The Transformative Power of Mentorship

How one man saved me from a dead-end job and career suicide, and how the guided wisdom of a handful of mentors helped me step out of my comfort zone, embrace my fears by facing them head-on, and propelled me to a national platform
Athif Ibrahim Delivering a Speech at the Learning and Development Conference 2023 by MAHRP
Photo by MAHRP


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In a sense, December 2, 2023, was an otherwise ordinary Saturday, and the clock was striking eleven thirty in the morning. But in every other sense, it was anything but an ordinary Saturday.

It was the day I was about to deliver my very first public speech on a national platform, and the blessed clock was a gut-wrenching, heart-pounding reminder that I was next.

* * *

As the time drew nearer, I found myself pacing at the back of the Maldives National University Business School auditorium: my mind racing, my breathing labored.

I tried to go over the structure of my speech in my head one last time, and, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what the heck I planned on saying to open my speech.

Thankfully, I had it written—therefore, I consulted my notes.

As I was doing it, the speaker before me, Mr. Dilshan Lankathilaka, had just concluded his speech, and our very able, professional Master of Ceremonies, Ms. Mazu Mumthaz, was introducing me to the audience.

Soon enough, I was welcomed onto the stage, and I did what I always do when I didn’t know what to do: I ran—not away from the object of my fears, as I had done for most of my life—but towards it.

* * *

As I ran towards it, I yelled out to the audience: “Good morning, everyone.”

That was a relief.

It felt good, ecstatic even, to have managed not to mess up the simplest of all opening lines ever in a speech anywhere.

But it was when I went onstage and turned around to see the audience that I remember the most. I saw eager faces, smiling and listening intently to every single word I had to say.

I thanked them for joining me at such an amazing place, with such amazing people, and listening to such an amazing slate of expert speakers.

* * *

It was a real syzygy moment.

I knew that I was at the right place, at the right time, properly balanced between my desire to add value and the very real, very acute feeling that I was “naked” on a stage.
Photo by MAHRP

I knew I would enjoy and cherish every moment I shared with my audience.

As I did in deep, abstract thinking along with my somewhat poetic style of writing, I knew that I had just discovered my next vocation, my newest medium through which to serve: articulating what I am thinking and writing through impassioned and, with any luck, plain, simple speech.

* * *

And just like that—and for reasons I have not been able to figure out just yet—most, if not all, of my nerves melted away.

Neurons fired reliably, ideas formed beautifully, and words flowed effortlessly.

* * *

The stage, once a daunting expanse that threatened to make my knees weak, transformed into a platform of possibilities. As my words resonated with the audience, I felt a connection, a shared journey through the numbers, the stories, and the narratives I wove.

The fear that had gripped me backstage now seemed like a distant memory, replaced by the exhilaration of expressing ideas that mattered to me as much as it did to my beloved audience.

The clock’s ticking became a rhythm—a welcome one at that—guiding me through the ins and outs of my speech.

Each sentence carried the weight of purpose, and with every shared thought, the auditorium silently echoed with understanding.

In every word, with every utterance, I discovered a newfound confidence in—and an appreciation for—the resonance between spoken words and receptive hearts.
Photo by MAHRP

In that transformative—and if I may be so bold, transcendental—moment, the ordinary Saturday became an extraordinary chapter in my life, marking not just a speech but a realization—an affirmation that, sometimes, running towards what intimidates us unveils unforeseen strengths and awakens deeply dormant talents.

* * *

As I concluded my speech, and as the applause filled the air, I fought back tears because it reminded me of how improbable it was for me to be standing on that stage, given my life trajectory not too long ago.

I was fighting back tears because it reminded me of how fortunate I had been, given the unlikely turn of events that led me there.

I was fighting back tears because it reminded me of the innumerable demons I had to conquer and the immense gratitude I had for those who firstly, believed in my ability to conquer them, secondly, made me believe in my ability to conquer them, and thirdly, helped me conquer them.

I fought back the tears because somewhere in the deepest strata of my psyche, it was dawning on me that the journey of self-discovery and service to others through articulated speech had only just begun.

* * *

My Life Trajectory Not Too Long Ago

Less than three years ago, I found myself trapped in a dead-end job.

My career was a stagnant pool of unfulfilled dreams and untapped potential.

I was going nowhere fast, and the realization was as bitter as it was undeniable.

I was neck-deep in my comfort zone, trapped in the deceptive safety of the familiar. The weight of the knowledge that I was squandering my life was suffocating, and I yearned for a breath of fresh air.

* * *

Then, on my 29th birthday, I promised myself that I would do something about it and change my life for the better.

I gave myself one year to do it—and announced it on my socials, even though I had no clue how I would ever be able to do it.

I took stock of what I was good at, and writing came at the top of my competence hierarchy, so I thought I would take a year to pursue writing.

* * *

The Unlikely Turn of Events That Led Me There

But before I did, I thought I would confer with Hussain Afeef, a person I hold in high regard as a mentor.

I happened to know him for a brief period when we both worked at One&Only Reethi Rah, Maldives.

I remember attending his training sessions as a young, bright-eyed newcomer in hospitality, and I have since been enamored with his skills and finesse in delivering those sessions.

* * *

When I finally mustered the courage to write and post my work online, Afeef was one of the few who reached out and encouraged me to keep writing, to keep them coming.

During our conversation, I confided to him my desire to quit my job and pursue writing. We talked about it for about thirty minutes, delving into my situation, goals, dreams, and aspirations.

Turns out, that conversation was an interview—and fifteen days later, on March 3, 2021, Afeef reached out and said, “Hey, I was running just now (as one usually does), and I would like for you to come and join me as our Assistant Manager, Training and Quality Assurance.”

* * *

Sensing that it might be the runner’s high talking and that I might be the only rational person between the two of us, I tried to talk sense to him.

I tried to remind Afeef of my lack of experience in delivering training, only to realize that I was up against a man with such an uncommon faith and confidence in me that he refused to listen to reason, that he was willing to put his reputation on the line.

Afraid of embarrasing myself—and by extension, the one who was putting his reputation on the line—but more afraid of regret, I agreed.

And I’m so glad I did.

Photo by MAHRP

* * *

On April 18, 2021, I arrived at LUX* South Ari Atoll, Maldives, and on April 29, after ten days of being in quarantine, I reported to duty.

It was my 30th birthday.

* * *

The Innumerable Demons I Had to Conquer

As an introvert, I had a debilitating fear of speaking in front of people.

The mere thought of addressing a small group of three people was enough to send shivers down my spine.

I remember tagging along with Ahmed Siraj, our Human Resources and Training and Quality Assurance Manager, during departmental visits to provide brief, fifteen-minute training sessions.

Every day, I would say I would do it today, and every day, I would find an excuse not to do it.

Every day, I would tremble with fear, and every day, I would drown in self-doubt.

* * *

However, after receiving much guidance and handholding from Siraj and observing Afeef at his best, I eventually learned to confront my fears. And when I finally did, it was the most freeing, the most liberating feeling in the world.

From that moment onwards, I started seeking ways to practice deliberate, effective speaking.

But that’s not to say that I was no longer afraid.

I was afraid but hungry.

* * *

I started treating any encounter I had as fertile ground for me to practice the art of expressing myself clearly, be it with a new team member who just joined our team, someone who I sat with at the canteen to share a meal with, or the seven usual suspects that would turn up at our weekly team member wellness island runs every Saturday.

As I gained confidence, I sought to find bigger and more novel audiences and avenues to refine my presentation and public speaking skills.

It led me to the Toastmasters Club by MAHRP. It motivated me to reach out to schools, offering to take sessions for teachers and students in those schools. It inspired me to express my interest in becoming a panelist at the National HR Convention and Expo in 2022.

* * *

It was that hunger—and the right people noticing it, and upon their noticing it, helping me build my confidence for it—that led me to that stage.

It was that hunger—and my own willingness to see what happens instead of wondering what could have happened—that enabled me to run towards my fears instead of running away from them and deliver my very first public speech on a national platform.

I am still afraid, but I am still hungry.

* * *

People Who Helped Me Conquer Them

I might have succeeded in doing what I never thought possible, but were it not for the guided wisdom of those mentors who helped me step out of my comfort zone and embrace my fears, I could still be living without ever realizing that it was even a possibility.

This is a celebration of them the best I know how.

* * *

Hussain Afeef: Thank you for seeing in me something I didn’t see, for believing in my ability where most wouldn’t, for teaching me to believe in my own abilities, and for inducting me into a life of service and adding value to others.

* * *

Ahmed Siraj: Thank you for being patient with me while I got my groove on, and for never making me feel like I was ever a burden to you in those formative months.

* * *

Masdhooq Saeed: Thank you for risking our friendship to say what needs to be said, and for helping me stay true to my goals by reminding me whenever I fall short of my own expectations.

* * *

Sara Ballinger-Bennett: Thank you for for helping me peel away layers upon layers of self-doubt accrued over three decades, and for equipping me with the ways and means to learn and grow so that I can help others learn and grow as well.

* * *

Avi Liran, Kenneth Kwan, Kiruba Shankar, and Srijata Bhatnagar: Thank you for always being reachable, and for being my biggest supporters from a distance.

* * *

Yoosuf Hasnain: Thank you for always being willing to share your knowledge, for guiding me when we started working at sister properties simultaneously, and for never failing to wish me good luck every time I set out to do something new.

* * *

Mohamed Ayaaz: Thank you for our conversations as we both ventured into uncharted territory, both uncertain of what the future may hold for us—and yet, for somehow managing to reassure me that I could be doing what I am doing today.

* * *

John-Khalid Brigden, Fathimath Afiya, and Yasotha Arumugam: Thank you for investing so much of your time and energy in helping us become better speakers through Toastmasters, even when we were bad, even when I was insufferable at times.

* * *

Hussain Shujau: Thank you for always being there whenever I try to do hard things, and for never trying to exorcise me out of it.

* * *

So, to anyone who finds themselves in the same rut as I once did, I say this: Do not be afraid to dream a new dream. Do not shy away from facing your fears.

Embrace them, for they are the catalysts of your transformation.

But most important of all, seek mentorship, for you will need it to dispel some of that self-doubt that is keeping you hostage, and preventing you from unleashing your true potential and living a life of contribution.

* * *

Rooting hard for you.


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