Failure should be experienced early when young

Text loosely translated by | Oh Puay Fong 
Original Chinese article (published in Awaken issue 49) , 《失败要趁早》written by | Ye Jian Yong (叶建勇) 

In the past, the trophies for the school’s Sports Day races were swept clean by one Secondary Five student in my class. From Secondary One till Secondary Four, whether in the sprints or long-distance runs, individual or relay events, the gold medals went to her. Lamentably, in her swan song performance this year, she competed despite nursing some injuries, and lost in both the 100-metre and 400-metre races, her strongest forte. She was devastated and sobbed for a long time after the races.

Subsequently, I deliberately set an essay assignment for students on “Reflections after the Sports Day”. As expected, she poured out her disappointment and frustration in her composition. I marked and commented on her paper: “The most fragile people are those who have never failed”. She did not understand this and came to me for clarification. So I told her the story of the Overlord of Western Chu, Xiang Yu.

Xiang Yu was the descendent of a famous general, Xiang Yan. Since he was 23, he had followed his uncle, Xiang Liang to overthrow the Qin dynasty, and never lost a battle. The battle of Julu was particularly memorable because he led a smaller troop to vanquish the massive Qin army, achieving such resounding success that it was said officials who witnessed the battle scene from a cliff kneeled down in awe of Xiang Yu’s majestic prowess. Later, he repeated this incredible feat again at the Battle of Pengcheng, overcoming the 50,000-strong Han army with only 30,000 men. Both battles are famous in Chinese history, especially for demonstrating how a weaker force could defeat a stronger one. At that time, Xiang Yu was barely 30 years old, and grew arrogant as a result of his string of successes.

Unfortunately, this noble of Chu state who was seemingly invincible could not maintain his peak position for long, and toppled down after a few years. He was played out by Liu Bang, and his troops fell like dominoes thereafter. He actually had a chance to escape from harm by crossing a river. However, he felt too ashamed to face his ancestors after his failure, and chose to kill himself instead. Perhaps we could ask ourselves: Why was a larger-than-life hero like Xiang Yu not able to recover from failure?

I believe the answer is because he had never experienced any failure, prior to the one that led to his suicide. He was a supremely confident person, which helped to steel his resolve and act determinedly, even in the face of a stronger enemy. But this same level of confidence made him unable to accept failure. We can actually catch glimpses of our young people in Xiang Yu. Observing our own modern world, how many young people, who used to top their class in school, took their own lives after receiving only one unsatisfactory grade? How many youngsters are there, used to their life of smooth sailing, who could not bounce back from a single storm? Moreover, had Xiang Yu been lucky enough to taste bitter failure before reaching the heights of his military career, would he have chosen differently by crossing the river, eventually making a comeback? Might history have taken a different turn as a result of him making a different decision?

Obviously, these are hypothetical questions, but yet who can deny the possibilities inherent in them? Returning to this teenager’s experience, life is similar to the different kinds of races. Some people are making a dash in the 100-metre sprint. Others are running marathons, putting their stamina and determination to the test. What is most important is that regardless of whether we are running 100 metres or a marathon, whether we are leading or lagging in the race, our focus should not be on winning or losing it, but on giving our utmost to complete the journey. Thus, I also commented after marking her composition: “i’m very glad that you experienced failure once before you graduate, because you have now become stronger.”