Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The failure of success

Lesley-Anne's arch nemesis is maths. It's always been the subject that gives her the most grief. Despite this, she has managed to do reasonably well in maths thus far through sheer hard work.

When she hit sec 3 this year however, the struggle really got to her, particularly in A Maths. So much so that she asked for maths tuition as she was unable to follow the lessons in school. Despite this, she still flunked her mid-year A Math exam dismally. She was terribly upset because she had spent a lot of time working on it, at the expense of some other subjects. Yet when she told me the news, I said, "good!"

Before you gasp and call me a sadist, I want to clarify that I do appreciate the work she has put in and I do empathise with her disappointment. However, I find that for high achieving kids like Lesley-Anne, failure can be such a foreign concept. While she's not one of the truly top scorers, she generally does well academically even in a competitive school and is able to juggle lots of other activities like piano, ballet and a heavy CCA.

I understand how some parents might think this is a dream scenario but in this respect, I actually worry more for her than for Andre. For kids like Andre, failure is part and parcel of their everyday life. He has to put in twice the effort as Lesley-Anne to achieve half the results. And even then, he often doesn't get the results he desires, both academically and in sports. Ironically then, his successes are celebrated more because they're not expected, they're a bonus.

To me, kids who have not tasted failure are in a much more vulnerable position. In an achievement-centric system like Singapore's, kids like Lesley-Anne tend to link their self-esteem with their accomplishments. This comes about because they are constantly praised by teachers and parents for their academic and other achievements, so that they internalise the message as, "I'm valued because of what I've achieved, not who I am."

I've definitely been guilty of reinforcing this. When my kids were much younger, I used to wonder why it was that my very accomplished daughter seemed to have a shakier self-esteem than her much less academic brother. Lesley-Anne was the typical high achieving student in lower primary, always aiming for high marks and striving to please us. But she was also inward-looking and shied away from trying new things.
Contrast this with Andre, whose self-esteem is not linked to his academic achievement (thank God for that!) He may be disappointed with bad marks but they don't cause him to think less of himself, at least not for long. He's also less worried about the unknown and more ready to laugh at his own mistakes.
It was only later, I think when Lesley-Anne was in p4, that the reality dawned on me. Her teacher asked each student to stand up and tell the class what he or she is most afraid of. She stood up and declared, "I'm afraid of failure." That's when I realised that all those times of praising her for her achievements and scolding her when her results didn't meet expectations (like 99% of other parents), were actually having a damaging effect on her character.
Time for damage control then. From then, I tried to de-link achievement and value. I consciously encouraged and praised her for trying new things out of her comfort zone (even if it's something as trivial as going on a roller coaster). I told her it's the effort that counts and I tried to mean what I said, so if she came home with an unsatisfactory score, I wouldn't berate her for it because I know she had worked hard for it. The score was inconsequential.

I do feel that these measures have made a difference and even though she still strives to score well (nothing wrong with that, by the way), I'd like to believe that her scores no longer affect her self-esteem.

I strongly believe that this lesson is an important one. For kids who have always succeeded, the fear of failing can become crippling. Afterall, the higher you go, the further you have to fall. Inadvertently, they start fashioning their lives around not falling, by doing only things they think they will succeed in. It prevents them from trying new stuff, from enjoying their lives. It imprisons them.

This brings me to this book, "The Happy Student" by Daniel Wong. Daniel is a product of the Singapore education system and offered to send me a copy of his book. I'll admit when he first contacted me, I was skeptical. I told him I wasn't going to use my blog as an advertising platform and I'd write about it only if I felt it had value.

After reading parts of it, I thought I'd mention it here. I like that Daniel was a local student (he attended Tao Nan, Raffles Institution and Victoria JC) because that's definitely something other students can connect with. Essentially, he recounts all the anxiety and disatisfaction he felt with chasing grades and tries to bring about awareness that academic achievement does not equate fulfillment, based on his own experience. I also like his casual writing style - it's friendly and easy to read.

However, don't expect any earth-shattering revelations. Most of what he says is common sense, nothing new. Basically he says what I've been saying all along, it's the journey, not the destination that counts.  I think the book might be useful for high flying students who face the same dilemma of grade-chasing for its own sake, to give them some perspective from someone who's been there, done that. If I have one criticism of the book, it's that Daniel seems too much like the perfect student to be true, that he risks alienating some readers. I think he would have come across more real if he had included some instances where he'd failed and how he got back on his feet, but that's just my opinion.

As I was flipping through the book, I came across this page, which confirms what I've been saying earlier - that focusing on academic success is actually detrimental to character building and learning:

"When you've attained superficial success, there's a lot of pressure on you to continue succeeding... I performed well academically throughout my schooling years. Consequently, I felt the need to keep up my grades. I began to fear the possibility of not getting an A for a class. In order to ensure that I kept getting A's, I only took classes that I'd already demonstrated an aptitude for. I shied away from classes or activities where my aptitude hadn't yet been tested. This meant that I never tried my hand at things like dance, theater or literature.

This resulted in more A's but less education, more awards but less fulfillment, more accomplishments but less growth - and this was driven entirely by fear."

- The Happy Student, Daniel Wong, p132
I therefore truly believe that the occasional dose of failure is healthy, especially when you're young. It will help you recognise that failure is an essential part of life's journey, and that picking yourself up and trying again is nothing to be ashamed of, in fact, is part of the process of growing as an individual. A caveat though, I'm not talking about failing something that you didn't have time to work on or didn't bother to put in the effort. I'm talking about failing despite the effort and long hours.

As part of my work, I interview many doctors and healthcare professionals. A senior doctor in charge of education at SingHealth once told me about a very tough medical exam which has a high failure rate of 75%. The medical students who sit for the exam know that passing would be a challenge. Yet when they fail, some of them behave like it's the end of the world and start questioning their own abilities. That's because they have become so accustomed to success that they are completely unequipped to deal with failure. The senior doctor looked amused, "It's just an exam! Pick yourself up and try again."

That's what we need to teach our kids, folks. And so to Lesley-Anne, I say, "you failed your math exam? Good! It's ok. Try again next time."

"Succeed by failing." - Gretchen Rubin


Hopeful said...

Yes, yes, yes. I feel the same way too. But how difficult it is to "teach" a child failure! and when it does come along, how often do we ourselves get "sucked" into the nagging feeling that the child is really not good enough? I hope that when it finally happens (which it inevitably will)that I will be able to give the right sort of encouragement to see the kids through.

monlim said...

Hopeful: I don't think we can "teach" our children failure. Failure happens and we need to make sure that our response enables them to learn from it, not be paralysed by it.

monlim said...

I thought I'd publish some thoughts by my friends who commented on the post via Facebook. It's interesting that so many of us who grew up as high achieving students face the same insecurities! We risk passing on these insecurities to our kids, so it's good to have that self-awareness now.

Parent A: "I love this post, Mon! You've encapsulated my thoughts on the issue and so much more. Having been brought up on the system, I absolutely connected my sense of self-worth with my results, ie, not very smart. Even doing well at work didn't wipe away my sense of unease that I must be some sort of imposter! Then of course, becoming a parent, I confusedly exacerbate the inclination of perfectionism in my kid :o! It's been a journey in itself, trying to kick the old habit. Luckily, the next best time to change is now. We've been walking the straight and narrow for awhile, although every now and then, we stray. Thank you for your reminder!"

monlim said...

Parent B: "Great piece, Monica, as always:-) I am one of those who doesn't believe in too much success. I think too much of that at at early age is crippling, like you say. So I've never wanted the boys to be top of the class. My mom used to tell them that n every time I would tell her n tell them no. I was also very careful about praise, making sure to phrase it such that it would be that they must be so proud of or pleased themselves, not that I was any prouder of them because of some achievement.

Because I often doubt myself, I unconsciously questioned the boys on their choices when they were younger, even on simple things. One day a friend told me to stop doing that cos it would make them question and doubt themselves. I thought that was such good advice & I'm so glad I was stopped before I inflicted damage on them. They simply decide - even what subjects they want to take - without consulting or heeing & hawing much. Such a breezy, enviable attitude!"

monlim said...

Parent C: "Yup in P4 I was deathly afraid of failure too; I was 'double-promoted' from P2 to P4, skipping P3. In P4 during a test, I even threw up in class due to nervousness!! It was very unhealthy, and my performance-anxiety was bred so strongly that even for a driving test at the age of 37, I couldn't eat properly for a few days.. ;-P"

Anonymous said...

Hi Monica,

Its heartfelt to read how you have grown in your journey as a mom. Te insights with regards to failures and character.

If you have an opportunity to speak to youths about these deep lessons like failures n passions, would you be willing to do so?


monlim said...

Roy: I'm flattered you would consider me but I have this deep-rooted dislike of public speaking. Why do you think I write? lol!

But if you're really looking for someone to speak to youths, would you like to consider Daniel? He has given inspirational talks to youths based on his own experiences, I can link you 2 up. Just email me (click on my business website).

Anonymous said...

Hi mona,

As u have mentioned, u have 2 very different kids. The elder one is very self motivated while the younger child needs to be 'pushed' a bit more.

Ermm.. I'm not good with words.. So pardon my poor english. I know where u r coming from when u r 'happy' with LA's bad score so that she knows failure is part n parcel of life.. But wondering if Andre will feel the different treatment fr u if he fails the same subject.. U know kids will be kids.. They tend to compare if we parents are consistent in the attitude/preaching.

monlim said...

If you're asking whether I will say the same thing to Andre if he failed, the answer is no because Andre has already experienced failure many times. He doesn't need to learn the lesson that failure is part of life, he knows this already! Regardless of our response, we still need to help our kids get back on their feet and encourage them to try again.

livetogive said...

We learn more from failure :-) However, in Singapore context, most of the time, there is no 2nd chance when you fail....that's the true fact in Singpaore. Anyway, if she needs assistance in A Math, I could offer some help. There's no short cut to excel in Math except practise and attend past year questions.

Jo said...

Wow Mon...another post I so identify with. My elder dd has always had it easier with work & all other stuff, like music & swimming. She hardly gets "bad" grades & even somehow manages to do ok for her music without a lot of blood, sweat & tears. To top it off, her year is not a very competitive year for swimmers so she has managed to "breeze thru" without having to swim great timings.

My young dd is like Andre so she is familiar with failure. She is in a v competitive year for swimmers in her school & club. She doesn't get much chance to be picked for the swim events. Fortunately being a happy go lucky kid, she doesn't let all these things get her down although she lacks self-confidence at times. Everytime she manages to do a performance best at a swim meet we are delighted...cause it hardly ever happens ! We were ecstatic when she got a medal at the school swim meet this year !

Due to this, I find my elder dd complacent at times because she doesn't need to put in the extra effort to get where she is ... and my hubby wants her to be a bit more of a risk taker but she isn't willing to get out of her comfort zone. This year my younger dd is slowly getting out from under her sister's shadow & we are pleased because for the longest time there was comparison (by others, not us) between the 2 ... because they are only 1 school year apart.

monlim said...

Livetogive: I agree the SG system is not conducive for failure, it punishes mistakes at an age when kids should be encouraged to explore and these mistakes often have real consequences.

Thanks for the offer of maths help, I think you previously offered too. It's more a case of the schl teacher going really fast and introducing a new topic every week, so she can't grasp the concepts well. The tutor I got her is v good, hopefully she'll make good progress :)

monlim said...

Jo: There's usually more competition between siblings when they're close together in age and the same gender. It's great that you recognise this and dissuade the rivalry, that can be so unhealthy!

Do keep encouraging your elder girl to break out of her comfort zone. The first few times are the hardest, then they'll start to realise it's actually quite liberating :)

Anonymous said...

Hi mon,

Thanks for the reply. Yar, that's exactly what I meant. i'm not a mom yet but I know how tough to be one. I'm not sure if to be in Andre's shoes, it's just not abt experiencing failure but the parents different reaction to the same situation. U may feel both children are as different as sky n earth, but to the children, they are equal if not the same. It's a natural reaction to compare but then again, I'm a gal n may be over sensitive. Andre, who is a boy sounds like a happy go lucky child.

Anonymous said...

Another timely article for self reflection.

Because of fear of failure, Singapore graduates from local unis are not extremely exceptional compared to foreign unis. Like what is said in your article, the Singapore kids do not dare to take new challenges and prefer to tread on safer paths. What happened to the bright kids who aced in PSLE, O levels and then A levels, plus win accolades in international competitions up to A levels? Our education system celebrates only academic success. Even MOE's sports initiatives are half hearted with no proper coordination or long term plans to support talented sports kids all the way to uni. They want all talented sports kids to only go Sports School (?). An outstanding sportsman is much lower regarded than say a straight A student in Singapore. That is so wrong.

On another note, I celebrate L-A's efforts in trying so hard in a tough subject which she does not have great interest. Her attitude is so good. A pat on her back. Juz try again... add oil!


monlim said...

SL: The SG system is definitely not conducive for failure. At a young age, they're scolded by teachers and parents for making mistakes and for failing. The top students are often cautioned against being complacent and when their grades slip a little, they're berated for not trying hard enough or "living up to their potential". It's very unhealthy and breeds kids who are so afraid to fail.

Academics is always favoured in the Asian society, it's such a narrow mentality, especially when you consider that academics is not the same thing as intellect!

Thanks for the encouragement for L-A. Will tell her to add oil indeed!

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