How to run your own race – with Daniel Wong, author of The Happy Student

Modern day parenting is a bit of a pressure cooker. Which is why this quote struck me as I read Daniel Wong’s The Happy Student: 5 Steps to Academic Fulfillment and Success:

…the race isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about what you’re learning and who you’re becoming along the way.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting up with Daniel, and he shared some thoughts on how parents can help their children find their own paths to success.


What’s the most common question that parents ask you?

Parents often ask me, “How does this apply to me if I’m not a straight-A student?”

My reply to them is, sometimes as a student, you think you will be happy when you achieve all these things. But you need to define what success means to you, and at the end of the day, I always encourage students to run their own race. There’s only one person in this race; you’re not trying to beat others to the top of the ladder. It’s all about being better than who you were yesterday.

Do parents tell you that your school of thought is a bit idealistic? I mean, no parents would want their kids to struggle…

Parents think they want what is best for their child, but actually they want what is good – and the “good one” is where there’s not so much struggling, but the “best one” is the one that involves hardship and challenges. Through dealing with the challenges, your child will grow stronger and be a person of greater character. (Now I’m not saying that parents should intentionally put their kids through difficulty.)

I believe that idealism is the foundation of greatness. When you start off with a foundation of idealism and then ask yourself how you can practically achieve those ideals…that’s the way to achieve greatness. If you start off by asking yourself only the pragmatic things, then that’s the way to mediocrity. I believe that applies to parenting as well.


How do you view competition? Is it possible to be totally not competitive?

It’s very difficult to get completely out of the competition mindset. But it’s something worth reminding yourself to do. When you’re caught up with competition, you’re in a mode of survival, you take an inward-looking view, and you’re asking ‘How am I doing?’ versus ‘How am I adding value to other people’s lives?’

In this day and age where so much information can be found online, it’s much less about having a spirit of competition, and much more about having a spirit of curiosity. And those who are genuinely curious are the ones who can really make a difference.


But some competition can also be healthy right? 

Yes, but I think the emphasis should not be about winning, it should be about finishing well. As a parent, you should be asking how this experience is moulding your child. (For example, is he developing perseverance, discipline, and other desirable character traits.)

I’ve also seen parents reward results more than effort, which is something I discourage. Because you want to encourage behaviour much more than results. There was one study where kids were given different puzzles to solve. For some of them, they encouraged the results, and the others, they encouraged the behaviour. They found that those children who were encouraged for behaviour were much more willing to try more difficult puzzles.

How did you find the strength to run your own race?

My parents have always encouraged me to run my own race. But I felt the pressure from peers and from the school system itself. (Though I’m not blaming the system because we all need to take full responsibility for our own choices.)

I had a difficult time in secondary school. I was a short and skinny kid, and was bullied a lot. They locked me in the classroom once, and hid my schoolbag at another time. So, even though I was acing every exam, I felt like I was failing life.

That brought me to a place where I needed to turn to God. Before that, the whole God thing was like having faith in faith. It’s like oh, it’s nice to know my sins are forgiven and that I’ll go to heaven when I die, but I wasn’t really putting all of my trust in God. When I came to this point, things started to miraculously change. And today, even the people who bullied me are some of my most trustworthy friends.

When I went to the army, I did a lot of reading and thinking, and it helped me to clarify my thoughts and develop a long-term vision about what I wanted my life to count for.


You mentioned about the importance of adding value to other people’s lives. How does this resonate with a generation of youths where everyone is asking “what’s in it for me?”

We need to have a mindset shift. If you want to be great, it sounds ironic, but you have to focus on other people. If you keep looking inward, you will never be able to make the decisions that will enable you to be great. And that’s not the end goal. When you get out of that mode, it’s much easier to make decisions that are truly great, rather than a good one.

Jim Collins, a business philosopher once said, “The enemy of good is not bad. The enemy of great is good.” So you need to choose a path of intentional abandonment of all things good, in pursuit of only the best. You need to say no to all the good things, and yes to only the best things.

Let me illustrate with a story. A family is walking along the beach, and the son is picking seashells along the way. (These are not really seashells, more like seashell fragments.) All of a sudden, they spot something bright orange in the sea, not far from the shore. And when the boy goes closer to have a look, he exclaims, “Mom! Dad! It’s a starfish!”

“Go pick it up, son!” urges his parents.

He walks closer to the starfish. Then he turns around and runs back to his parents.

They are puzzled, and keep urging him to pick up the starfish.

Once more, he runs towards the starfish. This time, he is so close he can just reach out and pick it up.

“Pick it up, son! Pick it up!” Mom and Dad shout.

The son looks close to tears. He stands there for awhile, then looks at his hands and says, “But my hands are full of seashells.”

So the point is you need to always have room for the best things in life, and not be holding on to all the good things.

We need to have a clear sense of direction and purpose in order to ‘choose only the best’. But how exactly can we get there? 

Here’s one of my all-time favorite quotes:

Many succeed momentarily by what they know;

Some succeed temporarily by what they do;

Few succeed permanently by what they are.

I think permanent, enduring success is much more about character than it is about competence. Performance, results, achievements, awards — all these are fleeting. But character remains.

Plus, if you’re a person of character, you’re also more likely to have the attitude and work ethic it takes to be an achiever. Achievements should always be a by-product of who you are. If you focus on the achievements while forgetting about character, it will be an empty kind of success that you attain.

Back to the question, you need to  have a specific idea of who you want to become. Only then can you ‘choose only the best’.

I encourage people to write down a list of 10 kinds of behaviour or character traits they want to acquire or pick up. This list is aspirational — it’s about the person you want to become.

Some items on the list could be “I am a person of integrity and purity” or “I am a person of fiery passion”.

Once you have this list, it becomes easier to set goals and make decisions, because all you have to do is ask yourself if those decisions are in line with who you want to become. If they aren’t, then they might be ‘good’ decisions that simply aren’t worth your time!

Choices are the foundation of our destiny, so let’s choose wisely. Choices result in consequences, but it’s not just the consequences that we should be concerned about. Our choices mould our character, and character is something we should never compromise on.


Thanks, Daniel, for sharing your insights with us!

Now we have the pleasure of giving away one autographed copy of The Happy Student: 5 Steps to Academic Fulfillment and Success to one lucky reader.

The Happy StudentIn The Happy Student, Daniel shows you how to:

  • Enjoy a new sense of purpose in your academics
  • Keep your motivation levels high using practical strategies
  • Conquer your fear of failure
  • Set meaningful goals and achieve them
  • Increase your self-confidence
  • Deal with the expectations of parents and teachers
  • Fall in love with learning again

To participate:

1) Leave a comment on this post, telling us what you hope to learn from reading the book

2) For an extra chance to win, share this article on Facebook / Twitter (Then leave an additional comment saying ‘shared’ so that I know.)

This giveaway closes on Sunday night, 11.59pm. A winner will be picked randomly and notified via email. All the best!

About Daniel Wong: Daniel is a project engineer, a speaker and the author of The Happy Student: 5 Steps to Academic Fulfillment and Success. He is passionate about personal growth, and he is interested in anything related to maximizing your education, career and life. He blogs at



And the winner of the giveaway is…PR, who left a comment saying that she hopes her children will be ‘happy students’ at every stage of their lives.

Congrats, PR, I truly hope that this book as well as other resources that you may have, will help you and your children achieve that goal. (I will be in touch with you via email shortly.)

Thanks for participating in this giveaway. I hope this has been a meaningful experience for you too.

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