Reflecting on what it means to be successful

By Matthew Zachary Liu

By Korean expectations, I would have been considered a failure.

By Singaporean standards, I was absolutely average.

Growing up with a Korean mom, “success” was always defined by academic achievements. I hated it but I don’t blame mom because in South Korea, grades are an obsession. Relatives constantly compare scores on report cards while society judges you based on the course you take and university you get accepted into. For some, college entrance exams are potentially a matter of life and death.

I was educated through the Singapore system from Primary school to University. Before I could write sentences, the pressure was already on.. my sister studied in Raffles while I was enrolled into one of the other Top 10 Primary schools in Singapore (Pei Hwa Presbyterian Primary School).

My primary school was the kind of school where you’d have a pretty good chance of making it to a “better” secondary school. In fact, a lot of my primary schoolmates made it to the elite, prestigious schools down the Bukit Timah stretch (Hwa Chong, Nanyang, MGS, SCGS, ACS).

Sadly for mom, I never quite lived up to her Korean expectations or even Singaporean standards.

While my peers did well academically, I was more of a directionless primary school kid who just wanted to play football or Counter Strike at the LAN shop opposite school. Mom had hopes and plans for me to enroll into ACS(I) because one of her Korean friend’s son was already studying there.. but the day I received my PSLE results, that option was instantly dashed.

I ended up in Queensway Secondary school. My parents and I had never even heard of such a school before. I chose it only because it was one of the schools closer to home.

From directionless primary school boy, I became a notorious secondary 1 kid. Disrespectful, uninterested, disruptive, doing stupid things, getting into fights.. the following year, I was even transferred to a different secondary 2 class altogether.

I was just bored in school. I was not a smart kid, my grades weren’t exactly terrible either.. I just had no interest learning at that point in time. In secondary 2, I found an out: expending my excess energy through sports. I was on the school’s football and track team. I loved it. I got better at it. By the time I advanced to secondary 3, I was the fastest boy and became the school’s track captain. I thought there was finally something in life that I was good at, possibly even the best at.. I even started dreaming of representing Singapore at the Olympics someday.

But when I was competing at the schools National Track Meet, racing against other boys my age, all these “elite school” boys were bigger, faster, donned fancier gear.. I didn’t just feel inferior, I realized how bloody mediocre I was.

And then I met one of my primary school mates who freaking clocked a much faster time than I did.

I clearly remembered thinking, “oh man.. he’s smart, athletic, rich, good looking and.. what’s the point of me even trying?”

The “big fish in a small pond, small fish in the ocean” reality hit me pretty hard.

I was pretty done at that point thinking that I really was not good at anything after all or that there’s always someone better so why bother.

My coach sat me down and said straight to my face: “All these medals are a material recognition for those who achieved certain results; even if the rest of the playing field doesn’t walk away with medals, it doesn’t mean they are any less deserving.. competitions are meant to push us to an even higher standard of ourselves; medal or not, the true winners are always the ones who achieve their personal bests.

It completely changed my perception of success.

Growing up under my Korean mom’s ideal of having excellent grades as the sole definition and measure of success.. I often gave up and stopped trying when I didn’t see immediate results.

But at the age of 15, striving to be a better version of my previous self became my new focus.

A year later, during the school’s sports day, I broke its 20 year old record in the 100m with a new personal best.. and for me, that was enough. I didn’t have to win the school’s national track meet or represent Singapore at international competitions. I was happy. Contented. That year, I walked away from school sports to grow in a different area.

Even though my grades were always average, one of my teachers discovered my “talent” in communicating, ignited a passion within, created opportunities for me to grow, and encouraged me to explore further.

Throughout poly and university, I studied communications with the goal of pursuing a career in the media industry someday.. I still wasn’t a straight A student nor did I graduate with honours but while still studying, I started working with the likes of MTV, ESPN.. interviewing big names from Maroon 5 to EXO to the Prime Minister of Singapore. At my peak, a company even offered close to 10,000 a month if I moved to KL to take up a job offer.

A half korean boy from a Singapore neighbourhood school.. actually making it.

By Korean expectations, I would have still been considered a failure.

By Singaporean standards, I was just average.

And that was okay. Life after graduation still turned out fine.

Until it didn’t.

After achieving one milestone after another, I started to get caught up in the vicious cycle of blindly chasing numbers as a measurement of success. I was doing okay but it was never enough.

Academic competition in school is one thing.. job appraisals, ranking, achievements, income, etc, as a working adult is another level of adulting.. but the constant personal struggle was seeing the accomplishments of others all over social media and feeling like you’re always lagging behind in life.

This constant comparing with others not only zapped all happiness but manifested all insecurities - the feeling of not being good enough; never being good enough, especially when everyone else around always seemed to be doing so much better at this age and stage of life.

It was toxic. I became depressed.

So I stopped comparing. I walked away from that world.

Started appreciating the little things and truly living life by my own standards instead of pegging it against the achievement of others.

It took awhile for things to fall into place but i'm grateful to have transitioned into a position where i'm now able to combine passion and purpose, making a living and difference instead of just going though the motion or competing in the endless rat race.

Some people are driven or destined to be “great”.. whether they’ve been set up since a young age or may have been average in school but turned out to become a top performer in their field of play; they’re living their definition of success.. good for them.

Some find contentment and purpose in other ways.. they may have been top scorers in school but decided to become hawkers, social workers or something “less glamours” instead.. that’s completely okay as well.

I never thought I’d end up where I’ve been over the past few years.. leaving the media spotlight, working with youths instead.

A moment that really came full circle was when I went back to work with students from my Primary and Secondary school.. sometimes they’d ask if I regret or feel that I’ve “failed” because going from international stages to local classrooms may seem like a massive downgrade.

I’d simply say, “This is the path I took, these are the choices I’ve made.. I was once in your shoes, literally sat in that chair, having to live up to certain standards and expectations which I did, but differently. Now it’s your turn to chart your path. You want to be the best? Good on you. You’ll be happy giving your best? That’s great too. Strive to be the best version of yourself, there is surely no regret in going down that road.”

Hmm I just want to encourage anyone reading this who may feel that you’re lacking or lagging behind in life compared to peers who might seem to be progressing a lot faster and better.. all of us have our own journeys to walk and stories to write.

For some of us, we might already be in the middle of our journey, while for the rest of us, a chapter may be about to end or a new one beginning.. all of us have different ideals and will arrive at different milestones at varying points in our individual lives. The lives and dreams of others are theirs to live, not ours.

As long as we don't become too disheartened or give up.. we'll eventually get to the place we want to be or are meant to be, at our own time, of our own volition.

This first appeared as a post on the Facebook wall of Matthew Zachary Liu on 29 November 2020. Do join in the discussion over there if you have thoughts to share.


I will never send my kid to a neighbourhood school

This is not the life I want. It never rains but pours.

Honest thoughts about RI(JC)