The importance of failure

Image credit: iStock

Dad Talk is a fortnightly column where our guest contributor KC Wong muses on parenthood and being a father to his two children.

In June this year, US Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts gave an unconventional commencement speech at his son’s high school graduation ceremony. Instead of the usual “I wish you all the best in your future endeavours” rhetoric, he summed up all the challenges the graduates have to face in order to grow and mature into adults.

“I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don't take friends for granted.”

As parents, we want the best that money can buy for our children. But do they really need the best gadget, the best tutor or even the so-called best schools? What I think they need, as gleaned from Chief Justice Roberts’ speech, are opportunities to learn and discover what is best for themselves.

Recently, my daughter has been asking to use the notebook computer for her assignments and group projects. Out of curiosity and concern, we checked on her and realised that she was doing the lion's share of the work for a group project.

“Why are you the one doing everything?” I must have looked more fierce than concerned because she was tentative in her reply. “T is busy (T is her collaborator and good friend) and has no time to do it, so I'm just doing whatever I can to meet the deadline,” she murmured. I guess most of you have had a similar experience, either in school or at the office: your friends or colleagues fail to pull their weight and you end up being the dogsbody picking up the slack.

Since last year, she has been in a WhatsApp class chat group via my wife’s account. Besides being an outlet for the students to let off steam, the chat group is also a channel for them to share information, if you consider a one-way contribution by my daughter sharing.

Whenever she completes a challenging assignment, be it a book review or a humanities research paper, she will enthusiastically share them with her classmates, along with welcome feedback. Knowing her good nature, she is not the type to show off, but she shares her work to encourage discussion among her peers.

As you might have guessed, her sharing was unreciprocated. Most of the time, there was radio silence, and on a couple of occasions, someone would reply with “Oh no! I haven’t even started yet!” and that would be the end of it. Whenever her friends seek help in the chat group, my daughter will invariably be the first to respond. On the other hand, when my daughter had doubts or questions, you would have thought my wife's handphone had hung for its lack of activity.

I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. “Maybe the girls really don't know the answers? Maybe they are really too busy with all the extra tuition classes? How can it be? Many of her good friends are smarter than her!” My inner voice began to shake the faith I had in young kids. Maybe I am the kid here, the naive child in his forties.

Are parents teaching kids to be so competitive that if “a friend asks you for the answer, don’t tell her or otherwise she will score better than you”?

“Don’t reveal the source of your material!”

“Why play as a defender in the football team? Even if your team wins, nobody will remember your name! It’s better to be a swimmer or tennis player!”

In this pressure cooker of a society, it seems that we are teaching our kids to play a zero-sum game: one’s success is at the expense of another’s failure. In the real world, this is far from the truth. No man can work in isolation, no matter how brilliant you are. Lee Kuan Yew would not have succeeded in building modern Singapore without the other founding fathers; Elon Musk would not be an innovator today if he had not been part of a team that built PayPal; and Sir Isaac Newton, who was notoriously a difficult and competitive person, would not have discovered the law of gravity if not for the fact that he was “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

As far as my daughter is concerned, she is happy hanging out with her friends. I do happen to know one or two of them who are genuine and helpful. Admittedly, my wife and I should not pass judgement, but parental instincts dictate that we do not wish for our daughter to get hurt. I am sure one day she will, and in the process discover for herself the meaning of true friendships. At the same time, we must have faith in her being made of sterner stuff.

Before the June holidays, one of her male classmates arrogantly waved his returned test papers in front of my daughter and exclaimed dramatically in mock disappointment: “Oh, I'm so sad! I failed! I failed!” He scored 49.5 marks out of 50 while my daughter managed an average score. That was when I was reminded of Chief Justice Roberts’ words: “I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship.” She will have many more opportunities to fail, and many more opportunities to learn from these failures.


KC Wong is a photographer and father of two. He has a daughter aged 11 and a son aged nine.

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