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  • Dan Connors

In Awe- when was the last time you felt that way?

In Awe: Rediscover Your Childlike Wonder to Unleash Inspiration, Meaning, and Joy John O'Leary, 2020

"My friend, the day is new and the sun is rising.

You choose where you go from here.

You can continue doing things the way you've been doing them. BUt instead, I hope you accept the invitation of awe.

It's time to unleash your inspiration, meaning, and joy.

And see what is possible when you live in Awe. " John O'Leary

John O'Leary is a motivational speaker, writer, and podcast host from my home town of St. Louis, and he is an inspiration. When he was nine years old he survived a horrific accident with a fire that badly burned him and nearly killed him. He spent five months in the hospital and had to endure several surgeries and therapies to help him use his now deformed hands.

O'Leary's first book, On Fire, was a bestseller that told this story in detail and how he recovered from it. In Awe, his second book, references the fire a bit, but expands to show some of the lessons John has learned from the experience. One of the reasons I was eager to read this book was having seen the author in person twice giving motivational speeches that were personal and profound. The other reason was his podcast, John O'Leary Inspires, in which he interviews inspiring people from all walks of life. Anybody around that much inspiration all year has got to have something helpful to say.

In Awe looks at the viewpoint of children and how engaged and entranced they can be about the world as they first discover it. As adults, we lose much of that awe and humility as we become experienced and more cynical, and O'Leary presents five senses that he believes can help restore that feeling of awe.

The sense of wonder, he says, is a passionate curiosity and open-mindedness that children are all born with. Kindergartners test with genius levels of divergent thinking. Given the task of thinking up different uses for a paper clip, their minds go wild and come up with all sorts of options. Adults, only 2% of whom stay at that level, can only come up with a few uses. When adults have a problem to solve, they use low-temperature searches, seeking out what's worked in the past. But when kids and divergent thinkers look for solutions, they do high-temperature searches that involve creative and unique solutions that have never been done before.

In order to feel more alive, we need to curate that sense of wonder and be more open-minded and curious about our world. Be willing to admit you don't know something and go out and ask for input. There are new solutions and new pathways that we haven't considered in our adult brains.

The sense of expectancy, O'Leary presents, is the anticipation and excitement that comes with believing good things are coming. Optimists are more likely to have a fruitful life than are pessimists. The placebo effect demonstrates the very real consequences on the human body for expectations. If you think you'll feel better, often you will, even if the pill is a placebo.

Positive expectancy can shape our world. That doesn't mean ignoring reality. It means working towards better results within the reality we have. Just the act of having a calendar with an important date to look forward to, (like John's son in a poignant story) can make life more worth living. Once you give up hope for the future you're as good as dead. Expectancy keeps us alive, just as it kept John alive through his ordeal. The power of hope can fuel long and difficult journeys.

The sense of immersion means living in the present, being there for the people and events that are going on all around you today. O'Leary calls not being present the thief of joy. Those stuck in the cycle of work, play, repeat day after day forget to appreciate the special times when they happen.

He claims that nearly half of Americans don't use all their vacation time, which I found hard to fathom. Vacations, breaks, sabbaths, and weekends are a chance to recharge, rest, and let go of problems for a while. Immerse yourself in nature or a hobby you love. Only after a decent respite can we be present for the tasks that await us when we get back. Then we can work towards the state of flow, where we know why we're doing things and can immerse ourselves in the task.

The sense of belonging is the vital feeling that we need each other, and we have a space where others accept, appreciate and love us. One of the worst tortures known to mankind is solitary confinement. Humans are a social species and are wired for connection. But according to this book we only spend 41 minutes a day socializing (this has probably gone way down in the age of Covid-19). We spend way more time engaged with screens- computers, phones and televisions than we do with each other.

We all need to embrace the sense that we are not alone in our experiences. There is someone feeling the same way no matter how weird the situation. There are support groups for many, many afflictions. You don't have to be alone. Step out of the shadows and share who you are, like the characters in PT Barnum's circus. You will be accepted once you accept yourself.

John tells the inspiring story of how at age nine he was welcomed back at his elementary school by cheering students and teachers. While his disfigurement from the burns could have been a reason for ostracism and bullying, he was fully accepted by his fellow classmates. Another inspiring story in the book involves a couple with two Down's syndrome children who grew to love their kids and open a restaurant for people with that affliction.

The sense of freedom is the belief that you can take risks and get in the game without fear or regret. Many of us hide on the sidelines waiting for others to make the first move, because failing or looking stupid is considered worse than doing nothing.

The author tells a moving story about how his fear of rich, important people kept him from reaching out to his idol, Jack Buck, who had helped him immeasurably when he was in the hospital. O'Leary tried to go to Buck's funeral and had to turn around because of his fears and had an epiphany about how important it is to face your fears and show up.

Sometimes, especially in the age of Covid, it's important to be cautious and listen to reasonable voices about the dangers ahead. But when the fears are unjustified by the reality, and the only possible bad result is a bit of humiliation or waste of time, we need to cast them aside and go for it.

John O'Leary overcame big odds to recover from his accident. It made him both humbled and motivated. He was lucky to have a loving nuclear family that knew what to say and do when their 9-year old burns down the garage and himself. And he was enormously lucky to have a St. Louis icon, Jack Buck, happen to walk by his hospital room and learn his story, motivating him to engage the entire Cardinals baseball team in his recovery. O'Leary knows how lucky he was and is trying to give back. I look forward to future offerings.

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