On Failure: Reflections of a Has-Been

How much are your CCA points worth?

In 2009, flush from the glory-days of SJI, I swept into Catholic Junior College, determined to continue my golden streak. I had, after all, been the Head Prefect and then the Senior Josephian of the Year at my secondary school. I had won all the available prizes you could win for being a Well-Rounded Individual. I was ostensibly everything the school wanted to market itself for producing.

I went to CJC, and joined the Outdoor Adventure Club (ODAC). Unbeknownst to my 17-year old self, this was the worst thing that could happen to my ambitions of being an Award-winning Superstar. Joining CJC ODAC was like running smack into a concrete wall. Over the course of two years I went from a young leader ripe with possibility and potential to a virtual nobody in school. I struggled to balance the stupendous workload of JC, plus the stupendous requirements of being a first-time boyfriend, of accomodating somebody in my life. My studies and my self-esteem took a dive.

On hindsight, this is a First-World Problem. But for a kid used to hearing good things about himself this was a very difficult blow to take. One of my lowest points must have been Phase One of November XP 2009. I was weeping, sopping wreck, muddy and dripping mucus at Kuala Lipis (?) Bus Terminal, begging to drop out. School leader. Senior Josephian of the Year. Canoeist. How the mighty can fall.

But i’m glad I fell.

Today’s offering is in the form of an ‘open letter’ my ODAC teacher asked me to write. A lot of teachers in CJC, gossiping about my track record, had honestly been befuddled at what had happened to this rising star. Where had he gone? Nevermind if he hadn’t joined Student Council – but why did someone with so much Leadership Potential not even make ExCo-ship in his chosen CCA? I was told this letter was eventually circulated around the staff room, because everyone loves a good gossip session.

I publish this essay in its raw, unedited form, as a short reflection on a self at once familiar and alien across the long span of the years. This is a time capsule in many respects: about CJC, about my ODAC in a particular historical moment; about the person I was and the person I eventually became, and am becoming.

Perhaps publishing this is an exercise in self-indulgent conceit. I offer it up as a contemplation on leadership, failure, courage, and self-worth.

I have often been asked what happened to me in CJC – how/why did the Senior Josephian, the Head Prefect of SJI become so low-key in JC? What happened to him? Granted he did not have to join the student council, but even in the CCA of his choice, ODAC, he was not even prominent! What happened??

In this document I will answer these questions, questions that have often been asked by teachers, friends, and even by myself. It is with the benefit of having spent two years in CJC, having gone through so much with my ODAC batchmates, that I now attempt to address these questions. I put my choice, and this path down to two values integral to CJC: truth and love.

First, truth. Integrity. I believe in being true to my values and principles, no matter where they might take me; no matter how difficult it might be to adhere to them. And sometimes, it truly is difficult.

“It’s hard to tell the truth,

when no one wants to listen,

 when no one really cares what’s going on.

It’s hard to stand alone,

when you need someone beside you.

 Your spirit, and your faith must be strong” –John Denver

And to this end I feel that I can still answer to myself. People might ask, may say, what happened to ruizhi, why is/isn’t he… why didn’t he win…I thought he was… But I feel that such comments miss the point completely about leadership as far as I am concerned. These comments ignore intrinsic growth and development; focus excessively on the extrinsic. It is the (bad) habit of our time to measure one’s worth by one’s ‘qualifications’, one’s awards; the numbers on certificates. We imagine we can measure how good a leader is by the awards he has won, the things he has accomplished. Granted, it makes sense to measure empirically some things. All talk and no action is not good either. Yet I refuse to believe that awards, achievements and accolades are the true and sole measure of a leader. A leader needs to learn, needs to grow. This is a fundamental principle I have always held true to. It is this integrity to my own beliefs that I have pursued.

We ask students to follow their dreams. Mine has always been to learn, to see, to explore; to taste and experience all life and the great big world has to offer me. And to this end I felt that ODAC could offer me much more in terms of learning and seeing new things. I still feel that way. You ask, if we could turn back time, would you join ODAC again? Unequivocally, YES. At times I used to regret having joined ODAC, I have to admit. But only because it was so difficult at times. But I have learnt that adversity is an extremely generous and worthy teacher. If you are willing to learn from her there is much to be gained- extrinsically, but more so intrinsically. In ODAC I have learned so much, in so many ways- to organize things, to work with people, how great the Earth, and the Universe is…the list keeps going on. It has engendered in me an immense awe and respect for Mother Nature, and taught me to see/push beyond my comfort zone.

We say that the Student Council is where the best leaders of the school can be found. I have learnt that ODAC is where ordinary students are taught to be their best; taught to value and trust themselves. And in the process they become leaders in their own right. But perhaps more so than students in any other CCA in CJC, because they are also taught the value of humility. CJC ODAC has consistently delivered top placings in competitions it takes part in, from the Adventure Trail Challenge to the National Vertical Marathon. Its students scale mountains and go on expeditions that demand focus, resilience, and a great endurance for hardship. Yet rarely do we get to stand in the spotlight. Rarely are we recognized for the things we do. And rarely, strangely, do we complain. The motto of the Logistics Department is PROTADEBU: Pick Rubbish, Observant, Think Ahead, Do Extra, Be Useful. Always, always the focus is on helping others, not oneself. Our activities, from morning runs to trainings, are centred on thinking for others. It is a value I believe strongly in, because I come from a Lasallian, SJI background, where the focus too is upon the last the lost the least.

In CJC ODAC I learnt so much, in so many areas. I gained a lot, but in the process, I gained a paradox too – the strength to lose. I learned how to lose, and it is strange, but I feel stronger for it. OK, so ODAC. But being a former school leader, why did you fail even to secure a position in the EXCO? This is my honest answer- that I had struggled to find balance and adapt to the new JC environment- the new personalities, the heavier workload, the demanding CCA. I broke down. In my JC1 year I struggled with ODAC; at times I often detested going for training. I found every excuse to leave training. Consequently, my batch-mates did not know me well enough to even consider me. My performance in the November Expedition was not very flattering either, to say the least- I ran the first chance I got. Any chance of being in the EXCO was long gone. But I regret nothing- it was only because I had suffered and struggled so much that I am the person I am today. It was only because I saw how lousy, how weak, how far I could fall, that I could see how good a person I could/can become.

My JC1 year destroyed an illusions I had about being a Head Prefect or a Senior Josephian. It led me to question the type of person I was; the life I had been living. Was my time in SJI a lie? Had I been such a weak, selfish person all along? In JC2 I answered these questions for myself, with courage, with substance, with perseverance. And I am glad I fell so far- into ignominy and defeat. Because in falling I learned I could climb up. I learnt I was strong enough, good enough. Perhaps I will never deserve fully the accolades SJI honoured me with. But I now know that I do not need them. I don’t regret a single moment of my ODAC life – even the bitter parts because they made the sweet so much sweeter. Paradoxically, it was because i had failed to win awards, accolades, that I found my own self-worth. I remember a speech Brother Paul gave us in JC1. Our very first one, in fact. In it he spoke of the importance of doubt, because it is doubt that makes our faith stronger. It makes us stronger. I can safely say that I have become so.

In failing to be a ‘leader’ in the conventional sense, i.e. with a post; with CCA points, I learnt to be a better one. The best leaders aren’t those concerned with whether or not they are recognized. They are there for a higher purpose; they are there to serve, and to make a difference to those they lead. Whether or not they will get CCA points in completely and absurdly irrelevant.

So you ask, what happened to Choo Ruizhi, the head prefect, the josephian of the year? He is not anything in CJC now- see, he’s not in any appointed post, nor recognized! I thought he was a leader??!  I will tell you without hesitation that he did became a better head prefect; josephian; person; leader, precisely because he was not ‘anything’. In our time it has become the trend to measure people by the names of their positions, or their material possessions. I am rich, because I have money, am CEO. I am good, because I can vomit answers out, and am Student Council President. But I feel if this is the only way you measure your self-worth, then you are truly poor.

In Veritate et Caritate. In Truth and Love. These are values I feel I have been true to, in my path and my time in CJC. I have been true to myself, and I have pursued my beliefs with integrity, out of love for my world, my school, my people.

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