Everybody has the ability to do something special and important.
That’s the message of John O’Leary, who believes that whether you’re a top-level executive or a rookie accountant, you can make a difference with an inspired attitude.
O’Leary, who spoke Monday at the AICPA fall Council meeting in San Antonio, nearly did not get an opportunity to make a difference of his own. While playing with matches and gasoline at age 9, he sparked a fire that burned 100% of his body. He was given almost no chance to survive.
But after five months in the hospital, dozens of surgeries, and years of therapy, he recovered. He went on to graduate from St. Louis University with a degree in finance and a minor in IT. He worked at his own real estate development firm for about 11 years, before his parents wrote and self-published a book, Overwhelming Odds, about how he overcame his childhood adversity. They initially printed 100 copies to give to family and friends; subsequently, 60,000 have sold.
The enthusiastic reception the book received showed O’Leary he had an inspirational story that people were eager to hear. He began receiving calls requesting him to share his story live. His first speaking engagement was for three Girl Scouts, followed by local Rotary and Kiwanis clubs. Now he has spoken to more than 1 million people in 49 states and 12 countries over the past 10 years.
His message is simple.
“You don’t need to be a massive business owner or a partner in one of the big firms to have a huge impact,” he said during a telephone interview before his AICPA speech.
O’Leary also is the author of the bestselling book On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life. He said asking three questions each day can give people the inspiration to do great things. The first is “Why me?”
It’s meant as an opportunity to count blessings in the manner of “Why am I so lucky? Why am I so fortunate?” O’Leary suggests that people spend 60 seconds each day after they wake up considering that question and, ideally, jotting down their answers in a journal.
“You come up with a different list than you did the day before,” O’Leary said. “And then you come up with a different list, and this muscle, this gratitude muscle or attitude muscle, you stretch it, it gets stronger and stronger and stronger.”
It’s easy for that muscle to atrophy in a world where headlines often trumpet bad news, and politics can be divisive to the point of being corrosive. O’Leary said these factors prevent people from realizing that they enjoy lives that are relatively safe and often fairly wealthy.
Asking “Why me?” at the start of the day can put the focus back on the good fortune that people enjoy.
“If we don’t intentionally choose this mindset, we tend to first think of all the things we don’t have or the things we have to get done,” O’Leary said.
The next question is “Who cares?” O’Leary suggests asking this question in the shower (with no journal required). The question is meant to tease out a person’s values and mission. It is to be answered with: “I choose to care and I choose to thrive because …”
The resulting mission statement gives people a sense of purpose. As an example, O’Leary’s mission statement is: “I choose to care and I choose to thrive because God demands it, my family deserves it, and the world is starved for it.”
“It’s why I get out of bed early,” O’Leary said. “It’s why I stay up late. It’s why I work like a dog but play like a puppy, and it’s why I’m expecting the best is around the corner still.”
With gratitude and a sense of purpose established, people can ask themselves a third question: “What more can I do to ensure that tomorrow is better than today?” This allows people to form a strategy related to the day.
O’Leary relates the effect of this approach to that of compound interest. If you consistently make tomorrow better than today, you will have great success a year from now, and life will be amazing in five or 10 years.
Because he was a finance major and has several friends who are CPAs, he understands the challenges that accountants must overcome to successfully adopt this three-question strategy.
First, disciplines such as auditing or forensic accounting may train accountants to look all day for things that might be going wrong. These professionals will need a special focus on the positive when they contemplate reasons they are fortunate in answer to the question “Why me?”
Second, it may be difficult during busy season to find time to consider the three questions. But O’Leary said taking the time to be guided by the three questions will pay dividends. He acknowledges that it’s difficult but said it can be transformative if it’s used faithfully.
“This mindset shift allows you to step away from business, step away from the urgent or the broken,” he said, “and focus on the things you actually can control to ensure that you do it even better the following day.”
—Ken Tysiac (Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com) is a JofA editorial director.