Got an F in school? There are still ‘100 ways’ to be successful

Nov 24, 2016 02.00PM |

by Wan Ting Koh  

IS THERE a future for those who fail in school?
The answer is “yes” for a group of parents who are bucking the traditional mindset that good academic grades are the only route to success. Named 100 Voices, the group came together recently, spurred by the rise in teen suicides here and the shared concern about Singapore’s obsession with grades.
Led by full-time father of two three, Mr Dean Yap, the group of 25 founders includes stay-at-home father of two Calvin Soh; Mr Jack Sim, who has four children; and father of one, Mr Kenny Lew.
These founders have achieved measurable success in their careers. Some are associate directors, others are entrepreneurs. They all share something in common: They know what it feels like to get an “F” in school.
That’s why they are named 100 Voices, the founders said. The group believes that there are at least “100 ways of achieving success” and just as many definitions of success. We spoke to three of the founders on why this was a cause they all wanted to get behind.
Mr Jack Sim, 59, father of four.
Profile picture of Jack Sim
Photo provided by Jack Sim.
While some would consider Mr Sim, founder of World Toilet Organisation, a successful man today, the 59-year-old said he was no model student while growing up. In fact, most would see Mr Sim as a “problem child”. His grades were dismal to the point that his father, a provision shop delivery man, told him that he didn’t want his son to follow in his footsteps.
“My father would tell me: ‘I don’t want you to grow up to be like me.’ They worried but they couldn’t help it,” he said.
Being caned in front of the school for talking too much in class did not help his case either. “But that was good for me because then I don’t have stage fright. So it helped me with public speaking in the future,” he said.
But Mr Sim’s experiences have given him a new perspective on success, and its link to academic grades. To him, exams are an inadequate measure of a child’s talents, especially since each child is different. “They are measuring multiple talent with only one ruler. Some children are creative, some are charismatic, some are dreamers. Not all are scientists and mathematicians,” he said. “The purpose of education is to help the child, not to punish him.”
However, according to Mr Sim, parents focus too much on academic success, and this mindset has persisted through the generations. In fact, he thinks that there is even more emphasis on grades than ever before, and the billion-dollar tuition industry is a testament to that.
Said Mr Sim: “Last time the parents wouldn’t know how to teach their children because they are not very educated. Now the parents want to grill their children.” Parents too, become victims of the system, believing that they have no choice but to send their children to tuition for them to succeed in life.
While his parents were more concerned about his grade, Mr Sim, in turn, gives his four children the freedom to take ownership of their life. He called it the “laissez-faire”, or a hands-off, approach. “As long as they pass, everything will be all right,” he said.
He prefers to lead by example. And if there’s one thing Mr Sim’s children could learn from him, it’s his spirit of continuous learning.

Mr Sim returned to university at age 52 and graduated with a Master in Public Administration at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy four years later. Just two months ago, he graduated from a Silicon Valley think-tank, Singularity University, in San Francisco.


His advice? “The child is on a discovery journey. We shouldn’t try to block that journey… let the child discover [their own interests], don’t force them into strange situations,” said Mr Sim.

 Mr Calvin Soh, 49, father of two.
Profile picture of Calvin Soh and Dylan Soh
Mr Calvin Soh (right), with his son Dylan Soh (left). Photo provided by Calvin Soh.
Some might recognise Mr Soh’s son, Dylan, the 14-year-old who gave his first TED talk at age nine, and conceptualised his first kickstarter campaign on urban farming just months ago. But most wouldn’t know that Mr Calvin Soh’s upbringing was pretty different from how he’s handling his children now.
Mr Soh, 49, was raised by a “typical Asian father” who taught him not to question his parents’ decisions. For his children though, the full-time father – a former vice chairman of an advertising firm – is trying a different approach.
Said Mr Soh: “We all tend to fall back on what works for me will work for my children.” But that’s not always true, he added.
This new approach allows Dylan some room to disagree with his father. If Dylan thinks that his way works better, he is given the leeway to try it out first. Mr Soh admits that the process takes more time, but it helps Dylan to build up his self-confidence.
Said Mr Soh: “If this new approach works, I must be a big enough person to say ‘hey, I learnt something new today’.” And it seems as if Mr Soh’s style is working, as Dylan has multiple achievements outside of academics, including co-authoring a book, The Big Red Dot, and founding a kickstarter project in urban farming – achievements that would beef up his resume.
Given the shifting nature of jobs and technological change, Mr Soh thinks that academics no longer play as important a role in career success. To him, soft skills, such as public speaking, are the ones which allow an employee to adapt to different environments.
Said Mr Soh: “A child is worth more than a piece of paper. We want children to grow up to be resilient, who can fall down but get up by themselves. Nowadays, we focus too much on the falling down and not enough on the getting up.”
Mr Kenny Lew, 43, father of one.
Profile picture of Kenny Lew
Photo provided by Kenny Lew.
For Mr Kenny Lew, failing his studies wasn’t an option when he was a child. His parents were so strict with their expectations that believed there were only a few pathways to pursue: lawyer, doctor, engineer or accountant. “I thought for my whole life there were only four careers,” he said.
Now a career coach however, he asks people to go beyond grades when considering their career options.
He referred to his own experience at the “bottom rung” of his cohort in secondary school, thanks to too much time spent on co-curricular activities, such as band and track and field. He even fared poorly for his O levels.
“I was never bright in school. That was a struggle,” said Mr Lew.
When he recently caught up classmates who faced the same problems in school however, he found that they’d carved a path for themselves. “The whole bunch of us were at the bottom of the rung of the school level. We were a naughty bunch of students. Today, they are so successful,” he said. These friends of his have gone on to top the corporate ladder or run their own large businesses.
That has further strengthened his notion that “failure” in school does not necessarily translate to failure in the workplace.
What parents should focus on instead is life skills, such as training children to be independent from a young age, he said. Mr Lew encourages his seven-year-old son to organise his own day-to-day activities, manage his own pocket money and to problem-solve. When the front of his son’s shoe came off, for example, he encouraged his son to fix it instead of throw it away.
“There is no straight path and there is no one path. Everyone is different and everyone is unique… You should ask yourself what problems you want to solve instead of what you want to do,” the career coach said.

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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