Here at Wildhorn we idealize five basic principles. We strive to be approachable, adventurous, spirited, enduring, and grateful. We are grateful for the opportunities we have and the experiences life brings. We have recently had the opportunity to interview John Afshari, a native Californian who teaches people with disabilities or special needs to surf. He not only embodies our characteristics, but he serves graciously as he shares the wild.
John has been surfing since he was 5 years old. He grew up in Southern California and has always loved being outdoors. As he got older, he found himself working security for nightclubs in Park City, Utah. He knew he needed to get out of the dark, drug-filled lifestyle he was living. After moving back to California, finding a job as a resource specialist and having the opportunity to work with people that have special needs, John found his road to recovery.
Over the last 13 years, John has been teaching people with mental and physical disabilities how to surf and ride the waves of life.
"Working with disabled people and coaching them is just inspiring, to light them up a little bit. It's just like I'm being the captain of a team. I offer a lot of encouragement. It was a really easy step for me to move into this career."
He feels that he is truly his best self when he is in the ocean. John hopes to inspire others to feel the stoke that he experiences when he's out in the water. He explained that it is a need for him to share it with everyone.
When asked what "share the wild" means to him he stated, "the implied thing is that we all love the wild and there's something about that open space and nature that we connect to or create through a greater thing within ourselves and we need to share it with everyone. People have to have more access, more availability and more inspiration to go get it. Maybe that's the answer, to get out in the wild you got to share it...It's important. It's the medicine, man."
Want to know more about John's story? Listen to the entire interview here:
Full Interview Transcription:
Clark: First, let's just start off with your name and where you're from and just a brief history of what life has been like.
John: Yeah. My first name's Omid and John's my middle name and Afshari. My dad's Persian and my mom's American and they met in Berkeley as students. Both of my parents are educators so I was always around learning and philosophies and stuff like that. That's a big part of family life. And then all my uncles, and my dad as well, were athletes. My uncles are all professional soccer players in Iran and Olympic athletes. So growing up it was always about athletics and so those are my heroes. It's like true athletes. So I played a lot of basketball growing up and I went on to play in college and that's where I met Jeff and all the Utah people that connect us currently. And then became injured, worked for many years in the food and beverage industry as security and nightclub promoting and just always like utilized presence as how I... paid for myself to do stuff and followed my passions, which at the time were snowboarding and stuff like that.
Kind of moving forward into more current time, I started working with special needs people right when I was about 30 years old. I'm currently 43. And it was pivotal because I stopped going to nightclubs and being in that wild environment and truly found a better place in myself being in service. And at that time I stopped using club drugs like cocaine and ecstasy that were so common in the world that I was working in that. So that was a really really cool departure. I didn't used to speak to that but now I do because so many people are suffering with addiction that it's important that I bring it up. And then working in service to people with cognitive disabilities I really learned a lot of myself. It's like they were my biggest teacher and I was their biggest supporter. I know practice and I know repetition; I'm patient to it because that's how I refine myself to be where I want to. That's what my family values were, just practice. So it's perfect.
Working with disabled people and coaching them is just inspiring, to light them up a little bit. It's just like I'm being the captain of a team. I offer a lot of encouragement. It was a really easy step for me to move into this career. And I guess because of that I was gifted with a lot of opportunities to work through myself in that I don't have to work for an agency, I've got private families that connected to me individually and just work directly. I'm a private contractor at my work.
Clark: Right. Where did you grow up?
John: So I grew up in Ocean Beach, which was a hippie town. I remember my next door neighbors always talking about being abducted by aliens. My parents grew pot in the backyard. It was just this whole really interesting township. Around 12 or 13, my grandparents on my mom's side were over and helped my parents get a house in Encinitas. So that's when we moved up to Orange County, when I was 8th grade and I sprouted up. I was 6'3'', almost 6'4'' in 8th grade. So I went from surfing every day thinking I was going to be a pro surfer. And I got 3'' or 4'' really quick and then taking in from the 8th grade team to practice with the Varsity at my private school. I got good at basketball because it wasn't that hard to practice and do stuff through repetition and stuff.
Clark: And it helped that you're tall, too.
John: Yeah, exactly. So I had some teachers at the school were also coaches and they took me under their wing. Yeah, basketball is the saving grace for me. It kept me away from drugs and different pitfalls that other teenagers at that time were having. I just played lots of hoops, just obsessively basketball.
Clark: So when you were growing up, what was the culture like where you were living? What was going on?
John: Within the surf world it was interesting, because that was the lens of the shot. Surfers were the people with long hairs and stoners. And so there's like jocks and surfers. And I was always both. I went to practice but then I wanted to go surf afterwards. And I always felt torn like I was not one or the other, really. And that connection to this modern era, where it's more of a sport now. And so you don't have that lowlife atmosphere, you don't have the degenerate. It's like people are training like athletes. Now it's considered a sport. In that era, it was a classic stoner spicoli stereotype.
Clark: Do you have any memories of a specific surf day or a specific time that you're hanging out with friends in that area?
John: Mostly my memories are watching the legends like Skip Frye or people who are so pivotal in the fabric of surfing that they're just known. I would see these guys and I just always admired it and just watched it and watched it. They were surfing waves that I couldn't get to as a young guy. But now, going back there, like I remember that. And I remember the lines they drew and the boards that they were riding. Now I'm in that same vain. I can feel people watching me now and it's really interesting to come into that. It's like owning your own heroicism, dude. I have to say that with all humility, but there's a self-fulfillment piece too, that what I'm really into feels good within myself to be who I wanted to be.
Clark: When I came up and I surfed with you, but I was afraid of sharks the whole time. That self-fulfillment idea... When did you first take up surfing?
John: We date that one back within my family to like 5. I had a Morey Boogie Board and was standing up on it riding in. And then my dad, being a teacher, he was a philosophy professor at Tenio State, he would have students that were surfers that maybe he’d beat down on their grades or whatever, but I would get these board gifts from students. And some of them would be rough shapes that I got into shape a surfboard, you can give my dad the board because they knew he has a son who's a surfer. And it's like trying to work the professor. But I remember getting broken boards and weird boards when I was 12. My family, mom and dad date it back to 5 or 6 surfing standing up because they're like, "Well, we took you to the custom wetsuit place and had a custom wetsuit for you." That's where we say. Because at that time there weren't kids' wetsuits. And so they went to this place that made wetsuits for the Seaworld trainers when they have to killer whale show. And they were like, "Our kid wants a wetsuit." And then they made me this little Grommet suit. And that's the family folklore.
Clark: That is so rad.
John: Yeah. There's a really cool picture that my mom has. It's just me sliding in with curly hair and I'm 6 riding in on a little wave. It's always been part of the ethics. Every day after school, my mom would take us to the beach. Every day. l And growing up, we live on the street, we would just walk to the beach every day. It's the same place, but it's a whole different thing every time you go there. Every time it's different. And so I really came to appreciate that, but I have this thing that consistently is in my life. But like the playground's going to be different. And the climate of it is going to be different. But it's still my friend, the ocean.
Clark: Right. You obviously had a connection with the ocean and it's like... you and I talked about nature and things like that, the connection with it. And the company Wildhorn, there it's about share the wild. That's our Instagram handle. Why don't you tell us a little bit about your connection to the ocean. Why does it call to you, what does it mean to you, what do you get from it?
John: I can say that I am truly my happiest and my best self when I'm in the ocean. The feelings I experience when I'm in it, around it or even leading up to the anticipation going are like none other. It's truly my happiest self. I'm less selfish. And that's how I got into... currently what I'm doing right now and even hanging out with these special needs guys. In my practice, in surfing at this point it's like a discipline, like a yoga or kung fu or something. I'm practicing with discipline and with this tenacity of that for refinement. But it's compelling to me to bring others to it to get that same feeling because if I'm just going myself and I'm hoarding it, there’s a ceiling on the joy and there's a ceiling on the stoke. But as I bring two or three others, and that's my challenge is to balance that and have extra people that I'm responsible for when I'm in the water. That's my pursuit and that's where my passion is, just to share it. I'm so stoked that I can't keep it to myself. It's so good that people around me have to feel it.
Clark: So that's how you started getting into providing that for people with special needs and everything. How did you initially get introduced to special needs work, though?
John: Out of a newspaper ad, because remember I'm old. I read the newspaper. I was looking for a job and this is directly after running a nightclub in Utah, coming back to San Diego, being a visitor in my own home town and going, "Dude, what do I do? I don't want to run a nightclub. I don't want to be in this mix. I don't want to do that." What do I do, though? I have no skill set other than management and creating an ambiance and stuff. So I took a job at a develop memo center that hadn't been opened yet. This woman was setting it up and she's interviewing people. Because I had security experience, am 6'5'', 200 lbs and a have the ability to break up an issue and not be phased by it, she saw that. For one, that makes me a commodity in the world of special needs because typically it's a female employee base. But she also saw that I had management abilities and I got hired as a resource specialist, which basically means you do everything which I loved because it was so diverse. I just got trained on the job with this and I found that these people are so interesting, they're so profoundly unique and I like unique. I will choose the $3 bill over the $20 any day because it's odd and it's cool.
I just found that the more present I was and the more connected I was to what was happening with the client, the better it was. So it took me out of my head and I was just in it with this guy. He was having a good day so he wouldn’t put his head through a wall or he wouldn't hit me or other people because I had talked to him enough to find out what would make him happy. And then we had objectives for their behavior, it's IEP stuff, it was cool. He wants that reward, this is the expectation. It was such a clear thing for me and it was this cool, really righteous bribe. You're bribing people to do the right thing. And I still, to this day, dig it. It's what motivates somebody to make a quantum leap of self when they don't even know why they should do it. Do you see what I mean? So someone with a cognitive disability doesn't know why they shouldn't do something, but you still want to train them not to do it because it is going to be good for them and their health and wellbeing. That's a really interesting thing to try to take on.
Clark: During all this, you've been doing it for a while, there has to be a take home for you. What is it that you feel you receive overall out of this?
John: I got myself back. I'm not an empty hole of a soul anymore. I've filled the God void that all humans have. I get to be in service to this cool need population and it makes me be able to hold my head up when I walk down the street. I get affirmation from my peers, when 10 years ago people might waked the other way, they might have crossed on the other side of the street, if they saw me and my friends coming. It wasn't a good era for me. It was such a nice dichotomy. And I really do believe that everyone has the Yin and Yang within them so I had to walk in dark to experience this much intensity of life. Otherwise, there wouldn't have been a possibility for it.
Clark: And those jobs that you had before, that's the contrast that you're talking about, right? Why don't try to describe the environment that you were working in before you were doing special needs?
John: Yeah. I was working in nightclubs and I'd work at 3 or 4 different ones throughout the course of the week, so 4 or 5 nights a week. You're basically just following the party. My job was to have VIP clients and just provide decadence for them. The different nightclubs employed us because we would take a club to the next level and make it, in their world, good.
Clark: Right. Right.
John: We promoted addiction, we promoted all kinds of gnarly stuff because that's what people were seemingly wanting to express in themselves. So I did parties and then I worked with promoters in doing after parties, which would be the rave in the dessert afterwards.
Clark: The contrast, you have fulfillment in what you're doing now and you talked about how you found yourself. When you look back on that experience, how would you describe what you were getting from that with the new perspective that you have?
John: Yeah. Without that I would not be the people person that I am today. I had so much practice dealing with people. If you stand in the front of the nightclub, you screen 2,000 people coming in and you have to hand pick the crowd; you're going to see every single person and you're going to deal with them in a separate, different way. And so I really refined and honed in on my personal skills. So in that I got really good at sizing people up because I was having to size up if they are going to buy a bottle, are they going to get a VIP pass, what kind of clientele they are. I looked at the watch, their shoes, their belt, how they carry themselves and if he going to spend $1,500 or is he going to spend $25 in that club. We'll treat them as such. It really came to a quick read on people. I wouldn't give it away for anything. I would probably take a lot less drugs, but other than that... I had to do it! I'm happy to be here.
Clark: So now that you're bringing surfing to people with special needs, what do you see them receiving from it?
John: They're really even getting something a little bit greater than maybe I do because I have the ability to do one or two other things, I can ride my skateboard or my bike around town and feel a good feeling from that. Sometimes they don't get that. It's just really what they do through the water. They just have a marginalized opportunity. And so each wave and experience means so much more to them. As I sit and see the world through their eyes, I just get into somebody's shoes, I take on their pleasure.
Right now I'm sitting here with 4 stitches in my hand because one of my guys ran me over yesterday and I couldn't care less because I know he had so much fun and we're better friends from it. And I got to show him some unconditional love that, "It doesn't matter that I'm injured, dude. I'm just stoked for you." It's all part of it. And it's an honoring that I got the chance to bleed for it, to prove that I really truly would do anything for these people to have a good time and feel alive.
Clark: Yeah. Is there a specific experience with a student that you can think of where they benefited greatly from you taking them under your wing?
John: Yeah. But it's mostly just me benefiting from that experience. It's almost selfish in that.. Maybe Jeremy yesterday, who you met. He's having a hard time getting out. I took my board off, put it on the beach and just sat with him. Instead of it being about, "Okay, buddy. Let's go!” or “Okay, you didn't make it out, I'll get the chair and today is your denial day," I really checked myself. It's not about me, it's for him right now. And I stayed with him in the water for 20 minutes while we just got battered and fell off and fell off and I cut my foot on the rocks. It doesn't make a difference because he got to feel of success, he made it out to the lineup and then got a bunch of good waves, when he might not have had that. He would've had double defeat because he's also in a chair and then he didn't get something. It's all so much more tangible, it's so much more valuable. Everything really does matter so much more for them.
Clark: So when you go out and you are showing someone how to surf or giving them that experience, what do you think they're gaining from that specifically?
John: Self-determination, joy. A lot of it is self-determination. As you take on surfing on a deeper level, if they start going every day they're going to really into who they are as a person because fear comes up and fear is such a big one for all humans to deal with. And to not have it govern you but just have it be this emotion that comes and goes, you almost harness it.
So to me, I'm really about surfing as a refinement for self and that's why I started talking about it as a practice instead of just an act, it's more like a metaphysics than a sport for me at this point. There's all the athletic postures and form, but if I'm not in the right frame of mind, in the right thought process, my surfing's horrible. It's really really disjointed and sporadic and ugly. But if I'm in this really good place, it's beautiful and it flows and it's formless and it's seamless, it's a symphony.
Clark: So when you're doing all this and you're doing this work, what's the most challenging part and what's the most rewarding part?
John: The most challenging, a lot of times, is just checking my ego and having it be for somebody else, that's my Mt. Everest to conquer-- my own self. Sometimes financially, I choose to do more for others than I choose to work for myself. So it's an interesting thing to do-- being that leverage point. So dealing with different brands is always a challenge for me because how do I go, "Hey, pay me," instead of "I'll just do it."
Clark: So you're mentioning some stuff that you do on the side, which I know what it is, but how about you, for the interview, tell us what are some of those things that you're talking about? Who are you working with? What do you do on the side?
John: The new thing I'm really into, and a lot of it comes from learning from you, is content creation and being ambassador for these brands. I'm helping these guys also, but one of the ways that I might be different than another "support" is that I'm now coaching guys to compete and running heats and taking athletics to them. But the different brands that I work with, I really try to tie in the “give back” component to create double compelling content and I try to align with brands that have a give back sense and morality so that that's the kind of content that they gather and collect. That's been a really neat win-win where I'm doing something that's good and positive and feels good and then a brand that maybe wants to help support would like to use the content from the activities that I'm already doing. So it becomes really authentic content instead of it just being farce or some models put together, which to me is just one-dimensional and people can see it for what it is. But when it's real and there's sweat equity, it's pretty cool.
Clark: Yeah. There's a little bit more. It applies more to life and every type of life as opposed to the good-looking guy with chiseled abs and the...
John: Yeah. That only goes so far, really.
Clark: And that's not the purpose of all this. When it comes to livin’ life, it's everybody. And everybody wants to participate in those things. Everybody wants to surf. Maybe not everybody, but you know.
John: I'm trying to take on being that guys with abs doing good stuff. If that's going to be me, here it is: I'm stepping out of the humble mode, but if I'm going to be that ambassador or a face to what's going on, then cool, I'll stand here tall, but I also want to show that I’m stooping to one knee and being compassionate. And that's what I want the young kids that maybe look up to what I'm doing, to really be connected to. I've been doing that a lot, bringing the youth around the different special needs people and letting them talk about their story and letting them inspire the kids because that gives them a sense of belonging also. It's this really cool symbiosis. And I've been feeling like I'm in a pretty sweet spot this summer just connecting people, letting them share their stories.
Clark: The clients you work with, what are some of the special needs they have?
John: Typically, I'm working with high functioning autism. Asperger’s would be one on the spectrum that I'm working with. I really enjoy that because it's so unique and every person experiences it in a different way. Lately, it's just been about letting people feel like it's okay. "It's ok for you to be you. I'm not in judgment of you. It's just okay for you to be different and process information differently." It's a neat thing energetically. I'm trying to empower people through self and I'm going to share it.
Clark: So you have people that are at different levels of the spectrum, but you also work with adaptive sports, right?
John: Yeah. I'm totally inspired to help anybody who experiences any disability, whatever it is. It could be emotional disability or people caught up in just being anxious or they're caught up in self-judgment. All those things, to me, are disabilities. Somebody who's experiencing depression is a disability to me. I just honor it all.
Clark: With all this, and we're about to wrap up, it's been awesome. Our handle is "@sharethewild"... What do you feel "share the wild" means to you?
John: I like "share the wild". I feel like it means... the implied thing is that we all love the wild and there's something about that open space and nature that we connect to or create through a greater thing within ourselves and we need to share it with everyone. People have to have more access, more availability and more inspiration to go get it. Maybe that's the answer, to get out in the wild you got to share it.
John: It's important. It's the medicine, man.
Clark: I like that. "It's the medicine."
John: It's the medicine. Everyone really needs to check themselves on what they're doing on a isotropic level and get to the wild. See what that does first.
Clark: See the changes, see if you get new perspective.
John: You know you do. You know you do. When you take that hike or you go on your climb, so much different are you. You come back down and you're a whole different dude.
Clark: Way different.
Clark: I get my climber’s high.
John: It's the same juice, same juice.
Clark: You get scared and you overcome it and you feel self-actualization and woe, all of it.
John: Yeah. I'm honored, Clark.