Recently I’ve attended a series of graduation ceremonies at the invitation of some local secondary schools, and addressed the teenagers in a talk titled “Life is A Marathon”. It happens that meanwhile our own last-year students are finishing their studies at CityU to embark on their various new careers. Here I would like to offer this speech to them, with my sincere wish that they, with diligence and persistence, shape a bright future in each of their life-long marathons.
For the full text of the speech, please see the blog entry below.
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If graduation from high school is a milestone in our life, it is the beginning of a marathon, our life's marathon. For many of you, it could be the beginning of a more independent life whether you choose to study in Hong Kong or abroad, or start your career. You won't have your teachers holding your hands and advising you, and sometimes, showing you what to do anymore. You could be living away from home.
But no matter what you are going to do, you need to remember what you decide to do could lead you on a different road. While it is better to have choices than having no choices, having choices could prove to be a challenge.
There is a story about a philosopher, named Yang Zhu （楊朱）from the State of Wei（魏國）of the Warring States period, who was seen crying at a fork. Someone came up to him and asked: "Why are you crying?" Yang replied: "I don't know which road to take." The guy shook his heading disapprovingly: "So you are crying because of this? You are an adult, not a child losing his way. Is it worth crying for?" Yang frowned at the man and said sadly: "What do you know? Life is full of forks and one fork could take you to another."
This well-known story, Yang Zhu Crying at a Fork（楊朱臨路而泣）, tells us the difficulties of choices. What you choose, especially when you are young, will to a large extent determine your future.
There is a similar story in English, as expressed in a well-known poem by an American poet, Robert Frost, who wrote The Road not Taken, which you may be familiar in your English language classes.
TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
It talks about someone facing a fork in the forest. Even though two roads may look more or less the same, as he takes one of them, it will lead to another down the road. One cannot expect to get back. Many years later, this same person may sigh for taking the less travelled road because it has made a world of difference.
In your case, choosing a university to study might be one of the choices you have to make. Typically, people tend to follow blindly the trend or reputation without looking at one's own interest and aptitude. As a result, a student might end up selecting an academically weak discipline in a well-known university rather than going for a very strong discipline from a not so well-known university. Another example is the popularity of some of the disciplines in Hong Kong. Many students choose discipline without thinking whether it is suitable for them or not and end up finishing the curriculum opting for jobs entirely unrelated.
But life is a marathon. At one time or during one period of our life, we could be doing very well, achieving high scores, for example, in high school or at college. But a one-time honour is not something we can live on forever.
Doing well in high school doesn't mean you will do well in college. At Harvard Business School, there is an old tradition. The School has over the years performed studies designed to figure out which factors are correlated with a student's future achievement. They have looked at courses the students have taken, marks they have earned, and all manner of other variables, including the students' height.
In the end, they found out that there seemed to be no relationship at all between the grades a person received while studying at Harvard, and his or her later degree of accomplishment. There might be some short-term correlations, but in the long term, there is none correlation at all.
And this phenomenon is not unique to Harvard Business School. Other well-known cases involving some of the world's outstanding leaders tell the same story. For example, future US President John F. Kennedy earned C's in his early years as an undergraduate at Harvard College.
These stories tell us two things: firstly, life is like a marathon. One time success doesn't guarantee future success; secondly, don't let onetime failure dishearten you. As long as you don't give up, life will not give you up. Human beings, according to my profession which is reliability study, are the least reliable system. We all make mistakes or blunder as we move along. Failing isn't a shame, as long as you are willing to learn the lessons. The way we handle disappointments can prove to be invaluable. Science advances from set-backs and blunders. The most recent and most severe lessons we learned are from the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
If you are curious about the factors that will help you succeed, I would say there is no secret. "Did you ever know any successful person who didn't tell you about it?" Here are a few factors that will definitely help if you are willing to give them a try: passion, persistence and discipline.
Tell the story about a bird in the hand of a rascal who asks a monk if the bird is dead or alive. The monk says: the answer is in your own hand.