Redefining Success in the Post COVID Era
ASEAN Youth Dialogue 26.7.22
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Download slides here
As I was preparing for this speech, it became apparent to me that I have been a merchant of success in much of my career. Let me clarify, I am not in the business of making people successful, instead I show the world what success looks like.
It is a fine line, but there is a difference. You don’t need to know how to make a car to sell a Lamborghini.
I previously ran a magazine publication called Inspire. Featured in the magazines are some of the most Successful Asian faces in the world: Tony Fernandez, Robert Kiyosaki, Guy Kawasaki, Fan Bing Bing, Wu Chun, Sheila Amzah, Chef Martin Yan and many others. In the last 3 years, I have been a conference organiser, and instead of putting those successful people on the cover of a magazine, I invited them on stage to share their secrets for Success.
If you were to ask me to narrow down to 3 things all these Successful people that I have featured have in common, it would come down to this simple formula:
They amass tremendous amounts of wealth and resources.
They sit in a powerful position and are highly influential.
They are immensely talented and are the masters at their crafts.
As I reflected about the dire state of the world today: Covid-19, Climate Change catastrophe, Economic and Social instability, I feel that one of the key contributing factors attributing to our present situation is that we have all been sold the wrong idea of Success; It is self serving, it promotes a twisted sense of reality and is frankly killing our planet.
I have an important message to share today, and the message involves Redefining and Rewriting the rulebooks for Success urgently because the concept of Success that the magazines have been feeding us are no longer applicable. In fact, I would argue that they are downright irresponsible, dangerous and unsustainable.
Here are why I came to this conclusion:
COVID has taught us that no matter how Successful you are, you would be willing to give it all up on your deathbed in exchange for another chance to start again with your health intact. So, why are we not being taught to put Health before Success as the fundamental value at home and in school as we grow up?
The Great Resignation
We are witnessing a never-before phenomenon across the globe called The Great Resignation, which was borne out of Covid. People are quitting their jobs at an unprecedented rate and scale in modern history. Why? One of the main reasons they quit is not because they don’t need to earn a living but because COVID has led them to realise that there is more to work than just being a cog in the wheel and that working for the sake of work is not worth their precious life. Their next employers will be the ones that offer them a balanced work environment that prioritizes their needs and gives them dignity, meaning and purpose, in exchange for their unfazed loyalty and the highest quality of their work that they have given to any employers.
The Real Heroes
COVID has taught us that the people who mattered in society during the most desperate times are not the Celebrities, Sport Stars and the CEOs who are paid a ungodly amount of money for their work, but the scientists, health and essential workers, teachers, delivery personnels and volunteers who held the society together by a string in the most selfless manner. Why are we not putting these people on the pedestals instead? Shouldn’t they deserve to be compensated and recognized as the real Heroes and Success of the society today?
COVID has taught us that individual Success means very little, when the very state of our existence depends on everyone’s cooperation, kindness and responsibilities to do the right thing. Singapore learned this hard lesson in the first wave of Covid-19 when they discovered that they cannot contain Covid by prioritizing healthcare privileges to their own citizens while neglecting the living conditions of the foreign labourers. There is no individual success if we are not able to make it out collectively to the other side as a human race.
There are dozens more other lessons from COVID, but the message is clear - the word Success needs a broader definition.
The Big Picture
Perhaps one of the most important lessons I learned about Success was at the World Economic Forum’s HQ in Geneva at the Annual Curators Meeting for the Global Shapers represented by 450 most outstanding young people around the world in 2015.
Ironically, it was not from any of the successful speakers on stage but from a team building exercise that the organizer got everyone to participate in on the very first day.
As we kicked off the 5 days event, WEF swiftly divided us into small groups of 10 to break the ice. Each group was given a different A4 poster, a blank canvas and a limited amount paint, brushes and other resources tasked with the job to duplicate exactly what was being printed on the small poster. Aside from some basic parameters and timelines, we were pretty much given a freehand to pursue our group assignments.
As you can imagine, the task proved to be more complicated than it initially looked when you put a dozen ambitious and driven young achievers together to paint on the same canvas. Pretty soon, you got to discover who was the alpha among the alphas, who were the serious contenders, who were the artists, strategic thinkers, perfectionists, natural born leaders and the connectors, and which of them lurkers and troublemakers. The simple exercise was a direct access to everyone’s personality like no others. If you were observant, you would get to figure out the group dynamics pretty effectively. Pure genius.
As you would expect, the Type- A instincts of the WEF young extraordinaires instantly kicked in throughout the exercise. I started seeing participants crossing over to other teams to spy on their drawings, “pinch” resources, and some even sabotaged another’s work in the spirit of fun in order to win the race.
As each group completed their individual posters, we progressed to the next level to combine our part of the puzzle into individual characters and eventually form a gigantic word spelled: “SHAPING”.
And then, we were tasked to reflect on the lessons derived from this whole experience.
Invariably, some concluded that it was a lesson on teamwork, some said leadership, psychology while others, personality assessment. One even alluded it to being an exercise about arts and creativity, but I digress. Their interpretations were not wrong at all.
However, for me, the exercise was one of the most unlikely, powerful and profound lessons on Success that I stumbled upon which I often found myself reflecting to this day.
As each team was busy competing to be the first to finish, coming up with the most flawless mural to impress and outshine the others, it occurred to me that we have all been missing the point.
Looking at the gigantic mural that marked the painting of 450 elite individuals, the lessons in Success couldn’t have been more clearly spelled out for me on the wall:
Firstly, life is never about any race or competitions. Everyone was defaulted to assume that the object of the exercise was to win because being the best of the best was exactly what got them selected by WEF to come here in the first place. We couldn’t have been more wrong. The event organizer had never even implied for us to compete with each other throughout the entire exercise. Just like how we assumed life is about race and competitions, we went about “killing” each other to get to the top. How many times have we treated life as a game for us to win, conquer and repeat. And viewed Success as the ultimate prize when clearly, there is so much more to it! If you look closely at the mural, you would realize that the more consumed about individual success we are, the less desirable the outcome of the final mural is going to be.
Secondly, there was no way for any one individual to complete the art piece in 45 minutes, no matter how gifted an artist he or she was. We cannot achieve anything of significance by doing it alone. Success requires everyone’s contribution.
Lastly, you may be a talented artist but having the most beautiful artwork* alone is not enough when your community doesn’t have the capability to keep up with you. You’re not going to Shape anything meaningful in life if you can’t accept the idea that you are just a subset of the big picture.
Here’s a thought:
Instead of competing, why not collaborate?
Instead of hoarding the paints and brushes, why not share them freely and exchange? Chances are, you’d need their color mixes just as much as they would need yours.
And instead of being the greatest artist in the room, why not elevate everyone’s performance to complete the big picture together by teaching everyone what you know?
This lesson about the big picture is even more pertinent and urgent today than when I first stumbled onto it 7 years ago, as humanity faces the greatest existential crises in our history.
As the steward of the planet of tomorrow: it is incumbent upon the Youth to pursue Success with a new set of lenses.
I am cognizant that when it comes to the definition of Success; it is an inside job. Nobody but you can decide what Success means to you. However, as you reflect on the definition of Success, I hope you would start by asking yourself these 3 questions:
Would You have the physical and mental capacity to savor your success when you finally reach there?
What would you have profited if you gained the world and lost your soul while chasing it?
Does your definition involve more than just Success for yourself and not for the others?
*I am by no means advocating for good enough or settling for the second best. To achieve any basic level of success, you must pursue your drawings to the best of your ability. After all, the hallmark of success cannot be separated from the uncompromised pursuit of excellence in even the most trivial task, especially in the most trivial task, and take pride in knowing that you have left nothing on the table regardless of the outcome.