Interview: Life coach Zhariff Afandi on disability, barriers and growing from personal failures

Zhariff shares about picking himself up after a recent divorce, failed businesses and writing the book that “could save your life” after it saved his.

Zhariff finds surfing the best analogy for balancing expectations in life and learning from your wipeouts.  — Photo courtesy of Zhariff Afandi

Zhariff Afandi is a multihyphenate who gained public attention for being part of the early wave of social enterprises in Malaysia.

He is also known for embracing public interest in his physical difference, having been born without arms, in an effort to break perceptions people have of his “limitations”. He surfs, rides horses, he scuba dives, he’s an avid swimmer and runs marathons, among other things.

Most recently, Zhariff released his first book, a deeply personal memoir and guide —  “SOS: Surfing Out Stuff – A Book of Growth & Guidance”.

In it, he shares the tribulations he faced as some of his public successes started falling apart not-so-publicly, from divorce to several failed businesses that left him feeling lost.

As a practicing life coach and motivational speaker, he found it important to share his failures in hope that it would resonate with others facing a tough time to learn and grow from their own experiences.

We catch up with Zhariff to chat about his book, dealing with inflated expectations and his approach to methodically finding meaning in life:

Q: Could you share a little bit on the book’s title. Who is the SOS for?

It was initially supposed to be a “State of Shittiness”. I was in a state of depression and sadness when I started the book. But it was also in that state that I felt that writing the book was going to be what I needed to do. At the time I was feeling the state of shittiness because it was a period of having been successful for many years as the motivational guy with no arms breaking barriers. But it turns out I was still just a normal guy. It was also the very thing that got me back to being my own self.

However, I didn’t want the SOS to only be defined as a state of shittiness. What do we all want from an SOS? It’s a call of distress, and I want people to know that they can “Surf Out Stuff” as well.

I’ve had the privilege of learning to surf, so the analogy means a lot to me because surfing taught me many lessons. Life is like an ocean and tribulations are like the waves. If you want to experience the joys of life, you need to take that chance and surf.

I remember the worst wipeout I experienced was when I tried to surf a 9-foot wave that knocked me out cold for a few seconds when it slammed me face down on the seabed. I was scared but there was only two choices I had at at that time — get back on my board and catch your next wave or drown. Maybe you’ll wipe out again the next wave, or you ride a good wave because you’ve learned from the last eight or nine wipeouts on how best to place your balance without falling. I find it’s the same thing in life; if you put certain weight in the wrong parts of your life, you will lose your balance and you wipe out.

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Photo courtesy of Zhariff Afandi

Q: I understand you’ve had multiple attempts at writing a book in the past. What do you feel got you to finish it this time around?

I’ve wanted to write a book ever since I could appreciate books. And I think finding myself while I was lost in the sadness of my failed marriage kind of culminated in the necessary fuel needed to finish the book. I felt like I had learned from all of the experiences from the successes and also the losses.

But I didn’t want to write a book that’s just my biography. With my background in studying psychology, I felt like there was a lot of great knowledge out there that has been useful to me, that could be useful to everyone else who are in their state of shittiness.

Q: Do expand more on that, because the back of your book suggests it “could save your life”.

Well first things first, I think the book saved my life. Taking into context how I wrote the book, its contents saved my life in a way that it helped me put a lot of things into perspective, and I felt that if all this knowledge out there can help me with coping with my situation, my hope is that it would do the same for my fellow peers who would be reading the book.

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Zhariff’s first book, “SOS: Surfing Out Stuff – A Book of Growth & Guidance” is available in all major bookstores in Malaysia — Photo courtesy of Zhariff Afandi

Q: You wear many hats. But at this point in time, what role do you feel best describes you?

Well, I used to wear many hats. Now I try to only wear one hat at a time.

For the longest time I wanted to do so much. I wanted to have a coworking space. I wanted a creative communications company, so I tried to bring together and do advertising and PR campaigns, and i wanted to do social impact, and it was a lot of things that I wanted to do. And I succeeded in doing many of the things that I wanted to do. But I got a bit caught up in all the expectation.

I got caught up in my own expectations of how I wanted life to be and I lost my balance. Now I try to anchor my life to gratitude. Not to say that I am grateful that things are shitty, but at the same time, I am. I am grateful for the bad things and the good things.

If I am grateful, then I’m learning from it. If not, then you will just see it as a regret. People don’t learn from regrets. They regret their regrets.

Q: Do you still feel pressured to prove yourself and your physical capabilities even at this stage of your career?

I’m 37 years-old right now, and a large part of my earlier life was me proving to myself and subsequently the world that I was capable of doing things. The first thing that people think when they see me would be basic things like “can this guy eat?” or “can this guy wear clothes?” But here’s a guy who’s gone scuba diving, and done swimathons, and trail runs, and jumped off things. Sometimes it peeves me a little bit, that despite all this, people still wonder how do I eat on my own.

But there’s less need now to prove to myself or others that I can do things. Because it’s obvious that I can not only live a daily life independently with dignity, but I can also do things great. I can achieve amazing things despite people thinking about the basic capacities of me.

Addressing questions from the crowd at the launch of his book. — Photo courtesy of Zhariff Afandi

Q: Despite having moved on from that, do you feel it’s necessary to maintain a public presence, perhaps for representation?

It’s still very necessary to continue what I do and just live life, and if that inspires other people to go “if he doesn’t have hands, and he can still do things, then what’s my excuse?” or “If I don’t have hands, hopefully I can do things as well.” But we can also go beyond that now. There’s a growth.

People with disabilities are just people. First things first, I think it’s that simple recognition that is needed. That I’m not just Zhariff without arms. I’m just Zhariff. Who is into things and has skill and craft.

A person who paints just wants to be known as an amazing painter, not an amazing painter who doesn’t have hands. Our physical appearances shouldn’t be the defining factor in our life.

We’re all just different people going through different things.

Q: How do you feel about Malaysians’ relationship with people with disabilities, and being born into a supportive family yourself?

I’m very fortunate to live with a good family. We weren’t filthy rich or anything, but we were comfortable. But beyond that, I think it was that I was accorded with an enabling environment — and that’s really important.

Some people with a special need are bubble wrapped or protected to a point of being isolated from the world. They don’t get the necessary developmental pathways.

From the day I was born, my parents made the conscious decision to help me grow, and to enable me to be anything.

One of the things that I learned from my parents is that we’re all different. We’re all special, but yet, we’re all the same. I didn’t even understand the concept of disability until I was an adult.

Q: Your book talks about the concept of ‘ikigai’ as one of the key approaches you take in finding meaning in life. How did that become your personal approach?

There are two main approaches I highlight in the book, one being ikigai, and the other being the alignment of mind, body and soul.

But on ikigai… it’s not my concept. It’s not anyone’s concept either. It’s just a Japanese word that generally means “a reason for being”.

I reconnected with the concept of ikigai during the period after my divorce, where I needed to heal myself. Because we always want so many things, and it’s always jumbled up in your head, so ikigai puts it in a perspective that’s functional for us.

Your “ikigai” is basically the thing in your life that is an overlap of all four of these questions: What do you love? What are you good at? What can you be paid to do? What does the world need?

It’s an amazing approach to putting the important things into a structure that isn’t so overwhelming.

You can follow Zhariff’s Facebook page to stay updated with his goings on. His book “SOS: Surfing Out Stuff – A Book of Growth & Guidance” is available in all major bookstores in Malaysia.

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