How would you feel if your schoolmates staged a walkout midway through a meeting you were leading?
Probably angry, then dejected.
This was what Stuart Tan went through when he was the President of the Students’ Council in Jurong Junior College (JJC). It happened in the early 1990s when he was 17 years old, a first-year junior college student.
All but a handful of his student leaders walked out from his meeting, in what was a show of no confidence in his leadership. “I obviously floundered badly, to the point that people in the students’ council made fun of me,” the 43-year-old recalled.
Voted to head the student body by his teachers, Stuart was not the choice of his fellow student councillors. “At the peak of my depression, I told myself, ‘Forget it, just give up. Let the Vice-President takeover, he’s the most popular guy anyway,” he said.
His teachers had assumed that since he was a former prefect and good in his studies, he should be able to lead the students’ council.
The fact was Stuart was an introvert who couldn’t communicate well. The Saint Joseph Institute (SJI) old boy also struggled to fit into the ‘Chinese’ culture of JJC.
“JJC was the hotbed of people speaking in Chinese. But I was very poor in my mandarin, I was forced to come to term with fact that I couldn’t communicate well,” he said.
JJC was one of the birthplaces of xinyao, the music movement of local Mandarin songs during the 1980s.
Despite the leadership ‘failure’, Stuart would go on to become an accomplished leader and entrepreneur later in life.
As a citizen soldier in the Singapore Army, he holds the rank of Major. This year, he won the NSman of the Year award, given to the best national serviceman in his unit.
But he almost did not make it. After completing his studies in JJC, Stuart enlisted for national service and was chosen to undergo training to be an army officer, a leadership position with heavy responsibilities.
But it was a case of once bitten, twice shy for Stuart after his bad experience in the JJC students’ council. Instead of giving his best in training, he went into stealth mode. As a result, he was ranked among the bottom five percent in his cohort.
Ironically, his experience as president of the students’ council — however incompetent he thought he was — would later help him to ‘click’ with the hokkien peng (dialect-speaking soldiers) he was leading.
He later continued to hone his communication and leadership skills, even winning a Toastmaster championship in Asia.
Stuart was one of the co-founders of Adam Khoo Learning technologies, one of the largest public seminar companies in Singapore. Since 2011, he has been running his own training consultancy that offers courses in neurolinguistics programming, public speaking, and leadership.
Amazing stuffs. Goes to show that leaders are nurtured, not born.
His self-improvement journey actually started back when he was in secondary school. He was doing badly, ranked among the bottom five in his class of 44. To help him out, his parents sent him for an accelerated learning boot camp. He learnt memory skills, as well as success skills like goal setting, time management, perseverance and more. He went from scoring 50s to 70s in exams, finishing at the top his class.
Inspired by his own success, he set his mind to become a trainer to help others to better themselves.
“I just want to help people to discover their inner brilliance,” said Stuart, who’s also a trauma and depression therapist.
“Just like when I was 13 I thought was a lousy student, when I was 17 I thought I was a lousy leader, when I was 24 I thought I was a lousy entrepreneur — but things all come full circle.”
He said people have to realise that the solutions to life’s challenges are all within themselves.
“They never realise how powerful they can be because they are asking themselves wrong questions. Instead of asking, ‘why do bad things happen to me?’, they should be asking, ‘what can I learn from these issues?’”
In 2011, Stuart had to take the same medicine that he had been prescribing to his students. He was going through a divorce, just three years after getting married.
“It was painful. I was negative, very angry, upset and frustrated,” he recalled. “It took a while for me to come to terms (with my divorce).”
Like what he had always been preaching to his students, Stuart stayed positive. He asked himself the ‘right’ questions: What can I learn from this setback? How can I bounce back?
“Our’s was a very peaceful relationship, then it became a volcanic eruption…
“The union was just not correct in the first place, but we were willing to tell ourselves the lie that it was a good fit but actually it was more like convenience — since we are together for so long, might as well (get married).
“It felt more like this rather than a real union of absolute love, care and concern.”
Stuart added that he was too focused on his work. “Back in those days, it was very easy to be immersed in the success of your business, not recognising that relationship needed just as much work.”
Lessons for couples
Stuart, who’s now in a new relationship, said people have to reach a certain level of maturity before getting married.
“But maturity can only come from hardship,” he said. “The reason why our parents were able to do it was because they went through a lot in their teenage years during the (Japanese) occupation.
“They came out stronger, they could appreciate one another — that no matter how bad the argument get, I am still here for you and we can work things out together.
“(But) our generations were born in peacetime where we can take a lot of things for granted, including relationships. You don’t want to talk to somebody, right? You can just hang up the phone, or put on your earphone, or start playing computer games.”
Drawing from his own experience, Stuart said couples should do things and tackle challenges together.
“Instead of saying, ‘this is what I need to do, can’t you understand me?’, we should be asking each other, ‘I really need to work on this, what can we do together?’
“If I am doing my own thing, and you are not involved, then the union is fictitious. If we are involved together, the union becomes real because you understand my difficulties, and I understand your difficulties.
“I will be more understanding and patient, I will catch myself when I am less patient, and I will be more able to reveal my insecurities and my weaknesses, because you don’t judge me and vice versa.
“That is a very difficult thing for people in a relationship to do because we tend to want to hide our insecurities.”
I got to know Stuart when I attended the Patterns of Excellence, a personal development course, at Adam Khoo Learning Technologies back in 2007. He was one of the trainers in the company. He has kindly agreed to give a mini-lecture for readers of Happiness Notebook, on how you can keep your energy level and motivation high in all areas of your life:
Stuart runs a Community of Growth for people who are seeking personal transformation and self improvement. He hosts free weekly meetings for members which you can sign up at https://www.meetup.com/Community-of-Growth/
You can also connect with him at https://www.StuartTan.com
- Successful people do not have a perfect life. Just like all of us, they too face problems in life, for example, a failed marriage. It’s just that the way they handle their issues is different. I applaud Stuart for openly sharing about his divorce so that we all can learn from his experience.
- Nobody is born a genius. To be great in an area, whether it’s in leadership, career, studies, you have to learn from your failures and keep taking action. Stuart could have given up on being a leader after going through such an ego-bruising experience in JJC. Thankfully he pressed on and kept working on his communication skills, an important ability for a leader. Today, he’s a top public speaker, trainer and life coach.
I hope you enjoy the story on Stuart, and learn a thing or two from him. If you support what I am doing here for Happiness Notebook, share this post using the social media button below: