick your book, O’Leary, fine.
JLD: No, you can pick your own book.
JOL: All right, baby. Get On Fire. You’re gonna love it, and if not, call me, and I will give you your money back.
JLD: Is this available in Audible?
JOL: Oh yeah. Absolutely.
JLD: On Fire, Fire Nation, The Seven Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life. Now, John, I wanna end today on fire with a parting piece of guidance from you. The best way that we can connect with you, and then we’ll say goodbye.
JOL: If you look me up online, my name is John, J O H N, O’Leary, O L E A R Y, and then the website is johnolearyinspires.com. All our social links are there, the video is there, and I’m a very interactive guy online, so if you drop me a note and you get a reply, that is me responding to you. So I’m looking forward to keeping the conversation rolling.
JLD: Fire Nation, you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, and you’ve been hanging out with JOL and JLD, today, so keep up the heat, and head over to EO Fire. Just type John in the search bar. His show notes page will pop up with everything that we’ve been talking about today – links about how and where you can find him, etc. He will get back to you on social media. He will connect with you.
And again, his book On Fire: The Seven Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life. I mean, Fire Nation, if you like my branding, you’re gonna love this book. And I just wanna say thank you, John, for sharing your journey with Fire Nation today, and for that, we salute you, and we’ll catch you on the flip side.
JOL: All right, brother. Good work.
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