Updated: Jul 31, 2019
This photo was recorded on the second of February 2018.
It is me delivering a TEDx talk.
I love public speaking and for a passionate "facilitator, activist, author and film-maker" - as they described me in the program - this was a dream come true. I spoke about a documentary I had produced and a peace conference me and two of my friends were about to run in Cambodia. At the time this photo was recorded we had about 10 days to go until our plane would take off.
"This was a dream come true"
Success and failure are intertwined. In most inspirational stories, however, failure causes the hero to learn and then succeed.
Failure comes before success.
Here - my "moment of success" oddly came before my failure.
The truth is, I had spent the entire week crying. I was in my final year of doing the International Baccalaureate (or IB), a High School diploma known for its difficulty. I was also applying to universities and had gotten myself in serious trouble (which is a completely different story). Two months before the talk, one of the people featured in my documentary had drowned.
"The truth is, I had spent the entire week crying"
In fact, the very night before this talk, I found myself thinking: I don't think I can go on and facilitate the conference.
I was emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted. The week of the conference was my only break before the last couple of months preceding the Final Exams. And I honestly didn't think I could do it.
If you watch the talk you won't see any of this. I carry myself with confidence, I am smiling and joking. I am strong and many people called me "inspirational" that evening.
And that's how my team saw me. Planning the conference hadn't gone as smoothly as my two co-chairs and I had anticipated.
"It was way, way too much"
First we had money problems, then we had legal problems, then we had team problems, motivational problems, logistical problems. I was juggling leading a 10-person team, a social media and crowdfunding campaign while doing homework, uni applications, editing a documentary and ... grieving.
It was way, way too much.
"The last thing you want to hear is that
the leader you are relying on is quitting."
On Friday, the night before we were planning to fly to Cambodia, I told my team about my decision. However, I also said that if only a single person disagreed with it - I would come along. Honestly, this was probably my biggest mistake. The night before a conference is a day of hectic last-minute planning and nervous packing. The last thing you want to hear is that the leader you are relying on, is quitting.
I don't think I have ever cried as much as I did that day. Many people came to talk to me afterwards. They told me they needed me but they also didn't want to sacrifice my health.
And regarding my two co-chairs.. They were upset, to say the least. I considered the two of them my brothers. One of them was angry but, as he told me later, not surprised. The other one... I am not sure he has forgiven me until this day and we it hasn't been the same between us ever since.
I was a mess that night. But I also recall having certain moments of absolute clarity. And I remember realizing something fundamental:
I had prioritized the conference and my team above anything else. As a passionate change-maker, I was convinced, it was the right thing to do. Wasn't the fate of our conference, our thirty delegates, my 11 facilitators more important than me? Of course they were.
"I had prioritized the conference and my team above anything else
- above myself"
What I hadn't understood is the magnitude of my influence on the team. When I communicated my decision to leave, I never anticipated the emotional effect on them.
As a leader you have to be strong. But you can't be strong, if you exaggerate it.
You can't pour from an empty cup.
A simple idiom explaining exactly what had happened to me.
A simple story of failure.
"You can't pour from an empty cup"
I ended up going to the conference.
A friend offered to buy me a flight back half-way through the conference. It was a compromise, made possible by the generosity of one person who was luckily not part of the situation and kind enough to see past my mistakes and stupidity - and help.
I believe that it was the most successful conference of all the one's I have experienced. But not because of me. Because of a team and several few individuals who rose up to the challenge and were absolutely brilliant.
I returned to Singapore that Wednesday only to spend the next couple of days in a sort of trance between eating and sleeping.
When school started again, I buried myself in Academics until I graduated.
More than a year later I am still trying to make sense of everything.
Initiative for Peace Cambodia 2019 will always be the best thing in my CV. My TEDx talk my biggest trophy.
And yet, they are a lie.
"How could I be a leader if I couldn't lead myself?"
I failed that February 2018. Not only my team, my delegates, my co-chairs and the conference.
I had failed myself.
How could I be a leader if I couldn't lead myself?
Ever since then I have been trying very hard not to take on too much. In fact, I have shied away from countless leadership opportunities and project ideas because I am terrified of not being able to balance everything and failing again - letting my team down.
I had lost a lot of my courage - the spirit to just go for it. Because if you are the leader and you fail, the stakes are much higher than if you are ... writing a blog.
Why am I sharing this?
It's actually not what you think it is. It seems that the lesson is: don't overwork yourself. And if you can manage that: please send me the manual.
I am sharing this for two reasons:
1. Most people who watch that TED talk and admire me. And no, it doesn't have hundreds of clicks, but it's enough for me to feel like I lied to them. I presented myself as the invincible, courageous do-it-all.
Although I don't think that's what a true leader is. That's what we want leaders to be. But leaders cry. Leaders fail. And leaders need to be able to show vulnerability and rely on others to support them. And that's okay.
2. If you fail. You have to get up again. And I am mostly saying that to myself.
It's been exactly one year and five months since this TED talk. You have to forgive yourself. You have to accept the fact that you will probably make mistakes again, because if you don't put yourself out there you are missing out on countless opportunities to make a difference. Being a leader does not mean avoiding failure. You should try, yes. But being a leader is about getting up afterwards. And continuing anyway, although you now know how you could fail and the repercussions it will have: on you, your friendships and the world.
But if you don't try. You will never succeed either.