Hong Kong students, take note: you don't need straight As to succeed in life

Yonden Lhatoo calls for a rethink of outdated ideas about education, arguing there's proof all around us that academic excellence is overrated

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 July, 2015, 7:09pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

Most people have never heard of him, so let me tell you about a young man who’s been in the news recently. He’s a Swedish 25-year-old who makes a living – a fortune, actually – playing video games.

Felix Kjellberg, known online as PewDiePie, records himself having great fun doing something that many would consider a waste of time, and posts the videos on YouTube. Last year he made an estimated US$7 million through advertising revenue generated for the video-sharing website by his 37 million followers.

Let’s move on to another success story, this time from Hong Kong. Entrepreneur Howard Chan runs Hot Toys, a local company that is famous worldwide for producing highly detailed and sought-after collectibles of comic book and movie action figures. The man who never outgrew his childhood love of Star Wars and superhero plastic toys chose to earn a living making them, but he went a step further by focusing on quality and creating finely crafted merchandise that appeals to serious collectors.

Yes, we know all about famous school dropouts like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, but I’m talking about ordinary people around us proving that you don’t need academic excellence to succeed in life.

That goes for all the youngsters I see in great distress, now that the exam results season is upon us. I know they’ve heard this before, but, really, it’s not the end of the world. Far from it. The same goes for those desperate parents running from one school to another, struggling to find a suitable place for their underperforming children.

When we ran a story recently about opposition to a city-wide exam that puts students through excessive tutoring and drilling sessions, what caught my attention was the poignant case of an autistic boy who cried as he asked his mother: “Mum, what’s the point of my existence? Is it just to do homework?”

No, it’s not. There’s so much more to life than school, homework, exams and grades. Looking back at my own education, my parents may disagree, but I’m convinced I put too much effort and emotion into trying to score top marks. Half the things I was forced to memorise back then turned out to be practically useless when it came to paying my bills. If there’s something I didn’t learn in school or can’t remember now and I need the information, all I have to do is look it up online on my smartphone.

I’m not saying children should just give up their studies and play video games for the rest of their lives. Of course they should get a basic education, and a university degree is an advantage when looking for a job. But they don’t have to be class toppers to have good careers, and it’s quite possible that they’ll do better in life than the brainiacs who beat them in school.

In any case, elite educational credentials are no guarantee of outstanding performance on the job. I’ve come across this on countless occasions myself when hiring staff.

Sure, I would imagine college knowledge is an important part of becoming a rocket scientist, but there are so many other avenues to success in life that don’t require the grind and heartache we put our students through.

School pressure was one of the reasons cited by a shocking new survey showing nearly half of 87 Hongkongers aged below 18 who died of unnatural causes in 2010 and 2011 committed suicide. One of them was just 10 years old when he took his own life because of problems involving his studies.

What has our society come to when children feel it’s better to die than put up with educational angst?

I’m no admirer of former US president George W. Bush, but there was something in his pep talk to graduating university students in Dallas earlier this year that went far beyond his usual buffoonery: “To those of you who are graduating this afternoon with high honours, awards and distinctions, I say ‘well done’. And as I like to tell the C students: you, too, can be president.”