Lessons learnt from failure

The first lesson I would like to share has to do with perseverance.

When I was a student, I was fortunate to have won a scholarship with less than stellar A-level results. In fact, I only had one A. This scholarship allowed me to pursue a degree in accountancy at Nanyang Technological University, and secured me a job upon graduation.

When I completed my studies, I started working in a treasury department. One of the very first things I noticed was the difference in the standard of toilets for staff. Managers could enjoy washrooms which were better furnished than toilets used by other employees. I felt a deep sense of injustice and spoke to the director of human resources.

Now, many of you must be thinking: “What was he trying to do?” I guess that was exactly what the director was thinking as well. She told me three things:

  • This issue is none of your business.
  • You are too arrogant (making complaints).
  • Go back to work.

I went back to my desk with a heavy heart. I did not achieve what I had set out to do and I possibly angered one of my superiors, which would not bode well for my career prospects. However, if you ask me now whether I would go back and do it again, I most definitely would. I strongly believed that everyone should be at least afforded the same level of respect and courtesy.

Even after I left the company, the issue remained in my heart and I made it my personal mission to make that change happen. Fifteen years later, I finally did. I joined the group as a board member and spoke to the chief executive officer on the issue. I told him about the toilet situation and he made the change. All employees now have access to the same quality of toilets.

I think that many of us, especially in Singapore, have been conditioned to fear failure, and sometimes the initial failure puts us off from eventually achieving our objectives. But there are benefits to failure, and persevering past it.

The transition from university to the workplace is not always easy and there are bound to be times when you do not get things right, even after multiple attempts. Some of these things might get you in trouble with your superiors, and some of these things might hinder your career progression. When faced with these situations, do not be disheartened. It is all right to fail and make mistakes as long as you put your heart into the work and persevere.

This brings me to my next point – of having the courage to ask for what you want. Most of us have been brought up with an Asian mentality that places large emphasis on respect for those in authority or in senior positions. While there is generally value in doing so, we sometimes forgo the opportunity to share our ideas, especially in a respectful manner. Hopefully, this next story will reinforce you just how important it is to ask.

When I was 31, I joined an American hedge fund in Greenwich, Connecticut, among the top 10 largest in the world. It was my very first experience working in the rough-and-tumble world of the trading floor in the hedge fund capital. I was hired as a supporting analyst and worked under the portfolio managers. Even though my job did not require me to, I was already working on a few investment ideas which I felt had potential. So, I decided to take action.

On my very first day at the hedge fund, I went up to its founder and told him that I had an investment idea that he might be interested in. I asked him for US$20 million (S$27 million) and a plane ticket to Indonesia. It was the first time that we met and he thought that I was crazy. In hindsight, I would not have blamed him if he thought so because it was such a bold request. Ultimately, he chose not to act on my investment idea. But something good did come out of it. He remembered me for my courage and later, I was handed my own portfolio to manage.

But of course, it is not wise to speak carelessly. Before you make a proposal, you must back it up. You are unlikely to make a good impression if you are not sufficiently prepared. I only approached the founder because I had given that particular investment idea a great amount of consideration. It was really important that I did, or my first day on the job could have also been my last.

  • The writer is CEO, Asia Pacific, Trafigura Group and a trustee for Nanyang Technological University where he is adjunct professor. This is based on a speech he gave at the Nanyang Business School convocation on July 28.