Who Contributes to My Success? by David Wee

Part of the Success Series, a series of Question/Answer pieces centred on John Maxwell’s The Value of Asking Questions


What is the greatest lesson you have learned?

David:  The Power of Belief. I was 16 when one of my teachers told me I should be aiming for Ds. That’s pretty crappy results but that teacher believed the goal would severely test the limits of my academic capability. My history teacher, however, demanded that I get an A for history.

Why? Because I “can”. He proceeded to teach me history until I started believing that I can do history and a whole bunch of other subjects too.

I learned then what I know now:

  1. Our behaviours flow from our beliefs. If we believe we can run fast, we will behave like a sprinter, think like one and run faster then we ever have. The converse is also true. If we don’t believe we can run fast, then we will not even try!
  2. Our belief flows from the belief of others. I had a manager who believed I could do tasks I thought were not possible. His belief in me was so unshakable that I began to believe I could be everything he said I was and more. I’d like to think he gave me my magic feather. You know which one? It’s the magic feather that Dumbo ‘needed’ so he could fly.
  3. Once you understand that you are the magic feather, you will remove limiting ideas and push to do more. You take accountability for your own success because nobody can make you gain or lose your self-belief without your consent.
  4. I am grateful for having people like Stephen Lee, my history teacher, and Steve Kerr, my manager, in my life. I believe the best way to thank and honour them is to do for others what they did for me.

What are you learning now?

David: I am learning how to be curious. Typically, I get only as much information as I need to get the job done. I place little value in deep dives into abstract matters unless they offer practical application. I do not seek knowledge or the deeper understanding of why and how things work.

Why be curious?

So I can enjoy the pleasures that new experiences offer (even experiences that are familiar). When we are curious, we use our senses differently. We feel what is happening in the present moment. We are inquiring rather than concluding. We don’t judge, we savour. We are more capable of making connections and experiencing moments of insight.

I am especially inspired and guided by what Richard Fenway wrote:

“Fall in love with some activity and do it! Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be but what you want to do.”

Today, I am beginning to learn because I want to know, not because I need to, and I have started demonstrating curiosity through these new behaviours:

  1. stopping a 40-year-old habit – smoking;
  2. diving off the island of Flores in Indonesia;
  3. fumbling with Spanish in Barcelona;
  4. discovering walking trails in urban Singapore;
  5. bringing my 84-year-old mother furniture shopping for her new house;
  6. getting a 140,000+ LinkedIn views for a post;
  7. developing new relationships; and
  8. learning how to exercise and eat better.

How has failure shaped you?

David: I learned to say sorry. I think the failure that traumatised me most was not my demotion when I was a new manager or when I was retrenched while in a C-suite role. Both were painful events and taught me much. But they didn’t mean as much as when, at the age of twelve, I lost the football final at an 11-a-side tournament.

I was not a natural footballer.

Actually, I just wasn’t good. Worse, I was a poor loser. To avoid defeat, I put in hours and hours of practice. But I lacked talent, physique and other ingredients for success. I knew how to try and not give up but sometimes, heart alone is not enough. But I didn’t know that then.

I actually played an outstanding game in the first half of that final. My game, however, went south in the second half as we trailed by a goal, then two and three. After that, it was just a blur. Shoulders drooped, we gave up and stopped trying. Something in me just snapped. I started screaming and swearing at my teammates and did all the stuff that did not help a team that was already down get back on its feet. Even when the final whistle was blown, I was still fuming, criticising and pointing fingers.

That night in my bedroom with no one to blame, the awful realisation of how I behaved, finally hit me. I knew then my greatest failure was not losing but behaving obnoxiously and letting my entire team down. I was so ashamed I cried myself to sleep.

Nonetheless, there was a silver lining.

Twelve year old boys have very poor retention spans and a generous spirit. To get forgiveness I mumbled  “mmsssooorraaayy you know”. I was forgiven not because I was a particularly good friend but because I was the only one in the group who owned a football!

Several lessons:

  1. Say sorry even if you are so ashamed of yourself that you want to pretend that you are right and the others are wrong.
  2. Never walk alone because you can’t succeed without others and it offers little joy.
  3. Never give up on your team because they can’t succeed without you and it offers little joy.
  4. Play to win but don’t lose life’s bigger perspectives in the quest for victory. Winning must never be everything!

Who do you know that I should know?

David:  Well, if you want to see what great teachers look like, get to know my history teacher and my former boss. I also had exchanges with Jack Welch on several occasions. The most memorable was an occasion when Jack was teaching a leadership class in GE’s Crotonville and I was one of the participants.

Jack explained that “At GE, we don’t wish or hope, we make it happen!” I was in the front row. Suddenly, he moved forward and was barely a meter away from me. He looked me in the eyeball and loudly demanded, “David, you will be a GE leader, right???”

I really thought I was going to have a heart attack! I managed a soft, “I hope so, Jack.”

I regretted what I said the moment it left my lips. I should have yelled, “YOU BET, JACK!!!” But never mind, he’ll forget and I wouldn’t see him ever again.

Four weeks later, I saw him again at a GE event in Jakarta!

Jack said, “Hi David.” “Shucks,” I thought, “300,000 employees in GE and he remembers me! I am in deep shit.”

Two days later, GE business CEOs had lunch with Jack. These are leaders whom I worked quite closely with as part of the talent development process. They reported that Jack had asked about me. “Don’t worry”, they reassured, “we told Jack you are delivering big time!”

A week later, I got a call from my manager, who was the Chief Learning Officer for GE. “You must have done something right because Jack mentioned you. Let’s talk about your future…”.

I learned:

  1. Jack Welch is dead serious when it comes to developing people. He checked me out because he wanted to make sure that the leadership development guy for Asia could do his job!
  2. You must perform. Among other things, it helps you build a personal brand and get noticed.
  3. You must take advantage of being noticed in order to build a network with members who have influence and who would advocate on your behalf. If the GE CEOs did not speak to Jack on my behalf, I think my career in GE could have had a very different ending.

What have you read that I should read?

David:  I have no idea! But there are books that solve problems, offer ideas and grow your imagination. Here is my favourite dozen:

What have you done that I should do?

David: Well, I’m pretty sure I can offer a long list of what not to do. The good news is that every mistake offers some learning and recently, I wrote about The 10 most important lessons I learnt so far. I think it’s pretty handy. Let’s see if you think the same too.

  1. It’s tough to lose a great job. Even tougher, to lose a family. If you have to choose between the two, always choose family.
  2. Life is too complex to have only one truth. So stay away from zealots. Leave room and space for alternatives and compromises.
  3. Know what you really want. Know what you will do to get it and know what you will not do.
  4. Deep learning can happen only when you unlearn. Unlearning is tough because you have to put a piece of your past into the trash can.
  5. Don’t try to win every argument because you are not that smart, and soon, no one will want to argue with you.
  6. Don’t smoke, eat in moderation, move your body all the time, laugh a lot and don’t forget to floss.
  7. When you leave a job, make sure you leave behind people who are very successful because of what you did.
  8. Surround yourself with the best people especially those who disagree with you.
  9. Don’t be a jerk – don’t swear, whine, lie, condescend and grab credit from others.
  10. Everyone needs a best friend. Not all have one. If you do, hang on to yours.

How can others add value to you?

DavidThey speak when others don’t…I remember when I was pissed off with my football coach. I thought he was off the mark about my performance. But my friend, Koh said, “Look, if you push harder, he will stick you on the bench forever. So just shut up!”

Arggh! I wanted to kick Koh but he was right. I was acting like a child and the only one to get punished was me.

…they keep me honest… I remember this one time I was speaking at a town hall meeting about an organisational restructuring exercise. One supporter stood up and asked a sensitive question – a question I would have preferred answering at a later time. After the meeting, I asked the supporter, “What’s going on? Nobody would have asked the question if you didn’t.”

She said, “That’s the problem. No one would have asked it. But people needed to hear you answer that question now, not later.”

…and they make me want to be better. You know how a day can start off wrong and goes downhill from there? Well, I was late getting up one morning. The car could not start. I had to grab a cab. I was late for my meeting and my boss must have woken up on the wrong side of the bed because he wasn’t in the mood to hear reasons for my being late.  Then, I had to deal with an unexpected problem that wrecked my schedule for the rest of the day. And then to top it all off, I could not find my wallet.

A little later, my programme coordinator stepped into my office. She was also not in a good mood. She asked me why she received a cash award for doing her job. I tried to explain. (She ran three heavyweight programmes simultaneously over a two-week timeframe – worked a 14-hour day and burned every weekend in between. So I gave her a Cash Award as part of an employee recognition scheme).

But she was in no mood to listen.

She said, “The programme execution didn’t meet my standard. Please take the award back, Mr Wee. I don’t want it.”

And she proceeded to make a dramatic exit.

She taught me three things:

  1. She made me thankful that she was in our team;
  2. She reminded me that I have to be better if I want to keep up with her; and
  3. She changed a crappy day into a wonderful memory that will last a lifetime.

David WeeI am David Wee. By the time I was 18, I knew I would always teach. I did that for some 30  years, taking up C-suite roles to grow leaders in Singapore’s National Productivity Board, Bank Negara’s Iclif, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson and the Sinarmas Group. I retired over a year ago. Today, I define success as if I am a 10-year-old whose only responsibility is to make my world a better place for those I care about and for me. And I teach.


This is one contribution, of many, to the Success Series, a series of Question/Answer pieces centred on John Maxwell’s The Value of Asking Questions. To read other contributions in this Series, please go to the original introduction of the piece, Who Contributes to Your Success

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