A Professor and a Boy Sit at a Counter
At the ripe age of nine years old, I struggled with fractions. Having received an early part of my childhood education in Singapore, I quickly came to understand the academic pressure that students were subjected to at a very young age.
My after-school routine was simple. Go to a few extracurriculars and then head home to do homework. My dad and I would both plunker down at the kitchen counter after dinner. He was a professor of international trade and economics at NUS (National University of Singapore). I was a third-grader whose biggest nightmare involved not finishing my assignments before 9PM bedtime (a non-negotiable deadline). I used to gaze at his stacks of papers with awe. His fingers drummed rhythmically on the keyboard as the light of an old-school CRT monitor reflected on his glasses. I thought he was a brilliant man. He had many research and teaching awards and I had no idea what any of that meant except perhaps he must have been very very smart.
One night, my dad looked down at my scribbles. He picked up my math paper, plucked his glasses down the bridge of his nose, and made a few of those “mhmm” noises. Then he looked at me and said rather plainly, “Son, you’re not the smartest kid. You won’t be. And that’s ok. Just make sure you are the hardest working kid.”
And that was it. He wasn’t mean. Instead, he was quite matter-of-fact about it. Then he went back to hammering away at whatever important document he was crafting. I chewed on the end of my pencil’s eraser for a moment, and resumed my scribbles without further thought.
It wasn’t traumatizing. As a nine-year old, I don’t think I had yet developed a sense of ego or pride. I took a lot of things at face value and when my dad told me I wasn’t the smartest kid, I didn’t even possess the foundational context to be offended or sad or angry. I’m not sure where all these kids today get that sense of self-pride so early, but we can reserve it for another discussion.
A Ruler and the Rules
The next day, I turned in my assignment and received a 50%, which qualified me for corporal punishment. The bite of the meter stick (Singapore is on the metric system) was something I’ll never forget. Coming from the U.S., teachers slapping kids’ palms with anything other than a high five is virtually unheard of. Did it hurt? Yes. Did I tell my dad? You bet.
He reacted to the news as coolly as he had to anything, “What do you want me to do about it?”
“Tell the teacher to stop!” I pronounced in an of-course sort of way. I’m so clever. In the U.S., you complain to your parents and boom, the teacher is SO in trouble. Hehe, Ms. Li has it coming and she doesn’t even know!
“Why? What makes you so special? Doesn’t everyone get punished if they score very low on an assignment?”
“Well… yeah. Raymond got slapped by the meter stick too. And so did Sam.”
“Ok, so the rules are simple — you underperform, you get punished. Tell me what happens when you get 100%?”
“Nothing, I guess. Ms. Li doesn’t give rewards.”
My dad looked at me and patted my head, “That’s exactly right. You don’t get rewards for doing the right thing. You get rewards for going beyond that.”
A Few Exams, Your Future, And a Controversial Education System
In Singapore, there are these things called “Stream Exams” which essentially are a one-time set of tests that determine your academic track for a long time to come. Test included math, basic science, reading comprehension, English and Chinese (or another language, as Singapore requires bi-lingual education) essay writing, etc. Based on test performance, you get placed into one of three streams: Top, Middle, Bottom. As the categories would suggest, the top is for the academically gifted, whatever that means. The middle for the average kids, and the bottom is for students who are… well perceived to be the worst students. You can get stuck in one track all the way through your high school years. And there’s a significant amount of social stigma associated with each division. This was the early 90s for me, so things may have changed since then.
[Hold your mobs of pitchfork and torch wielders for a split second. We could get into a lengthy debate about how broken this system might be because, frankly, no child’s future should be determined so early on the basis of a limited set of examinations. But that’s not the point of this post.]
This may be an unfair system, but it was the system. So for the next year, I worked my butt off. Many more stick-lickin’s came my way. But over time the frequency dropped. My scores improved. My dad continued his hands-off child rearing.
Then the destined time arrived. On the week of the stream of exams, I felt queasy every morning. My dad never asked me to be in the top ranks. He never made a quip about the fairness (or not) of the system. He didn’t opine about the importance of being first place in anything. And for a professor, the words “top university” or “Harvard” or “Stanford” were never part of his vocabulary. He was a taciturn man, whose singular wisdom was, “Do your best, or don’t do it at all.”
He seemed to care less about results than the process.
Tough Skin, Grit, and Intelligence (lack thereof)
I did get into the top stream. My dad showered me with neutrality. On the night of the good news, we had the same boring dinner we always had. He and I maintained the same routine. I did homework. He did research. There was nothing special. No rewards. No congratulatory notes. I’m not telling you he was giving me tough love and that that’s the secret of child rearing. I’m just telling you the facts.
In retrospect, I guess it would have been nice to have celebrated a little. But then again, I was never imbued with this sense of entitlement that so many kids have today. There is an epidemic of false confidence-boosting parenting. Everything a child does — be it worthy or not — is rewarded with applause, cheers, unearned positivity, and social-media likes or hearts or whatever is the fashionable cheap social currency. I think it’s why so many of us millennials are insecure, fragile, and hyper-sensitive to any objective criticism.
We don’t do what’s right because we should do it. We do whatever it takes to earn external affirmation. And that makes little sense, at least in my opinion.
Today, I know I’m not the guy with the highest IQ. Many of my colleagues and friends are extremely sharp. They learn faster. They digest concepts better. And I’m totally ok with it.
But I’m not all right with myself being lazy or giving up. If someone spends half the time that it takes me to get something done, great for them. I’ll have to put in the extra work or effort. I’m ok with that.
The Great Predictor
When my co-founders and I raised our first round of funding, a lot of nice folks told me I was so smart. A real genius.
When my co-founders and I lost a lot of money, a lot of not-so-nice folks told me I was so stupid. A let down.
When my co-founders and I made our first exit, a lot of nice folks again told me I was so smart. Even brilliant.
I didn’t know people could flip-flop from smart to stupid so quickly. All I know is, you need to have a little grit (preferably a lot), tons of patience (even if you’re not), and keep pressing towards a goal (through a boatload of hustling). It also helps to keep an open mind, which means you can take some critical feedback. And if you can take a beating of the soul and body, you’ll get to the finish line. Maybe even cross it.
I can’t figure out another way for success. And my luck hasn’t been good enough to win the lottery. So I guess I’m sticking to the basics. Heads down, spirits up, and keep moving forward.