Johnny Sirpilla’s Life Took a Tragic Turn. He’s Since Discovered Hardships Can Bring About Incredible Transformation

UPDATED: April 16, 2024
PUBLISHED: April 17, 2024
Johnny Sirpilla headshot

Johnny Sirpilla’s transformative story began when he was in his late 20s. He and his wife Susan had tried for years to have children, and it was finally happening. Triplets, two boys and a girl. But Susan’s water broke at six months, and their beautiful babies didn’t make it.

Today, Sirpilla says that working through that grief, challenging as it was, laid the groundwork that would inform much of the rest of his life. 

“I refused to let it be a tragic situation, where any time we thought of them we thought of them in this dark and awful way,” he says. “We really worked to turn that around, to create it as a blessing in our lives and to learn to be thankful for all we were given.”

Navigating that tremendously difficult time also impacted him professionally. He’s the first to admit that until grappling with infertility, he’d had a pretty charmed life: “raised in a loving home, every opportunity afforded to me,” he smiles. Previously, he’d always believed that people’s problems should stay at home—that they could only do their best work by separating their personal and professional lives. 

Learning to live with the loss of his triplets changed all that. 

“I needed to create a culture at work where we’re lifting them up through validation of their good work, creating security so that they know their job’s not at risk if they’re weak in an area,” Sirpilla explains. “So that they go home, to their most important job, as mother, father, sister, brother, caregiver, grandfather—whatever that role is in life—and they bring that energy home. I really saw it as a way to change the American household.”

How Johnny Sirpilla found his calling

Today, as the founder of Encourage LLC and the author of Life Is Hard But I’ll Be OK, Sirpilla shares his hard-earned wisdom on emerging from life’s darker moments with folks who are facing hardships, be they mental, spiritual or financial. 

His background is in business—for many years, he was the president of Camping World, and today he serves on the board of public and private companies including the Pro Football Hall of Fame—but he has a special knack for human development. He also holds certifications from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business in Executive Presence and Influence: Persuasive Leadership Development and Understanding the Brain: Using Neuroscience to Deliver Better Business Results.

“I love encouraging other people,” he says. “I love lifting them up. I felt it was my responsibility every day when I came to work to make the people around me successful. And as long as they were successful, the company will be as well. But I wanted more than just their professional success. I wanted to impact personal success and confidence that they could take into relationships, they could take into volunteer organizations that they’re part of.”

This more holistic understanding of success is what led Sirpilla to retire from Camping World. The company had its IPO on his 50th birthday, and he remembers being surprised by his own reaction—practically rushing off the stock exchange floor, in what should have been one of the proudest moments of his life, to get to LaGuardia Airport hours ahead of his flight so he wouldn’t miss a minute of his son’s football game that night.

Why Johnny Sirpilla started Encourage LLC

He was feeling called from within to do… well, to do something. He wasn’t entirely sure what just yet, but though he loved the company and his colleagues, he had a sense that it was time to do something for himself. This epiphany (and the accompanying rush home) were what spurred Sirpilla to start Encourage LLC. 

When it comes to uplifting those who find themselves in a place of hopelessness, he cautions against falling into a mindset of asking, “Why me?” You could just as easily ask, “Why not me?” he chuckles, and in fact, there’s a chapter in Life Is Hard But I’ll Be OK titled “Why Not Us?”

“None of us are exempt from hardships in our lives,” Sirpilla notes. “There’s bad things happening to good people all over the world. We’re not exempt.”

The key, he says, is to take those tough times and look for the insight that can be gleaned from the hardship. He often asks people what they’ve learned from a difficult time, and if they tell him they haven’t learned anything, he’ll quickly counter that that’s impossible. 

If someone is emerging from a toxic workplace, for example, with a boss who belittled them, it’s one thing to recognize that you’ve been a victim—it’s another thing to allow yourself to be cast as the victim, and to wear that as a badge. 

Sirpilla counsels people to reframe those negative experiences, and to ask, “OK, well now that’s over… what are you going to do moving forward?”

“When it’s so dark, it’s looking at: OK, there’s lessons here,” he says. “There’s pearls of wisdom that I have to find out of this.”

Photo by Darren Miles Photography

Cassel is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor, a co-owner of Racket MN, and a VHS collector.