STAPLES, Minn. — “Why can’t I be accepted? Am I not good enough?”
“Everyday I fought to be who I am. I fought to get the approval of others.”
These words were said by 31-year-old Nick Tokman, known as “Sunshine” on Discovery Channel’s hit show “Deadliest Catch.” As Tokman spoke Friday, Sept. 13, he had the full attention of the seventh- through 10th-graders who filled the Staples-Motley High School’s Centennial Auditorium.
“Over time I realized those who made fun of me were not living the life I would want to live,” Tokman said. “I had the courage to do what I want. You can call me whatever you want -- but I am happy with who I am.”
People may not think a man like Tokman would be a person who struggled with his self-worth. After all, he left his home in Massachusetts to travel to Alaska with nothing but a backpack and went on to do one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, Alaskan crab fishing. Then he landed on a TV series. But he did struggle. He shared his journey with students on how he overcame feelings of seeking acceptance and doing what others wanted him to do, eventually realizing every person must be true to themselves and go after what they want.
“Tune out the outside voices and tune into your voice,” Tokman said. “The question I have for you is, are you the captain or is it the others around you? I’m here to remind you to listen to your voice so you are your own captain.”
Tokman spent eight years crab fishing in Alaska, facing many struggles until landing on “Deadliest Catch.” He was on the Northwestern with Capt. Sig Hansen for three seasons -- Seasons 9-12, from 2013-16. He decided to give up the profession to become a motivational speaker because it’s his calling to help others, especially youths, he said. In Staples, Tokman also spoke to a second audience Friday night, as part of the Staples Motley Area Arts Council’s 2019 season. His speech is titled “Getting Motivated and Beyond: Students Planning for the Future.”
Tokman spoke of the book “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho that tells people to listen to their hearts and to follow their own path. Tokman said there are four obstacles a person fears: “Everything we do is impossible,” “What we want to do will hurt others we love,” “We fear the defeats on our path,” and “We fear the realization of the dream we are fighting for.”
Tokman said growing up he saw his friends in bad spots in life and he didn’t want to live like that. Tokman said his hometown of West Springfield, Massachusetts, had a lot of people on welfare and there is a huge opioid problem. He went to college and worked three jobs and was getting burned out.
Giving it a shot
One day, Tokman’s grandfather introduced him to the TV series “Deadliest Catch.” Tokman said he was intrigued by the show -- the huge waves and how the men worked. He went back to school and thought about what he wanted to do for the summer, and he settled on commercial fishing in Alaska.
“My parents were not very happy with me,” Tokman said of his plan to fly to Alaska without a job or place to stay. “I was trying to find a job in the deadliest profession. … My parents said they wouldn’t fund me if I went. I began thinking and thought my family is right, it is not worth it.”
Tokman went back to college and then spoke to a friend, who told him death may come on the boat fishing in Alaska, but death may also come from a car crash at home.
“At least up there you will be living,” Tokman said his friend told him. “If it wasn’t for that friend, I wouldn’t have went.”
Tokman said he moved out of his apartment, thanked his college professor and talked with his family.
“This is my life and I have to live it for me,” he said. “My parents had so many questions for me -- where are you going, do you have a job, where will you stay? After hours of shouting they told me they love me and wished me well.”
Tokman told the students it wasn’t easy once he landed in Alaska. The person who was going to pick him up at the airport never showed up. He later learned the reason: everyone who says they are coming to Alaska usually doesn’t come. Tokman surprised him.
Tokman was homeless, living in tents and staying at random houses. Every day he got up early and walked to the docks, trying to get a job in commercial fishing. No one was hiring. At one point he had a nickname “Super G,” which meant he was willing to work for half the wages. He finally got a job, but was fired.
Tokman got a staph infection and was in the hospital. He said he had hit rock bottom.
“What will I do?” Tokman said to himself. “I realized it can’t get much worse. Right now I am living. It can only get better. I found an apartment complex and slept on the floor in the laundry room. I then went to the library and printed my resume and put them in a Ziplock bag with some rocks in and put one on every single boat.”
This led Tokman to his first big break. He got a job and made $2,600. Tokman asked the Staples students -- what does this mean? He told the students, “You never give up. Just because you don’t have the money or the resources -- you don’t quit.”
Tokman said he had never worked so hard in his life when he got a job in commercial fishing. He said they fed him energy drinks to sustain him. The waves were between 10-15 feet high, the wind was blowing and he fell down on the boat.
“I was bawling, ‘I can do this,’” Tokman said he told the crew members. “They said, ‘Nick we like you, you have heart, but we have to take you back to town.’
“I felt like a failure and like people in town were looking at me like I was fragile. I hate that. I went to Alaska because my dad wasn’t always around, and if I could do this, I would be a man. I went to pack my bags.”
And then Tokman met a guy with a heart of gold. He gave Tokman the confidence. He told Tokman, “You may face failure in your life, but it won’t kill or break you. It’s what you do afterward.”
If at first you don’t succeed
Tokman picked himself up. He went back to Massachusetts to finish his college degree, as he is a person who doesn’t quit something he started, he said. Tokman said everyone has moments when they are afraid. He said he didn’t want to be a man who would say, “What if?” He wanted to live. He told the students his favorite quote in the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Tokman packed up his bags and went back to Alaska looking for a job.
“I wanted to go crab fishing,” Tokman said, and he succeeded. He got a job. Things were going well and then he met Capt. Sig Hansen, who offered him a job, too. Tokman at first said no — he felt he owed his current boss for giving him a chance on his boat.
“It was the toughest decision I ever had to make but I said no because I learned to not give up on the people who helped me,” Tokman said. However, a few weeks before the crab season he was fired again for putting water in the fuel tank. Tokman said he felt like an idiot and locked himself in his apartment for a few days. Again, he got back up. He would not give up. He went back to the docks and spotted Hansen. Hansen told him he didn’t have any job openings for him.
“And then someone got injured on the boat after the first trip,” Tokman said.
Tokman joined the crew and was given the nickname “Sunshine” because he always had a smile on his face and was happy.
Tokman said people may say he had a lot of coincidences in his life when he was in Alaska that helped him, but he doesn’t believe there are any coincidences in life. When a person really desires something, they can do it.
“If you want to be an artist, be an artist,” Tokman told the students. “Do what you want to do. I love what I do, I really do. If I was listening to everyone telling me not to do what I want, I wouldn’t be here today talking to you.”
Tokman told the students not to change themselves because they don’t fit in. Tokman pulled out a rainbow-colored sports coat and put it on. It is a coat from high school and his classmates made fun of him for wearing it. Now he wears it proudly.
“We can’t run from who we are,” Tokman said. “(Poverty and drug problems are) not just happening in West Springfield. It is happening everywhere. ... I know some of you are not coming from the best conditions and it doesn’t have to stay this way.
“If it doesn’t change, what will happen? If you try to fit in and be that perfect person you lose sight of who you are. Have you asked yourself what you guys want? My challenge for each of you is to do one thing for yourself. One thing a day that you enjoy doing. If you can do one thing you will be better off. It could be as simple as singing or hanging out with your friends or wear the clothes you want to wear.”