Tom Nash
1,993,143 views • 8:55

Often when I'm out in public, a child will stare at me. And if the child is particularly brave, they'll approach me and ask: "Are you a pirate?"

(Laughter)

To which I then need to respond, once again, "Yes."

(Laughter)

I mean, let's be honest: I've got two hooks, prosthetic legs and a penchant for hard liquor.

(Laughter)

All I need is an eye-patch and a parrot, and I'm basically there.

(Laughter)

But I like being a pirate. I find many advantages to having a disability, and I'm not just talking about the money I save on gloves ...

(Laughter)

or the fantastically legitimate excuse for never having to master chopsticks.

(Laughter)

I'm talking about real advantages I feel I've gained, having gone through physical adversity.

When I was 19, I contracted a disease that resulted in the loss of both my arms at the elbows, both my legs below the knee, and left enough scars on my face to elicit jealousy in Freddy Krueger.

(Laughter)

Now, I may never be able to communicate in sign language, but my increased resilience and general ability to problem-solve has been heightened by being forced to think laterally to overcome problems that most people aren't faced with.

One of the first lessons that I learned immediately followed the painful and arduous task of learning how to walk again, but it went on to pay dividends for the rest of my life. It happened when I attempted to step up a curb. Now as rudimentary as this action sounds to most of you, stepping up a curb is somewhat of a challenge for those of us without ankle movement. So I tried stepping up the curb the way I'd always known how, front on, for days on end, with no success, until it became obvious that the time and effort I was investing into this endeavor was clearly disproportionate to the benefit of its outcome.

(Laughter)

So, I decided to inspect the problem from a different angle. If I couldn't use an ankle joint to achieve the range of motion that I required to mount the curb, I would have to use a different joint, like my hip. So I turned my body perpendicular to the curb and placed my foot up sideways, and I was able to step up immediately. Within five minutes, no staircase was safe from my advances.

(Laughter)

That very day, I climbed a staircase of three flights, which I was quite impressed with as well, except I realized that I didn't know how to get back down again.

(Laughter)

That was a long weekend.

(Laughter)

Now, in my past life as an able-bodied person, I'd been a guitarist. I was alright as a player, but I'd never really taken it further. I'd never really started a band or played live all that much. Nonetheless, music was a great passion of mine, and when I lost my arms, the idea that it may no longer be a part of my life critically challenged my will to keep living. However, the thought that emerged immediately after being discharged from hospital was: "If Ray Charles can play the piano while blind as a bat, let's get to work on a solution for this guitar problem." So, consulting with an engineer, I designed a slide system that would hook into my left hook, and I devised another pick-holder system that would clip into my right hook. Now, if this worked, I would be able to play the guitar open tuned on my lap, like a slide.

So after weeks of testing and alterations, I finally had the accessories back to play the guitar again, and I was right back where I was before losing my hands — being issued with noise complaints from my neighbors, obviously.

(Laughter)

But this time, I took it further. I started a band with my friends. We wrote songs and recorded them. We even played gigs to real people. Not as many as this.

(Laughter)

But even though it was a just a tiny step, it was a giant leap from what I'd achieved when I was all in one piece.

Now while relearning every action that one has ever cultivated might seem like a significant undertaking — and believe me, it very much was, in the short term — it was nonetheless having a positive effect on the way that I approached everything else in my life. Not only did it transform my ability to problem-solve, but I also felt I became more pragmatic, less sensitive to hindrances, in some cases, more patient, and magically transformed people's abilities to offer me their seats on public transport.

(Laughter)

Trivial setbacks began to pale in comparison to challenges I'd previously overcome, and this allowed me to take a calm and measured approach to these challenges, keeping them in perspective and often even finding new and improved ways to overcome them. The benefit of not dwelling on the negative and just getting on with the task at hand became self-evident. It even encouraged me to pursue some more fulfilling career paths that may otherwise have been inadvisable. And who would have thought that an appropriate job for me might involve the meticulous operation of electronic equipment to curate dance music to people in inaccessible places under the influence of alcohol.

(Laughter)

Not I.

So in a competitive industry where DJs have been relentlessly honing their craft, desperate to attain gigs, sending demos to clubs, my best friend and I took a different approach, and we started our own club night, and we employed ourselves as the DJs.

(Laughter)

Suddenly, we had a headline slot.

(Laughter)

Now, when we started that club night, I could not DJ. The first time I ever got behind the decks was on our opening night, in front of hundreds of people. I'd only just learned where the play button was.

(Laughter)

But, being previously faced with so many ultimatums, one's forced to be astute in adapting to new situations.

That club night went on to become the longest-running weekly club night in Sydney, and we as DJs went on to play Australia's biggest music festivals. So eventually, I either learned quickly, or the standards of clubs have gone really downhill.

(Laughter)

Coming close to death can be an educational experience. It's certainly true that one's priorities receive somewhat of a realignment immediately afterwards. And it's also true that some of those priorities are met with an increased sense of urgency. But another, more salient realization that comes to light is the triviality of our own self-importance and self-consciousness. To truly understand the extent to which your self-consciousness prohibits you from engaging in opportunities should lead everyone to take risks they otherwise wouldn't. We're merely a blip on the time line of the universe, right? Act accordingly.

Now the ideas that I'm presenting today were imbued upon me through some otherwise unfortunate circumstances, granted, but they're lying dormant in the lives of anyone who's willing to exploit them. If we all understand that we all have unique weaknesses, and if we're honest about what they are, we can learn how to best take advantage of them, whether they be mounting a curb or fear of presenting sales reports or the inability to sufficiently manage one's finances — looking at that guy —

(Laughter)

there lies the ability to learn, to adapt, and even the ability to rewire one's instinctual response to challenges.

Adversity is good, and it has the potential to make you stronger. And, at the very least, you can scare the hell out of kids if you look like a pirate.

Thanks.

(Applause and cheers)