Hello, everyone. My name is Penny Pennington, and I can't tell you what a privilege it is to be with you here today, our friends at Edward Jones. To say that the last several months have left us collectively feeling challenged, anxious, maybe a little afraid, that's an understatement. Our normal lives have been disrupted and we've been left to wonder when normalcy, whatever that is in the future, is going to return. But our perspective, how we face those challenges, and how we choose to live into them is a choice. That mindset shapes how we deal with life's hardships, whatever storms come our way.
So with that, I want to introduce you to a friend, John O'Leary. John has an amazing story and his message of hope is something that has touched me and I think will touch you as well. He's shared this perspective with millions of people across the globe. He has an international podcast called Live Inspired. His first book that he wrote in 2016 is called On Fire, and it was a number one best seller. And he's just come out with his next book called In Awe. John, I am so glad to be here with you today. Welcome, my friend.
Hello, Penny. And to hear twice in your introduction the words my friend, it means a lot to partner with Edward Jones a couple dozen times and to look around the room and to see friends every time I'm with you. It is an honor. So I'm grateful to be part of this conversation.
So we talked about your story and I would love for you to share your story with our friends. Would you please?
Yeah. One of the wild things about stories is frequently we don't even know we have one to tell, and that certainly was my case. But in my story, the one I now recognize is the turning point in a positive way in my life, it takes us all the way back to age nine. I, about a week before this event, had witnessed boys in my neighborhood playing with fire and gasoline. They were 11 and mischievous and they would pour a little gasoline on a sidewalk, they would strike a match, stand back a couple of feet, throw the match on top and they would just dance to life. And when you're nine and these are guys you look up to, you figure if they can do it so can I.
So on a Saturday morning with my father at work and my mother out, the house was mine, I walked into the garage, I bent over a can of gasoline, lit a piece of cardboard on fire, bent over the can, tried to pour a little bit on top. Before the liquid even came up, Penny, the flames, the fluid, the fumes came out of that can. It created this massive explosion. It split that can in two, it launched the nine year old boy 20 feet against the far side of the garage, it covered me in gasoline and it burned me on my entire body. I found myself, after that explosion, not only with burns on a hundred percent of my body, but with my life in all likelihood being taken away from me.
So much happened to you at such a young person and you have come to live this amazing and inspiring life. And you chose not to tell that story for 20 years, so can you tell us why?
My dream in life, Penny, was not to become some international speaker or podcast host, as you said on the front side of our conversation, my big dream as a child was to be ordinary. All I wanted to do as a little boy was to disappear.
And that may not sound overly ambitious, but when there is no promise of tomorrow at all for you, and when you look in the mirror and you see scars that cover your body, and when you look down for a couple of years and you look at legs that don't move the way they used to, and you're stuck in a wheelchair and you're missing your fingers on the ends of your hands, your dream is not to be extraordinary. It's actually to be utterly ordinary. And so that was my great goal in life, just to fit in, just to be part of the ordinary. And that was exactly what I did for a couple decades.
And when I was 27 years old, there was a call on my cell phone. It was a young girl. She said, may I speak to Mr. O'Leary? And I said, "Yeah, sure. I'll give you my dad's number." And she goes, "No, no, no. I think it's you I want to talk to you. I think I want to talk to you, Mr. O'Leary." And it turns out that she read this little book my mom and dad had written about our experience of as a family going through this burn experience. And she invited me, a little third grade girl, to share my part of that story in front of her class. And Penny, I had never told anybody how I was burned. It wasn't something at all I was proud of, it wasn't something I was professionally seeking to do. But in life it's always occurred to me when you're called, you go. When you have an opportunity to serve, the answer is yes.
And so as a 27 year old man, I said yes to this young girl, I shared my story in front of three St. Louis Girl Scouts. They were third graders. I was terrified of this little group of monsters so I looked down at my notes the entire time, gave my 11 minute presentation. And I assumed that was the end of it, I assumed I bombed it. But one of the guys in the back of the room was a dad and he was a Rotarian. And he came up to me afterwards, after the girls had a chance to give me a little hug and thanked me for my time, and he said, "Would you speak to my Rotary club?" So I said, "Of course, of course." And then one of the Rotarians was a Kiwanis member and he said, "Would you speak to my group?" So I said, "Sure."
And this was almost 16 years ago. We've had the opportunity of saying yes now to more than 2000 organizations, 50 states, a couple dozen countries around the world, saying yes ultimately to a story about life, a story about redemption, a story ultimately about possibility and coming together as one.
It's a choice. It's a choice that we have the power to make. And so much of what you've described is a lot of that power comes from being in it together with our families, with our friends, with our community, with our colleagues. What a powerful choice that is. So you choose to be optimistic and loving and joyous, and you wrote about that in your new book, In Awe, so talk a little bit about that book and why you wrote it.
As you said a couple of times, Penny, I wrote this book because as I traveled around as a speaker, and I've been all over the country and all over the world, I've noticed frequently that adults go through their lives with their shoulders bent. We have become a bit cynical about our politicians, about the media, about our families, about our neighbors, about our community, about our future, and about our lives itself. And then I contrast that with the way children go through life. Children have this sense of dynamic, raw optimism. It's this unbridled belief that they possess in their heart of hearts that the best days remain in front of them. For them, every single experience throughout their day is a gift. It's a profound joy simply to be alive. And then we get older and we begin to move away from that profound sense of awe.
And so I saw what was happening in the community as a whole. I saw, if I'm being really honest with you, sometimes what was happening in the reflection in the mirror. And I was contrasting that with the way children lived their lives and my own children were living their lives. The sense of beauty, of belonging, of togetherness. And I wanted to make sure that they saw, as they age, the lessons they were teaching me and these lessons that they taught as children, that they may move away from a bit as they grew older but they could return to any time. It's a constant invitation for us to unleash childlike awe in every single circumstance throughout our days.
The big things and the small things, right? The small joys, the big actions that we can take, all that accumulate and come together to really make a life of joy and a life that we can live in awe. And you talk in your book about the difference that people can make for each other and you tell an amazing story about the difference makers of two different doctors in your experience. Can you tell that story?
I told this just to my family yesterday around the dinner table. So this is raw, this is fresh, this is hot off the press. And it's an honor to do so because I think it's not only an incredible story from our past, which also influences our present and our future, but also a story that if you pay attention, you can replay the story in your own mind on which seat you found yourself seated in. And ultimately on which one you want to find yourself seated in going forward. So he here's the story. A little boy named John came home from the hospital. Yeah, he had piano classes, but there was very little I could do with my hands. My fingers had been amputated all the way down to the knuckles and it was very, very, very difficult for me to do anything. Anything at all.
And my mother had read about a physician several states away that was doing this radical procedure that allowed him to cut into the webbing of the hands. And it allowed this person to actually create fingers where there were none. It was like a miracle surgery. And so we were all excited. We got the appointment, we hopped into our old wooden station wagon, we drove a couple states away. It took us seven and a half hours to get there. We met with this person and, Penny, what I remember most is during the hour or so consult, he talked about me, but never once with me. He asked my parents questions, but he never once asked me a single question. He poked and he prodded at me, but he never once really touched me, there's a difference.
By the end of this meeting, my dad looked at him and said, "Doctor, what do you think about my son? What do you think about his hands? What do you think about his prospects?" And the answer he gave, and this is the honest answer, he looked at me for the very first time into my eyes, then he looked back at my dad and he said, "Well, Denny, if your son was a horse, I would shoot him. If your son was the horse, I would shoot him. I would put him down." Okay. This is one way to look at a nine year old boy in a wheelchair seated right across a few tiles from us, that's one way to see a human being. It's one way to see a difficulty in your own life, it's one way to see our year 2020. A lot of people are saying, "Man, I would just wish we could get over this year, move on to 2021." It's one way to see the experiences in life. But there's another way. And there's a better way. And it's one that I experienced as a little boy, about two weeks later.
My mom and dad and I made that seven and a half hour trip home. It was sad. We cried a little bit on the way. And then a couple of weeks later, we walked into a different physician's office. His name was Carlos Pappalardo. And what I remember most about this visit, Penny, is when he walked into the room, he had a file in front of him. He had this big manila file in front of him so he did not look at us, but he had it in front of his eyes. I could not see anything. He could not see us either. And he was singing, he was singing in Italian. I barely have a grasp of the English language, let alone the Italian language. So I have no idea back then what this man was singing, but I could hear joy, I could hear happiness, I could hear passion.
He eventually sits down, he puts the file down, he opens it up, reads for a moment, and then he claps his hands together as he's reading and he says, "My goodness. Has it come to pass that on this day, I get to meet the miracle boy himself, John O'Leary? Has it come to pass? What luck is this?" Then he clapped his hands together, he shut the file, he put it back in front of him, he walked out of that room while singing, the door shuts behind him. My mom and dad and I are looking at each other like what in the world was this? What was this?
And then the door creeks open again. This gentleman peeks around the corner. He looks right at me, forget about my parents. That's not who he's there to see anyway. He looks right at me, right into my eyes, right into my heart. And he says, "Oh my. Were you seated here the entire time?" And I'm nine years old, man. I take the bait. So I nod my head like this. And he goes, "Oh my, I am so embarrassed. May I ask, are you the miracle boy himself? Are you John O'Leary?" So I nod sheepishly. And he goes, "I had been longing to meet you. May I shake your hand?" And so I extend this damaged hand toward him, with both of his he reaches toward me, kind of kneeling in front of me. He shakes my hand and says, "John, it is an honor. It is an honor."
We have this hour long consult. At the very end of it, you can't make something like this story up and just sometimes miracles happen, my father looks at this physician and he says, "Dr. Carlos Pappalardo, what do you think about my boy?" And the doctor immediately looked away from my dad. He looked right at me, kind of gave me a little nod like this, looked back at my dad and he says, "Denny, when I see your son and I see his hands, I see something as beautiful as an Italian sunset. That's what I see when I see your son. That's what I see when I see your boy." You can imagine which physician we chose to partner with, to ally ourselves with, to do these procedures with.
We had four surgeries together and countless other little procedures but over time, over several years, he was able to extend where there were none fingers from my palms. Fingers that have now allowed me the opportunity of holding pens, of holding drinks, holding school books, holding my future wife's hand, changing diapers, living life with hands that this person saw where others saw a horse to be shot and put down. This person saw hands as beautiful and as filled with potential as an Italian sunset. So I think it brings us back not to two doctors, not to burn care, but to our lives, to 2020, to your marriage, to your singleness, to the calendar, to challenges in the marketplace, to changes in the markets.
When you see what's happening around you, how do you choose to see this stuff? And if you chose to see it through the lens of the second position, how might it change not only what you saw, but how you felt about it, what you think, what you pray, the actions you take and ultimately the results you make? It turns out that the future is not yet determined. One person can change the life of another. But when we do this at scale, when we do this at Edward Jones and beyond, I think we can change the world.
You've changed our world today by sharing your stories and reminding us that a life in awe, a life of love and beauty, and choosing to see what those doctors saw, beautiful people sitting in front of them, incredible opportunities, and the great lives ahead. Thank you for reminding us of that. Your very being reminds us of that.
Penny, you're only able to reflect the lights you've received. And so I hope to give off an awful lot of light because I feel as if I received an unfair amount of it.
Well, we feel the same way at Edward Jones by being friends with you and by being friends and fellow community builders with our millions of clients in our thousands of communities where we serve. 49,000 Edward Jones colleagues who get up every morning thinking about how to make a difference in other people's lives and take good care of them. John, thank you for reminding us all why it's so important to be in this together. It's a privilege to serve you, it's a privilege to know you. Thank you everyone for joining us today.
A near-death experience
At 9 years old, John O'Leary nearly died in a fire. He experienced burns over 100% of his body and was not expected to live. Today, he is healthy, happy — and sharing his message of hope with millions of people across the globe.
Overcome with optimism
In this video, Penny Pennington and John O'Leary discuss how altering your perspective can help you overcome nearly any challenge you may face.
"To say that the last several months have left us collectively feeling challenged, anxious, maybe a little afraid, that's an understatement. Our normal lives have been disrupted, and we've been left to wonder when normalcy, whatever that is in the future, is going to return. But our perspective, how we face those challenges, and how we choose to live into them is a choice. That mindset shapes how we deal with life's hardships, whatever storms come our way."
Penny Pennington, Managing Partner, Edward Jones
"When you see what's happening around you, how do you choose to see this stuff? … how might it change not only what you saw, but how you felt about it, what you think, what you pray, the actions you take and ultimately the results you make? It turns out that the future is not yet determined. One person can change the life of another. But when we do this at scale … I think we can change the world."
John O'Leary, International Podcast Host and #1 Best-selling Author
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