As a student, I was a full scholar from elementary up to high school. The requirement was to maintain my marks and achieved the top honor/award. The word “failure” was not part of my young mind at all. There were only “lessons learned”, “try again”, “potentials” and “progress”.
My father was a big influence to my passion for learning and development. He was an embodiment of a life-long learner as he took two post-graduate courses and studied law degree in his 50’s. Consequently, when I entered the workforce, learning and achieving became my motivations.
At the same time, my parents did their best to give me a sense of balance. My parents encouraged me to stretch to my full potentials, to keep trying if something did not work, and to have fun with friends along the way. When I grew older and transitioned to other roles in life, like becoming a mother and a manager-leader at work, this filter and disposition helped me immensely. Through life’s ups and downs, I would always see the upsides of failures.
One example happened in 2014, when our family invested in a cake and coffee shop in a mall in downtown Singapore. When it became unsustainable, we decided to exit the business and as a result, lost the seed money we put in. The emotional and mental investments felt like heavy losses too as we gave significant personal time and energy into this business.
Yet I personally saw this failed entrepreneurial venture as a triumph in three ways.
- First, it accelerated my growth as a business person, who has learned first-hand, the utmost importance of alignment of vision and values among business partners, and the critical convergence of passion and performance to financially succeed. These have empowered my business skills, which I get to apply on our current venture.
- Second, the experience made me a wiser and better person. The perspectives I gained were so much wider and deeper. I developed tremendous appreciation for the services and sacrifices of those who served in the food retail industry. The work was non-stop and included weekends and holidays. The demand for consistent quality service and excellence was high whether the customer bought a whole cake or a slice of cake. The experiences were challenging, humbling and enlightening.
- Third, the journey to fulfilling a dream “to have our cake and coffee shop” was rewarding, even if in the end, we operated for just two years and was not financially successful. My father probably had this sense of fulfilment when he finished his law degree in his 50’s, as he always dreamed of studying law, though he did not practice the legal profession.
Above all, the upside of failure is winning!
Here’s one of my favorite fail-to-win stories: During our son’s pre-university 2-year IB program, he took up Mandarin as his language subject. On the first month, he came home every day with a long face, shared how difficult it was and would say “I want to shift to Spanish language”. Since it was just the first month, we encouraged him to give it a chance as things could improve. On the start of the second month, he became restless and really wanted to shift. At that point, his mark in Chinese was a fail, 1 out of 7, where the passing mark was 5. But it turned out that there was no more slot available in Spanish class. The choices then were to proceed with Mandarin, or to skip the subject and graduate late. Realizing that, he made a remarkable turnaround – a change in mindset, strong self-discipline and focus, and determination to recover and finish well. For two years, he delivered his best, and in the end, went from 1.0 to a final mark of 6.7 out of 7 in Mandarin!
In closing, let me quote Bob Buford, who described the “upsides of failure” perfectly in his book Finishing Well:
We are all works in progress…Those were not particularly appealing words I used to describe the journey: Uncertain. Unpredictable. Destabilizing. Scary. But other words describe it just as surely: Fun. Exhilarating. Exciting. Rewarding. They show the other side of a balanced equation.
Just as resistance generates muscles, working through our worst experiences generates joy. The challenges we encounter are no reason to quit the journey. They provide occasions to seek wisdom and strength to continue.