There is no need to be afraid of failure
Failure. That is almost a dirty word in Singapore. The finding by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that Singapore students are more afraid of failure than those in other countries got me thinking about my own growing up days and some of my former students who did not quite succeed at first.
Failure. That is almost a dirty word in Singapore.
The finding by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that Singapore students are more afraid of failure than those in other countries got me thinking about my own growing up days and some of my former students who did not quite succeed at first.
I also could not help but to wonder whether there is a price to be paid for such an attitude among our students.
The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) test found that compared with students from other countries, Singapore has the highest percentage of students (78 per cent) who have doubts about their future plans if they fail.
About 72 per cent of Singapore students said that they worry about what others would think of them if they fail. These figures are well above the average 54 per cent for the 37 OECD member countries in the survey who agreed with the first statement and 56 per cent who agreed with the second statement.
Perhaps this is not a surprise.
After all, since our youth or even childhood, we have been taught that we need to be brilliant and cannot afford to fail because “Singapore is a small country with no resources”.
And how many of us have been told by our parents — as politically incorrect as that may be — that we will end up being a cleaner or labourer if we do not study hard?
We grew up with class rankings, school rankings and rankings for anything worth comparing against. And with comparisons, there will be losers and the fear of losing.
This phobia of failure is exacerbated by the concept of “face”. I know parents who throw tantrums because their children didn’t fare well in their year-end examinations, as this would result in the loss of “face” in front of relatives during the festive season.
When I first quit my job to start my own education business, a couple of friends cautioned me about the “loss of face” if I were to fail.
Our esteemed founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew infamously said if we were to elect an incompetent government, our security would be at risk and the women of the country could become maids in other people’s countries. One needs not wonder why we fear failure so much.
That said, how do we exactly define failure? Not getting more than 50 per cent for an examination? Not getting a job? Or making a loss in business? Who defines what is success and failure?
Could we say someone is a failure because he did badly for his Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) or GCE O-Levels?
Jack Ma, who was rejected by every company he applied for, including KFC, is now one of China’s richest men. Do you know that JK Rowling’s Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by 12 publishing houses before it was accepted?
By Singapore’s standard, she was a “failure” before hitting the pot of gold.
Most importantly, failure isn’t permanent. It is a fleeting moment in life that only adds to our grit and character. There are also many definitions of success. Some of my students and friends can attest to that.
I have a student who did not do well in PSLE and got into the Normal (Technical) stream this year. While not a fail, many Singaporean may perceive it as less than satisfactory.
But he did not give up. He toiled hard, got As for almost all his subjects, topped his cohort and will be promoted to Normal (Academic) next year.
Another was devastated when he had to repeat a year in junior college. Undeterred, he persevered and got into his dream architecture faculty.
Then there’s an old buddy of mine who didn't ace her PSLE and was in the Normal (Academic) stream. She improved significantly to be promoted to Express, went into accounting in one of the big four firms, and is now a sought-after banker in London and Germany.
Those are just examples that fit Singapore’s model of success.
Another friend didn’t make the cut for junior college or polytechnic — he followed his dream, became a designer and now runs his own design firm.
And then there are many others who decided that being successful is to have a happy family and devote their whole life to building that.
I understand the mantra that Singapore must be exceptional to thrive.
So don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we should settle for mediocrity without even trying. But being exceptional does not mean we need to be afraid to fail. This is especially so in a world that is rapidly transforming.
One who always fears failure might end up taking a safer route and might not survive because risks have to be taken.
What is needed, as noted by the Ministry of Education in light of the OECD findings, is a healthy dose of fear taken in a positive spirit to motivate and drive oneself.
Indeed, this positive spirit has driven Singapore to grow from third world to first in one generation.
Without that spirit, Changi wouldn't have been the world’s best airport for seven consecutive years and Singapore would not have overtaken the United States as the world’s most competitive economy.
So my word of advice to the students who are afraid of failing: Don’t let it hamper you.
It’s often with trial and error that we discover our paths and journey in life. Without being kicked out of Apple initially, Steve Jobs would not have founded Pixar or rebranded Apple to be the juggernaut it is today.
Few people succeed with one try. Bill Gates started a company that read the raw data from roadway traffic counters and created reports for traffic engineers, but that was no Microsoft.
I am a firm believer in connecting the dots. Our failure today may possibly be the reason for our success tomorrow.
More importantly, remember that no one test defines us. No one failure defines us.
If we do not give up, and if we have the perseverance to stand up after falling, success will come soon after.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Lim Wei Yi is the co-founder of education centre Study Room. He was a former correspondent with Bloomberg News and had taught journalism at the National University of Singapore.
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