The Day I Failed My Exams

by Patrick Liew on August 27, 2018

The Day I Failed My Exams

“I’ve got bad news for you.”

“I hope you’ll take it well.”

That was what my brother told me on 3 May 1976.

He had placed an overseas call for the first time in his life and it was a very expensive call to him.

I was in Hong Kong then to serve as a short-term social worker.

My friends had helped to raise money by selling old newspapers to send me to undergo an internship in a youth organisation.

My brother went on to break one of the saddest news in my life,
“Patrick, you failed your exams.

“You have a chance to either repeat your studies or leave the school.”

After hearing the news, I collapsed on my seat – totally dazed.

I was given a Hobson’s choice – one that I believed would lead me through a dark corridor of misery.

Repeating my studies was one of the most shameful failures in the Asian culture.

On the other hand, leaving school would mean that I might not be able to find a decent job or even a job at all.

My reaction at that point in time was to lay blame and give lots of excuses to justify for my failure.

Among my close friends, we call such blames, excuses and justifications “stories.”

I have many “stories” about why I should not be responsible for my failure.

I supposed I could even prove it and out-argue anybody on why I don’t deserve to fail.

I might even be able to blame our Creator for the failure.

After all on that year, besides studying and spending much time helping a voluntary welfare organisation, I was co-ordinating a full-time secretariat and helping to manage a fully-equipped office.

I was devoting my youth to running programmes for a good cause.

I was helping students in more than 17 schools. My dream was to help them become better leaders and live a more abundant life.

How could our Creator allow me to fail?

Why did He not wrought a miracle – maybe cover the examiners’ eyes and help me pass the exams – and pass with flying colours?

I could also blame my teachers. Some of them were incompetent and could not communicate the subject materials properly.

My classmates were not helpful to me too.

In fact, one of my classmates who happened to be my neighbour told me, “Out of ten questions that you asked me, I can only give you the answers to seven of them.

“That way, I will always be smarter than you.”

You could imagine how I have had gone through a dark period of intense anguish and anxiety.

I could not think of a way out of the “I-am-a-victim” box.

Meanwhile, many questions crossed my mind.

What would people think of me as a failure?

Would that “branding” condemn me to a life of shame and remorse, and lead me to more failures?

Would my current and new friends play with me and be my friends?

Even if I repeat, would I fail again and waste more time and maybe, be condemned for life?

Despite all these questions, I decided to repeat my studies – but these questions continued to haunt me for a long time.

When the new term started, I joined the new class with fear and trepidation.

I sat at the back of the class, like an outcast in a lepers’ colony.

If my new classmates felt uneasy in my presence, they did not show it.

However, every slightest negative move made by them – real or unreal – was amplified many times in my mind.

Somehow, I felt they were giving me strange looks.

There was a lingering feeling that they were sharing my darkest secrets behind my back.

While struggling through this emotional storm, I had to cope with my studies.

And anchor my sanity and live a normal life at the same time.

By the way, there is a fairy-tale ending to this story.

Please read till the end to find out about my life–changing experience.

The wake-up call came when I realised an important lesson in life.

To achieve sustainable success, take full responsibility for your life.

In whatever chosen endeavor, have a committed, conscientious, and continuous sense of responsibility.

Stop telling “stories.” They will not lead you to change nor help you take any action to improve your life.

To change anything, you must first change yourself.

If you cannot manage your life properly, it will be hard to manage the critical factors that will lead you to success.

It is you – and not the situation that you are in – that can limit yourself or hold you back from success.

Our Creator has given you a precious gift in life – Choice.

You’re totally free to decide what you want to do with your life.

Free to change your thoughts, plans, behaviour and actions.

Whatever happened in your life might not be the best.

However, you can make the best of whatever had happened.

Remember, “You’re the result of yesterday’s decision.

“What you’ll be tomorrow depends on the choices you make today.”

The destiny of your life can be changed at the point of decision to change your life.

Back to my story, I realized consciously or unconsciously I had exercised my choice to determine the fate of my life.

The ultimate fault must lie with me.

I had to face the situation that I was in, and change the situation.

I could not pretend it did not exist or run away from it.

The good news was, though I might not be able to change the situation, I could change my response to the situation.

And rise above the situation and determine its meaning and significance to my life.

In the same way, I might not be able to change my past.

However, the past did not have to shape or condemn my future. I was free to decide what I wanted to do with my life.

I could not stop the experience but I could always draw valuable lessons from it to build a better future.

If I responded positively, I could improve myself and the situation, and get positive results.

Let me illustrate by sharing with you what had happened to me when I repeated my studies and why it turned out to be one of the best things that had ever happened in my life.

The failure forced me to think and take charge of the outcomes of the failure.

Yes, I could continue to grumble, grouse, and gripe about why “life is so unfair.”

It would only lead me down the slippery road of misery and depression.

On the other hand, I could go and grow through the challenge.

The failure did not have to be a millstone around my neck. It could be a cornerstone for my success.

From believing I was a victim, I could rise to become a victor.

As I reflected on my failure, it became a valuable assessment, feedback and learning experience.

I realised I have not set my priorities correctly. Lived a balanced life.

And exercised discipline and diligence and therefore, I deserved to fail.

If I had passed my exams, I would never have learned how to focus on the important things in life.

I had to ask for forgiveness from our Creator and my parents. I had to also forgive myself and the people who had contributed to my failure.

In addition, I had to change my lifestyle and especially the root cause of my failure if I wanted to change the results.

Traveling on the same road would only lead me to the same destination.

The failure had also humbled me and made me more human.

Helped me better understand and feel for another human when they go through problems in life.

And made me a more empathetic and approachable person.

As I faced the fears, anguish, sorrows, anxieties, embarrassments, and all the cascading effects of the failure, bravely and wisely, it helped me develop a more resilient character.

Taught me how to persevere in pursuing the best things in life.

That failure was one of the best gifts that the school has given to me.

When I started to respond positively, it started to change me and the situation, and help me inculcate many positive values.

Those values stayed with me for a long time after I have forgotten many lessons learnt in the classroom and they helped me achieve better results in life.

That’s why, every time I face a challenge, my first reaction is to say, “Chin Chia Ho (Very Good)!”

Then, I will look for the good in the challenge, take massive action, and turn the challenge into a platform for success.

In closing, I am happy to share with you that on Friday, 21 May 2010 – 34 years after the failure, the principal and management staff at that point invited me to address the graduation class of students.

They published my achievements on their website and in other marketing collaterals.

They decided to list one of their worst failures as one of their notable alumni.

At the graduation ceremony, I shared with all the students, parents, and staff about the failure and how it turned my life around.

That failure became one of the most beautiful experiences in my life.


I hope this message will find a place in your heart.

By the way, I have also recorded other reflections.

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