John O'Leary, ON FIRE: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life

John O'Leary, ON FIRE: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life

Zibby interviews internationally acclaimed speaker, renowned podcast host, and bestselling author John O’Leary about his heartfelt and empowering new book On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life. At the age of 9, John survived a near-fatal fire. He shares the gutwrenching details of the accident, the heroic siblings who saved him, the torturous hospital treatments, and the unconditional love that guided him through it all. He also describes the journey from hiding his past to selling out arenas and shares his hope that people will find themselves in his story and be inspired to live a life on fire, filled with possibility and purpose.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, John. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m so honored to have you on.

John O’Leary: I love this time. Zibby, thank you for making time for me.

Zibby: You shared such a personal, moving, disturbing, inspiring, wonderful story in your book not only from your point of view, but then going through and taking the points of view of all of your family members as they dealt with the trauma of the event. Can you describe what happened and the process and inspiration for even turning it into this very, very inspiring, unique, wonderful book?

John: There’s a lot there. I’m going to begin in a place I don’t think your question was intended to take us, but I think you have to start there. The reality is this. I never knew I had a story to share. When you’re nine years old and you’re a little Midwest boy and you’re burned on a hundred percent of your body, the dream is not, one day, how do I turn this story into a best-selling book, into a movement? The dream is to be ordinary. Even more than that, the dream is to disappear, to be gray matter. I didn’t like to be set aside. I don’t like to be celebrated or shunned. I just wanted to be ordinary again. For the majority of my life after being burned — we’ll come back to it. After spending all that time in hospital — we’ll come back to that, probably — my goal was just to be a normal kid. I did that all right for a long time, into my twenties, in fact. For almost two decades, I was an ordinary little guy. Then what changed, ultimately, was — I’m working construction, Zibby, in St. Louis, Missouri. A little girl calls my phone. I flip it open. That dates me a little bit. I flipped the phone open. I say, “Hello.” She says, “Mr. O’Leary?” I say, “Oh, you want my dad.” She goes, “No. Mr. O’Leary, I spoke to your dad. Mr. O’Leary, would you share your story of being burned with my school?” I had not told guys I was working construction with. I had not really told — I’m married to her now, but I had not really told my girlfriend. I had not told friends in college. It was a painful story that I did not like to rehash.

That day at this construction site in front of an F-150, I said yes. I went. I spoke. One of the kids’ fathers said, “John, that was awesome. Would you speak for my rotary club?” I said sure. Then I said sure again and sure again and a couple thousand speeches later, have finally started to embrace the miracle that is this story, that is my life, that is all of our lives. I had to share that because it’s not a brag story. The whole thing is this slow ability to wake up to the gift of life and to recognize how remarkable others were and instrumental they were in guiding me forward in that journey. Even the front of the book that you have in your hands, when the editors of New York first got their hands on it, they sent it back to me — it was a picture of me wearing a suit. My arms were crossed. My hair was up just right. I’m looking at the reader like, aren’t I a badass? Look at me. If you read this thoroughly and maybe twice, you shall be too one day. Now when you see the book, dude, there’s no picture of me on the front or the back because it’s not about me. It’s a weird thing because it’s all about me in some regards, but it’s not at all about me. I wanted my readers to read it. I want my friends who hear me speak to read it or the people who follow us on our podcast to know it. It’s not about a guy. It’s about us collectively and what we can do together. I’m sorry for the long-winded non-answer, but I think it’s important to know that.

Zibby: It is not a non-answer. It is an introduction. It’s wonderful. You do take your own story and make it into these lessons. Your subtitle is The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life. You do take each one and make it a tip or an invitation to try something, to do something, to reconceive something else. Take us back if you don’t mind, or you don’t have to talk about it, to what happened that day and how your recovery and your decision to share has started this whole movement.

John: What a gift that is. As you read through the book, you realize it starts with chapter one, and it’s my mom, who is this unbelievable leader, a Midwestern woman. We never had any adversity growing up. I’m from a family with two parents, no divorces, no bankruptcy, no cancer diagnosis, nothing. It was clean-sailing lives for all six of my siblings and me and our two golden retrievers. Vacations down to Florida and occasionally up to Rhode Island. My gosh, it was an idyllic upbringing. Then at nine, I was involved in a gasoline explosion. About a week before, I had watched boys in my neighborhood play with fire and gasoline. Zibby, in life, if she can do it or he can do it or they can do it, so can I. On a Saturday morning with my parents at work, the house was mine. I walked into the garage, bent over a can of gasoline. The grandiose plan was to pour a little bit of gasoline on top of a piece of paper that was aflame. Before the liquid came out, the fumes from this five-gallon container inhaled the little flame into the can. Massive explosion launched me twenty feet against the far side of the garage and set my world on fire. One moment, I’m a happy, healthy, normal nine-year-old little guy with bangs and a turtleneck and a good life. Then in the next, I found myself in a hospital bed with burns on one hundred percent of my body. Eighty-seven percent were third degree. I’m dying. You know when you’re dying. Some of your listeners — we know when we’re dying. I knew I was dying, but I also knew even before death, I had fear. The fear was, my dad is going to kill me when he finds out. Even though I knew I was going to die anyway, my first concern was, before that happens, my dad is going to finish me off. I just played with gasoline. I blew up his home. He’s going to be irate.

I hear him coming down the hallway yelling at some nurse. “Where’s my boy? Where’s my boy John?” This man walks into the room. He pulls back the curtain, marches over to me — my father was a veteran — points down at me and says, “John, look at me when I’m talking to you.” In my family of origin, this was the kiss of death. “Look at me when I’m talking to you.” I look up at my dad. Then he goes, “I’ve never been so proud of anybody in my entire life. My little buddy, you look at me when I’m talking to you. Today, this morning, I’m just proud to be your dad.” Then he says, “I love you. I love you. I love you. There’s nothing you can do about it.” Zibby, you read the book, so you know what happens next. I remember crossing my arms and shutting my eyes and thinking, oh, my gosh, nobody told my dad what happened. Clearly, the old man does not know I played with fire and gasoline. I blew up his house. I caused all of this. What I did not know as a boy is the power of grace and sacrificial love and meeting people where they are, as they are, freeing them to be as they are. Honestly, fundamentally, that day, my dad’s love changed me. Our story doesn’t open up with that. That’s actually chapter seven, my dad’s love.

It opens up with a story of my mother’s, chapter one. My mom walks into this room. She takes my hand right after my father walks out. She says the words, “I love you.” I remember saying to her, “Mom, knock it off with the love. Am I going to die?” When I asked her that question that day — I’ve, of course, read and loved your book, so I know we’ve both been through some tumultuous times in our life. At this tumultuous time in mine, I was just looking for hope. I was looking for a hug. I wasn’t ready for what my mother was going to say back. I said, “Mom, am I going to die?” She says to me, “Baby, look at me. Do you want to? Do you want to die? It’s your choice, not mine.” I said, “Mom, I don’t want to die. Gosh, I don’t want to die. I want to live.” Her response was, “Good. Then look at me. You take the hand of God. You walk the journey with him, but you fight. John, listen to me. You fight like you’ve never fought before. Dad and I will be with you. You’re not alone, but do your part. Do your part. Fight forward.” This was the opening shot across the bow. It did not make five months in hospital easy, or amputations or skin grafts or bandage changes. It’s a torture program, man, in hospital for burn care. It’s really hard. None of that was easy because of that first moment, those first conversations, but the manner in which my dad walked in and then my mother’s boldness to call out, “John, do your part,” I think it made the journey possible. That’s how our story begins.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Just the power of hearing you talk about it, you capture it in the book as well. I can’t stop listening and hearing and wanting to soak up everything you say and everything you write. You are a gifted orator, among other things.

John: Can I cut you off there? I struggled in school. I’m inarticulate, if I’m honest with you. I dangle prepositions. I use the wrong word. I spell “there” wrong all the time. I’m goofy, man. I think that gifted oration that you might pick up is crazy vulnerability. It just cuts through the errors and allows us to connect with the message bigger than the one delivering it. That’s not humility. I’ve been doing self-work for a long time. I see very clearly, my brokenness. I know the reason why the story works is because it’s not about the one delivering it. There’s just something in it that allows us to imagine ourselves being that mom or being that dad or being that little boy in a difficult situation and wondering, how are we going to weather this thing? What are we going to do next?

Zibby: You’re deflecting the compliment, but it’s okay. I’ll take it. We’ll go with it there. Talk about the decision of how you structured this book around your experience. I know this is not your only book, On Fire. You have In Awe: Rediscover Your Childlike Wonder to Unleash Inspiration, Meaning, and Joy. You were so nice to have me on your podcast. I’m so incredibly humbled. Why do it like this? Why not just write a memoir? Why include the choices? I’m sure it’s linked to your feeling that what you’re doing is to help other people. Talk about this. Also, I really found it so interesting how you took everybody else’s perspective. Tell me about that. Do you talk to all of your siblings to get — just tell me about all that.

John: There’s so much in your beautiful question. First, why not write a memoir? I don’t like self-help, but it’s almost more like a self-help memoir, autobiography, instructional book on living a bold life. Why structure it like that? Even the way I answer that — I don’t like self-help gurus, really. I don’t learn much from motivational speakers. Ultimately, what I do when I speak or write or have friends like you on my podcast is bring on these powerful stories in order that you and I might live differently afterwards. That’s what the whole thing is geared toward. Whether it’s about being burned, going through a painful divorce, whatever else we’re going through in life, how do we take somebody else’s story and then say, okay, this is what it means for me in my life? Part of the reason why, even after sharing my story with the Girl Scouts, it took me a long time to imagine, why would I do this for another group or another group or another group? Why would I ever write a book? I’ve always viewed those things as being done for the person either holding the microphone or typing the memoir or the book. I begin every chapter with a question. Chapter four, are you in jail? That’s kind of a weird question. Chapter one, a book about life begins with the title, do you want to die? That’s kind of weird. The whole idea is, how do we have readers step into this and make a little Midwest boy’s story about being burned their story, on either coast around the world, about life? Not my life. Theirs. That’s why it’s structured like that.

I begin, usually, with the chapter opening up with a little nine-year-old boy writing from his perspective. I’m lying in the hospital bed. I don’t understand why this happened to me. I write it as a total victim to my circumstances. It’s not fair. How did this thing happen? Other boys did it, and they got — it’s this total mindset of how unfair life is. Then the mother steps in. Thank heavens for the moms and the dads and the leaders and the rabbis and the pastors and the AA counselors of our lives, man, stepping in alongside of us and calling out our bull. My mother steps in when I’m looking for someone to fix it. Do it for me, Mom. That’s what I want. She says back to me, “Do you want to die?” I’m a dad now. I was a new dad when I started writing that book, but I wasn’t fully a dad yet. It takes a while to fully understand a love like that. To put the choice of life and death into a child’s hands, who does that? Mom, but not only my mom. Love does that. Bold, audacious, unconditional love says, you choose it. If you come on back, I’ll be here for you. Honey, I love you that much. You’ve got to choose it for yourself. I try to structure the book in a manner in which was honest about our story, that allowed us to tell our story well, but ultimately, allow it to be a story that would be meaningful and moving for the readers of it. Then you asked about, John, you wrote a lot about others. Yeah, I interviewed all of them because I wanted the perspective not to be, I remember it like this, and I won. Is that how you remember it? No. I wanted it to be their perspective, ultimately, and the perspective of truth. In the book, you read about my mom. You heard about her already. You heard a little bit about my dad. My sisters — I don’t know if you read chapter three or not.

Zibby: I did.

John: Oh, my lord. When I speak, I kind of give the highlight reel of our story. I very seldom go into the corners. What those little girls did on the front yard that day, it’s unbelievable. I had to glean their perspective to understand what they felt and what they heard and what they did and why did they did it and all of that; ultimately, not why it’s moving me on your podcast to tears, but why it might move a reader not only to tears, but to movement, to action. I want your life better.

Zibby: Your brother, too, by the way, who you called such a hero, the guy who had not been particularly nice to you — oh, I’m sorry, you’re crying. I’m sorry.

John: I love it, man. This is so raw. I love my siblings. I don’t get to talk about them a lot. As an old man today — I’m forty-six. We’re just normal. We don’t talk about, gosh, do you remember that day? We don’t talk about that. We talk about our kids. Dude, three soccer practices on one night. I’m going to freaking — we talk about normal stuff today. Then I get to go on your podcast and talk about the great stuff and the painful stuff and ultimately, the good stuff of life, like my brother Jim.

Zibby: When you start feeling so emotional now, which piece of it? Which sister? What were they saying? Which moment?

John: I’ll go through it in lineation, one by one real quickly so maybe the listeners of your podcast, those we’ve not already rocked to sleep, will hear why O’Leary and Zibby are as emotional as they are on these three kids. That’s who they are. They’re just little kids, man. My brother Jim was seventeen. My mom and dad went out at work. Saturday morning, 7:32, explosion, big explosion, so large, in fact, that my neighbor’s windows blew out. Boom, this thing rocked the neighborhood and certainly woke up my siblings, including my brother, whose room was in the basement. I’m out of the garage now, but I’m on fire. My little sweatsuit was just fueled with gasoline. I’m a torch on the front hall screaming for a hero, praying for a savior. My brother Jim, who heard the explosion and then the screams, comes up, looks at me. I look at him. I remember thinking, anybody else. Jim can’t do anything for me. He’s a seventeen-year-old self-centered punk. He’s my brother. He’s normal. I need a hero, a firefighter. Where are they? Where’s my mom? Jim’s the one. I just think there’s so much we can borrow from that. We keep waiting for Biden or Trump or the next president or the next governor or the next spouse or the next whatever to kind of fix us right now. There’s something about saying, the one in front of us is the one that’s going to do the work. Sometimes the one in front of us is the one in the mirror. Let’s do this thing. My brother Jim sees me aflame, runs over to me. He picks up a rug, the kind of you’re supposed to wipe your feet on, and just starts beating me with this rug. I have no idea what he’s doing. I’m nine. I’m on fire. I’m in pain. He’s swinging down. After three or four swings, he drops the rug because he catches. He pulls back, which is what we do when it’s about us.

Then Jim, as he watches his brother burn more — now you know why I’m emotional; my gosh, this is life and death — comes back into the fight, swings down a fifth time and a sixth time and a seventh and a tenth and a fifteenth. Two and a half minutes later, picks me up, carries me outside like a baby, throws me on the ground, jumps on top of me, rolls around on top of me. After he completely puts out the fire, he then runs back into the house, calls 911. Then he checks every single bedroom to make sure my siblings are out and the dog is out. 1987, the lifesaver of the year for the state of Missouri was not a firefighter or a police officer or a veteran coming home from war. The lifesaver of the year was a seventeen-year-old arrogant, self-centered boy named Jim O’Leary who changed in real time. He changed. Eventually, it’s going to change me too. That’s my brother Jim. There’s a lot more to the story. Then my sister Amy’s in the front yard. She’s eleven that day. I’m naked. It’s a messy situation. I’ll spare you the details. This little girl comes over to me. I’m just melting away in front of her, almost literally. She just comes over, and she holds me. Isn’t that what you long — you know, Zibby. You’ve had your struggles in life. When you are on the ground floor and falling farther, what we long for is someone to come alongside of us and just love us as we are. I get that morning, not from a counselor or a parent, but from an eleven-year-old sister who just holds me tight. She says to me, “John, it’s okay. It’s okay. It’s going to be all right. I have faith. Fight. The best is yet to come.” After hearing her say this on repeat several times, I remember saying to her, “Amy –” I’m looking at my hands. You can see them on the screen. I’m looking at my body, which is charred. I say to her, “Amy, do me a favor. Go back into the house because it’s not going to be okay. Get a knife. Come on back out here. I want you to kill me. I’m not okay.”

This little girl says to me, words sometimes I need to hear. If you want to say them on the podcast, Zibby, feel free. She says to me, “John, shut up. What’s wrong with you? Have faith. Fight. The best is yet to come.” I just knew she was wrong, so I kind of tuned her out. Overhearing the conversation was the third and final hero. Now you know why I’m emotional. This little girl named Susan, who hears her brother longing for a knife, this little girl goes into a house that is on fire. I’m not exaggerating to say the smoke is billowing through the windows and the doors. She makes it into the front hall. Then she can’t see or breathe anymore, but she’s on mission. She goes into the kitchen, stumbles her way back there, opens up a drawer, reaches in, grabs whatever she came in for, and comes back outside. I just remember standing in the front yard that day watching my house burn being held by one sister and then watching our seven-year-old sister Susan come out through the smoke. Her face was covered in soot, black little cheeks now. She comes over to me. She just throws this cup of water right into my face. I want to die, Zibby. I want out of this mess. Some of us have been there on the call today. She’s risking her life for mine. Then after she throws that first cup of water, she goes into the house a second time, gets a second cup of water, fills it up, runs back outside, throws it on my face, and then, at age seven, turns and goes right back in.

We think it’s nothing short of a miracle that this little girls goes into a house three times for three cups of water, throwing each one directly into my face. I am burned, as you know, on one hundred percent of my body. I am burned from my neck to my toes, third degree. The part of my body that is best saved — you’re looking at it right now, Zibby — is my face. It’s not only the most handsome part of my body today. It’s also the part of my body that they took thirteen layers of skin for a donor site, they call it. It’s from my scalp. The doctors who know credit my sister’s bravery that morning with giving them the opportunity of having skin later on to use as a donor site. That saved my life later on. Man, we need us all. I’m such, in some regards, a centralist politically. I keep trying to draw people together because what I am so convinced of — it’s that odd, awkward tension between the two sides. We need them both. We need them actively engaged. We need everybody showing up mightily together taking their next right best step. On that morning, I had three really different siblings showing up for me. In them showing up for me, I’m with you today, Zibby, on your podcast.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, John.

John: That’s why I get emotional. Geez.

Zibby: It’s amazing. There are no words. It’s a gift from God, what they did, that you were saved, that the whole thing has transpired this way so that you can turn back around and share the gifts that you received. The power and the bravery of your family and yourself, it’s amazing. It’s just amazing. You’re all incredible. It just goes to show what everybody does under duress, you might not think you can do, and yet you might be the one who can save someone else.

John: Even more poignantly — I think what you said is so brilliant. You are the one. We so frequently cheapen our life. This book and our work, ultimately, not just as an author — my work as a human being is to remind people how much their life matters. In a marketplace where forty-six percent of us report being isolated, it’s a big deal now. This is chronic. This is a real problem. So many of us feel as if our life is cheapened where we can’t really influence positive change around us. I try to step forward, remind the seven-year-olds out there and the eleven-year-olds and the seventeen-year-olds and the parents and the single people and the nurses and the doctors and the CNAs and the inmates and the wardens all that your work matters. It matters big time. Act like it. Even when you don’t feel like it, act like it.

Zibby: Wow. John, thank you. For people listening, this is just a tiny glimpse at the power of the actual book, On Fire, which you will read, as I did, with my hand over my heart, sometimes covering my mouth and ultimately, leaving so inspired, which, of course, is the point, living a radically inspired life. John, thank you. Thank you for coming on. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s amazing. I just can’t stop thinking about all of it.

John: I have good news for you. I’ve had 506 podcast interviews now, outbound, so from our “Live Inspired” channel. My wife has listened to three of them. You, Zibby, are one of the three because she was so moved by the book that she wanted to hear the author who wrote it. You are now in elite territory. Elizabeth O’Leary, my beautiful wife, has loved and been so moved by your life. I wanted to on that.

Zibby: Thank Elizabeth for me. I really appreciate her connecting us.

John: I’m honored. I’m grateful to be your friend. Thank you for letting me be on your show.

Zibby: Of course. Anytime. Bye, John. Thank you.

John: Honored.

John O'Leary, ON FIRE: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life

ON FIRE: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life by John O’Leary

Purchase your copy on Amazon and Bookshop.

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts