Reflection: The Hardest Part about Bouncing Back from Failure

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During conferences e.g. FailCon Singapore or fireside chats e.g. Startup Grind Singapore, I have been often asked by entrepreneurs and investors about coping with failure in the aftermath of Chalkboard’s demise.

Essentially, there are a few sides to that question, “How do you recover from failure?”. The first level is personal, in how you view the whole exercise. The next level is how you manage that failure towards people around you, for example, partners, former employees, investors or any random people within the ecosystem. Till today, I am apologetic towards my investors and employees for the failure of Chalkboard, but the important thing is not to carry it as a baggage with me for the rest of my life. The real message is to accept failure and move on, because in the larger scale of things, that failure meant nothing.

I have a personal story as to how I have learned to manage failure better. Contrary to public perception, my whole life has been littered with failures. From all those incidents, I have learned in the most difficult way that the tough part about bouncing back from failure is not depression. The hardest part is to be patient, i.e. taking a step back from everything, learning the skills required for the next venture and wait for the right opportunity, time and place to get back to the arena.

Coming back to the story, when I was 16, my dream was to study theoretical physics in the realm of astrophysics and cosmology in Cambridge University. It’s very specific to the level that the probability for me reaching there is one in a million and I seriously do not have a Plan B. There are a couple of obstacles during that period of time, for example, having your classmates telling you that you will never make it there because you are not a physics olympiad or from a top school. Of course, it did not help when I did not do so well in my “A’ levels physics, with a ‘C’ grade. That, of course, blew any chance of going to Cambridge for my undergraduate studies.

Yet, during that time, I actually ignored what people said and preferred to try all the way to get there. However, I was interrupted by two and a half years of compulsory national service, i.e. I need to serve in the army. After the first year of my national service, I started the process to work on my dream again. During that time, I found four hours within a day during lunch and dinner to start learning my mathematics and physics all over again from books. While working alone for that dream, I have decided that I need to find a mentor by the name of Dr Chong Siew Meng. He happens to be a medical doctor who has an amazing grasp of theoretical physics and mathematics. It took me three years of hustling to get him to accept me as a student and it turns out that he has educated me in a different way, by teaching me how to fish than to give me any information to what I need to learn.

As that process went on, things did not go smoothly. Sometime around my 2nd year of university, I burnt out. Other than speaking to my mentor, I also spoke to another mentor of mine from the Special Program of Science in NUS, Dr Chan Onn. His answer to my woes is just simply, “Go and do what you like.” In the end, I did that and through a lot more pain and struggle, I finally get to do the PhD I wanted to do for all my life.

The story with my mentor Dr Chan Onn did not end there. I went back to him 18 years later after the failure of Chalkboard. He is now in the private sector but his wisdom and counsel still remain important to me till today. There was the same answer 14 years later and he said exactly the same thing to me, “Go and do what you like.” His view is that he will be saying the same thing to me 20 years later if I ever go back and seek his advice again.

Yet, this time round, is to start and build a new business again delivering value which is totally different from the problem of studying towards getting a PhD. The skills I need to learn are totally different and also require me to take a step back and figure out different components. All I can say now is that I need to take a step back and learn different set of skills and thinking from the environment around me. Even my day job is a learning experience for me, and I firmly believe that some of my current experiences will eventually come back and hopefully help me to build that future I want later in life.

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