[Note: Error in the title (which has been corrected) was mine and not The Singapore Daily’s]

A friend posted this article (What if the Secret to Success is Failure? by Paul Tough, New York Times) on Facebook some days back and it resonated with me for a few reasons, one of which was that I drafted a post on what I hope my future kids would be like (which as every sane person know, will really be a reflection of the kind of person you are).

It’s interesting to see how some educators in the US are trying to go beyond the Public School System which is failing many kids that come from low-income families. In the article, it’s interesting that even a private-school is looking at out-of-the-box measures- measures that assess character and that statistically have proven to be better indicators of success than test scores.

I hope that the Singapore education system will be able to follow such a path next time. As it is right now, the Singapore education system has different streams in Primary school and Secondary school but they serve the same function- which is to group children based on their perceived learning ability of various circumscribed subjects. This is done with the final singular goal of taking national exams in hopes of eventually getting a place in college/university and thereafter getting a ‘good’ job. Not all Singaporean parents may think this way but from what I hear, most do.

Now, based on my personal experience, I really think the conventional way of thinking has to change. First, I need to qualify myself- I’m pretty much a product of the conventional way of thinking. For pretty much my entire schooling life I went to an ‘elite’ (that’s the general perception anyway) all-boys school followed by its part-of-the-family junior college. I was lucky (not being modest here) to be accepted into the Arts and Social Science faculty at one of the local universities where I did my requisite four-years and graduated with my bachelors. After graduating, I got a pretty decent job at a government ministry where I’ve been ever since.

Sounds pretty much like the success accorded by conventional thinking right? I can point out a few problems with this:

One, Escapism.
The strive for good grades might sound like a no-brainer but it fails to account for the fact that one might not be happy doing what one is paid to do which leads to many secondary problems- Teachers that become Instructors rather than Mentors, Bored individuals that ultimately seek refuge in Retail Therapy, Trips and Guilty Pleasures that in itself is an appreciation of the finer things in life but in the mind of Bored Individuals end up as nothing more than a form of empty escapism. In Oscar Wilde’s world, they become the fool who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Worse things happen when the chase becomes an obsession that cripples a fool- just like Golem from Lord of the Rings.

Two, Little appreciation for the Mundane which doesn’t lead to greatness. In school, the end is everything; Grades matter and the perception is that with that, success is somewhat guaranteed. Unfortunately, everything in life requires a process by which we build up our testable fluency in the areas that matter the most to our success and I think many students forget that. Malcolm Gladwell pointed that out in his book Outliers- every person who did well in their craft (think Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or Michael Jordan) spent at least 10,000 hours of practice on it. That translates into an approximately whopping 417 days of our lives doing the mundane upon the mundane until the culmination of these skills combine into something more than itself. For that, we need more character than smarts. In school, there is too little appreciation of the mundane. Having said that, this is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

Three, Short-sightedness and a Waste of time. I can think of parents whose singular focus in life revolves around aceing national exams- Classes outside of school are scheduled, the best foods for the brain are prepared even play-time is scheduled and monitored in hope of maximising results at the exam. These are the kind of people who will tell you that the President is more important than their regular Mee-pok stall owner because he is paid more. However, if you ask them what they can’t live without- they’ll tell you that they can’t live without their weekly dose of mee-pok. Therefore, how many parents focus on getting their kids to ace national exams only to realise that most of their kids will never become the President or the CEO. Instead, get them to recognize what they’re good at and capitalise on it. Encourage it. Don’t get kids to ace exam after exam when they’d be better off baking, cooking, writing or making music.

Therefore, the crux of this post is- Let kids explore and keep and open mind. Encourage them to build Character to overcome the odds if they pursue something that is truly of value. Get them to be honest with themselves. After all, remember that communism failed because it failed to account for comparative advantage and the diversity of human beings.

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