Failure is forever if I quit. That has always been my private motto. I was in class Lower 6 Sc 2 in my last year of high school in Penang. There were only two classes in the science stream. The smarter guys in Sc 1 did Math 1 and Math 2. We in Sc 2 did Biology and Chemistry or Physics. It was a honeymoon year for some of us – those who knew they were leaving for overseas soon. “Soon” was August for those going to the UK, and the following January for those heading to Australia or New Zealand. Naively, I thought that was the end of school life. The reasons to learn were somehow no longer applicable. I could fail in that system and it would not matter. It was ok to flop the year-end exams. I duly got a mark of 41/100 at the end of the year for Chemistry. The first and only paper I ever failed in. It did not register any movement in my Worry Meter. Many of us do not remember sitting for any exams that year. We took the whole exam thing very lightly. No one cared, it was our honeymoon year. I did not freak out. I just told myself that would be the last time I fail in an exam or in any goal I set for myself. I was wrong. Life has a way of finding our weakest link, and once that is discovered, the relentless examination and testing of it will eventually break it. We are as strong as our weakest link. I started a franchise chain in the mid 90’s. It flopped after over a decade of impressive growth. I blamed it on the weakest links which caused the whole chain to break. Did I flip when they flopped? Yes, I freaked out. Not at them but by them. They blamed me for their failures and commenced numerous lawsuits against me. I am still relieved today to have won all of them, through detailed preparation aided by proper and thorough documentation.
Before my stint as a franchisor, I was head-hunted for a position as the Financial Controller / Finance Director of a well-known Sydney-based national business that was the industry leader in car alarms. I discovered real success at aged 32, I thought. The job required me to work in Sydney, to introduce new internal control systems and save the company from further losses. Working in a different city meant I missed out on the most adorable time of my sons’ growing up days. The eldest boy was learning the violin and piano, the twins had picked up their brand new 1/8 size cellos a year earlier. They composed a piano duet one Sunday morning before they turned 5. It was not written on a score since they were not taught the fundamentals of music theory yet nor were they taught any piano lessons. The Mrs and I woke up to a glorious spiritually healing music, which I promptly titled “Morning Glory”. How can young children under five years old create such beautiful music without being taught any fundamentals of music? How did they communicate between themselves and decide on how the music should sound like as a piano duet? Did they hear the same music from inside their heads? They had not been taught how to play the piano. How did they even know how to play on it? Right that moment, I said to The Mrs, “These guys should be given piano lessons! They will have so much fun.” When I left for Sydney to commence on my new job, the eldest son had already mastered the art of cycling his BMX bike. The older twin had just begun learning to peddle his tricycle whereas the younger twin, the “baby”, was contented to drive his toy push-car along the street with his little feet. He was the happy tortoise who was oblivious of his brothers’ hare-like speed in zooming up and down the cul-de-sac. I missed out on most of those scenes as I focused on my work in Sydney.
My living quarters were in the company’s Randwick flat with the convenience of cheap Chinese food cooked in bulk for the hordes of uni students living in that suburb. I did not realise it at the time, but I would have been one of the pioneers of FIFO’s – Fly in Fly out brigades which became the norm during the mining boom of early 21st century Australia. My shift was 12, -2 i.e. 12 days on, 2 days off. I got to spend every second weekend at home with my family. After nine months of intensive auditing and implementing new system controls, I handed my report card to my fellow directors at the board meeting. I dropped a bombshell that day. The business was beyond saving. It required an immediate capital injection of half a million dollars. The chairman informed me that he had done just that prior to appointing me for the job, and could not believe his ears that all that money had already disappeared – siphoned out by the crooked workers and contractors. The chairman freaked out. They flipped when they saw that I had flopped. The next morning, the chairman called in the administrators. The business had become officially insolvent. My impressive biography had to be altered but I could not put it down in writing. It would have read “Finance Director of a business that went into voluntary liquidation.”
Success is most often achieved by those who have discovered failure.
Will success come to me? Coincidentally, Mak sends me a meme about success. It said success is measured by others, best to ignore it. I think success is measured not just by others but by everyone. The only measure that is relevant is the personal one. What is success? Material wealth? Status? Respect? An enviable lifestyle? Happiness? Happiness is the elusive goal. I do not think we can actively set ourselves to achieve happiness. We may develop the right attitudes, be contented, be peaceful, be righteous. But, all that will not guarantee happiness. Something may strike us. Someone may hurt us. Happiness just comes to us, when we least expect it. Maybe the secret is to live without expectations. Without expectations there will be no disappointments, and only then may happiness suddenly land on our laps.
“Happiness is like a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it eludes you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it comes and sits softly on your shoulder.”
– Henry David Thoreau
Many will say I am already successful. By many measures, I suppose I am. My marriage is still intact, after 38 years. The Mrs and I have three very good sons, all of them independent, respectful of their elders, and respected by their colleagues and friends. My business is still an ongoing concern; it still employs a few people and thus still contributes to society. Touch wood, at 61, my health is still good despite the harsh challenges my business threw at me and the sedentary nature of my work. The Mrs and I paid out the home mortgage some ten years ago. We are debt-free, set free from all obligations to the banks. Yet, I am still not totally carefree. There is still the matter of living responsibly. A filial son, even at my age, has duties. It is not that I feel obliged to spend time with my mother, I want to. She is 96, her enjoyment is to be with her children. I work during the week, so the weekend “roster” is for me to fulfil. Without exception, lunch or dinner on Saturdays and Sundays are booked with Ma. It is uncomfortable to have to tell her about my forthcoming overseas trips. Ma will lament for a few weeks and “count the days” of when I leave. Living responsibly. That also means the continued responsibility to the woman I married who is the mother of my sons, and to my sons, the Millennial or Gen Y’s. The Mrs and I are baby boomers, products of the celebrations after WW2. Sandwiched between the elders (our parents and parents-in-law) and our children, we bore responsibility for all three generations. I saw that as just a part of life, and for me, it never felt like it was a burden too heavy to carry. That is called living responsibly. The Gen Y’s heard about all that; the early marriage, the rush to find a career – immediately, and early parenthood. They witnessed the challenges of the child-bearing, the child-raising, and the child-like needs of the elderly. Filial piety has a price. The children witnessed the dark side of suffering in old age. Their maternal grandma’s long trail of plastic tubing that snaked along the floor from the downstairs bathroom and toilet to the oxygen tank in her bedroom; her pain, immobility and the shortness of breath caused by the emphysema that wrecked her lungs. The frequent visits to the Royal Adelaide Hospital – the old folks seemed to take turns; her turn – shortness of breath, his turn – acute constipation, her turn – shortness of breath, his turn – broken hip. Then, funeral 1, followed by the frequent trips to two nursing homes to visit their grandpas. Later on, funeral 2, funeral 3. Before funeral 3, there were my two years of daily visits to Pa’s nursing home. He had to go in, despite his protestations. Heavy set and tall, he broke his hip after a fall. Eventually, his Type 2 diabetes won the battle and he became an amputee, losing his leg to the disease. The Gen Y’s witnessed all of that. They were witnesses to the lifestyle of giving and more giving. When they grew up, they made a choice to live their own lives, for themselves. I guess they did not find my choices agreeable. None of them embraced the early marriage, early career and early parenthood paths I took. Ma sees that as a failure on my part to inculcate in them the doctrine of passing the genes and carry on the family name. She sees it as my duty to persuade my sons to deliver the next progeny and thus the next generation to the clan. Somehow she cannot see the funny side of this quest since she herself is not born into the clan. The clan is without a crest, flag or coat of arms. The future therefore will have no need for a flag bearer. So, what does it matter, right? When she sees me on Saturday, she will flip again, to know her mission is still a flop.