It's almost seven years since Sam Cawthorn saw the light – a blindingly bright, yet warm and peaceful glow that enveloped him as he lay unconscious in the aftermath of a sickening head-on accident between his car, a semi-trailer and another car.
After being declared clinically dead for several minutes, the then-26-year-old was revived and awoke in intensive care to find one side of his body pulverised – his right arm had to be amputated above the elbow, his right leg was all but useless, and six broken ribs, a lacerated liver, punctured kidney and collapsing lungs were far from collateral damage.
Now aged 32, he uses a bionic or prosthetic arm to replace his lost limb, and limps noticeably – a significant victory after doctors told him he would never walk again.
The legacy of his near-death experience lives on in the mobility challenges that impact every part of his life, yet Cawthorn says that if he could go back to that day in October 2006, when he fell asleep while driving on a highway outside Devonport in Tasmania and veered into the path of a truck, he wouldn't change the personal outcome.
“No, I wouldn't change anything, because this is the person I was meant to be today,” he says.
“That crisis and that huge traumatic experience has really shaped who I am and now I have a greater understanding of what it's like to go through massive trauma and come out the other side not just able-bodied, but better than I was before the accident.
“Not physically, but emotionally, mentally and even spiritually, I feel like I am a richer person on so many levels and now there's this experience of going through that crisis that I can understand and help others that are going through similar but also any other crises.”
This astonishing resilience has shaped and informed his life since, resulting in a career as a motivational speaker that has taken him around the world. More recently it prompted him to write a book that not only details his struggle back from the brink of death but also how others can respond to extreme crisis and prosper.
The book, Bounce Forward: How to Transform Crisis into Success, was written to encourage everyone – from individuals to global corporations – to use crisis as a catalyst for positive change.
“People always say we need to bounce back from natural disasters, from financial crises, we all use that terminology. I have a problem with that because it means when we hit a crisis, we're focused on bouncing back to that place before the crisis hit,” Cawthorn says.
“Looking at my own life, my entire rehab team was focused on getting me back to that same job, that same environment. But something had changed in me, not only physically but emotionally as well. So I was not focused on going back to my previous life, I was focused on going forward to what I can become.”
During his painful rehabilitation and while still confined to a wheelchair, the husband and father of three young children began speaking to schools and youth groups in his native Tasmania about his experience, and saw that his words had the power to alter lives.
“I realised that people are inspired by personal stories of triumph over adversity so I then started to study a lot more into this area of positive psychology, of resilience and turnarounds,” he says.
“I think the most powerful thing we have as motivators is the power of stories. I think the most powerful leaders in the world are master storytellers.
“In the first year (after the accident) I talked in colleges and schools and I reckon I spoke my story about 400 times, mastering the art of how to communicate a powerful story that disrupts human emotion and makes you feel compelled to take action or be more motivated and empowered.
“The world is crying out at the moment for better staff engagement as it goes through turmoil from economic markets to personal problems and crises, just general tough times. We need powerful, inspirational stories to give us a reality check and to make us realise that it's not so bad after all.”
In embracing his new life he left behind his old job as a “youth futurist” for the federal government who predicted future trends for young people, as well as extracurricular activities including acting, dancing, singing and choreography. He retained another lifelong passion, playing guitar, by teaching himself to play one-handed.
His speaking work was recognised when he was named Tasmania's representative in the Young Australian of the Year awards in 2009, causing a stir at the award ceremony in Canberra when he detached his prosthetic hand just as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd shook it.
“I like to have a bit of fun. It was reported all around the world. It was a pretty humorous moment,” he says.
Shortly afterwards he moved his family to Sydney to continue his motivational speaking work. “It's hard to run a global business from Tasmania,” he says.
He has since travelled around the world, met global leaders and celebrities, and spoken at forums attended by thousands of employees from global giants such as Toyota, Google and Exxon Mobil.
He has also established a charity, Caring for People, which aims to raise funds for children with disabilities in third-world countries – “the true poorest of the poor” – in his own personal version of the “pay it forward” principle.
“My belief is that you pay forward to someone in the same situation that you bounced forward from,” Cawthorn says. “In my case that's a physical disability, but I encourage anyone who has emerged from a crisis to look at ways to help others in the same situation to do the same.”
Sam Cawthorn's four key philosophies
1. Crisis creates opportunity
“Crisis can create some of the greatest growth opportunities of your life.”
2. Proximity is power
“We are the average of our five closest friends. The company we keep determines who we are. Also with our bank balance, our weight, our energy levels, focus, a lot of different things in life; so make sure you hang out with people that influence you in a positive way and not a negative one.”
3. Leverage happiness
“It's about consciously deciding to be happy and optimistic through a crisis and not getting bogged down and depressed and sad through those difficult times. That's a mindset that starts in our own physiology.”
4. Bounce forward
“Pay it forward in whatever it was you bounced forward from.”
Bounce Forward: How To Transform Crisis Into Success (Wiley), $24.95. Order here.