I was recently asked by my children's athletics coach to give a motivational talk to the athletes from the Young Champions Program. I was surprised by the invitation. I am in no way an outstanding athlete who has a story to tell but humbly accepted. I was keen to speak about a topic, that most of us in our pursuit of ultimate glory fear - FAILURE! My children were surprised that I picked a negative topic for a speech that is supposed to motivate young athletes, but I explained why. The fear of failure ultimately leads to sub-excellence performance. Great leaders and champions know this very well and have mastered the art of managing it diligently.
The topic of failure brings to mind a quote by Thomas Edison - "If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward (Thomas Edison, Encyclopaedia Britannica)". His focused work on discovering the light bulb after numerous attempts is a classic example of failure leading to breakthrough! But we often do not give enough space or leeway for people to experiment, fail, learn and then ultimately breakthrough beyond believe. Failure is often frowned upon and almost always creates fear that eventually leads us to accept the status quo. Prof Stefan Thomke in his book Experimentation Matters highlights how knowledge gained through "accumulated failure" leads to innovation and breakthrough. He stressed how knowledge comes as much from failure as it does from success. It is important at this stage to differentiate between failure and mistakes - something that Prof Thomke clarified for me recently when I asked him this question in class. Failure is taking a risk and trying something new considering all the previous attempts and lessons learned from it but not succeeding. A mistake is not learning anything from previous attempts and continuing down the same path and not making any headway towards success. Einstein put this very succinctly - 'Insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result'. Analyzing, learning, tweaking and trying again are critical steps towards success and breakthrough.
I recently read Carol Dweck's 'Mindset' where she introduces the concept of Growth and Fixed Mindsets. Below is a graphic (by Nigel Holmes) which highlights the differences.
#1 Those with growth mindset found success in doing their best, in learning and improving - champions have this!
#2 Those with the growth mindset found setback motivating, informative and a wake-up call.
I have seen these characteristics displayed by many athletes within the Young Champions team. In fact, their head coach (Rameshon) is a great example. He still holds the national record for the marathon - a record he broke five times consecutively and which still stands firmly after nearly 20 years! He continually tweaked his training regime, even included breathing techniques from yoga to help him recover quicker and push himself harder. His constant mantra to the kids is - work hard, stay positive and compete against yourself - don't compare, victory will come! But victory might not always just be about winning the race and being number one. It can come in different forms. Ashley Liew, who is trained by Coach Rameshon, is testament to this fact. He recently represented Singapore for the first time in the Southeast Asian Games. Although he had trained really hard, he did not get a podium finish. But he showed an incredible level of sportsmanship by slowing down for rivals who took the wrong route during the race . The Prime Minister even highlighted this exemplary act at his National Day Rally. Although Ashley might not have won the race, he displayed a champion's value system which I believe will bring him breakthrough results in the near future! Another example is a young lady (Saranniya) in the team who did not even want to come close to the running track when she was 13. She was overweight and was not interested in any physical activity at all. Coach Rameshon and his team of coaches worked with her - taking a step at a time encouraging, motivating and strengthening her mind to take on bigger challenges. She built herself up over the years from struggling to finish the Nationals Cross-Country race to an inspirational 2nd position in the under-17 age category event this year. She is determined to represent the country one day and I am sure she will with her focus and attitude. The growth mindset is alive within large pockets of the team - my objective was just to highlight to the rest that it has been thoroughly researched, extensively tested and has produced real breakthrough results!
I went on to share what I have experienced in my life - the tough times, the many failures and some mistakes along the way. These helped me stay ever determined and focused. It has been hard having a growth mindset throughout my life so far - I still struggle with it. But looking back, the times that I did well was when I had the courage and determination to reach for the stars with a growth mindset. My time at Harvard will probably be when I truly understood this - especially for a person who struggled to pass first year engineering in University.
I left the team with three key takeaways. I am in no way at the pinnacle of my career to sit back and reflect on the past and give advice. But these were just some lessons that I have learned in my journey so far which I hope might be useful to the young athletes that I was addressing.
1) Dream Big and have the Courage To Start
A classmate told me a quote that I have not forgotten ever since - "If you try, you might fail. But if you don't try you'll never win!" This for me epitomizes how the power of one's mindset, coupled with courage and determination in overcoming inertia, is the first step towards making dreams a reality and achieving breakthrough results!
2) Plan and execute
Overcoming the inertia of starting must be accompanied by the action of planning and then executing. The old saying still holds true - "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail!" But inaction after planning will also not yield results. Executing thereafter is key. That's why I have put these two areas of focus together - breakthrough will only happen with both working hand in hand.
3) Fail Fast and Learn Fast
The stigma of failure is so powerful that it can drown any ounce of strength we might have left. But understanding upfront that the sooner you fail, the faster you can learn from it and try again is the critical foundation to breakthrough. So capitalizing on the power of failure and channeling it to learning key lessons from it is crucial to taking the next step towards success. Avoiding failure will not bring about great results; it is a necessary evil that needs to be conquered to achieve breakthrough!
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