How to win a 100m race when starting 90m behind everyone

12th August 2016 was a proud day for The Little Red Dot. Singapore’s Joseph Schooling made history at the Rio Olympics, winning our first-ever Olympic gold medal.

Schooling won the Men’s 100m Olympic Butterfly Final in an Olympic record time of 50.39 seconds, beating world-class swimmers including swim legend Michael Phelps — the most-decorated-Olympian. Ever.

The Same Starting Line

Schooling’s win was the result of years of dedication and hard work, not to mention sacrifices by his parents and supporters. His training honed his innate talent and skill, and made him stronger and faster, culminating in his (hopefully 1st of many) Olympic triumph.

Yet despite all his effort, if Schooling had swum the race where his competitors were given a 10-second or 10-metre headstart, it’s unlikely he would have prevailed. Neither would he have won if his competitors were given motorised fins attached to their feet and Schooling was forced to swim with a weight tied to his waist.

Schooling won his Olympic gold medal in a FAIR RACE, where every competitor started at the same time (barring time differences reacting to the starter’s horn), swam the same course length, with no extra tools except what they were born with, and honed through training.

They say Life is a Race

Unlike in sports, we don’t start life at the same starting line, nor run our race with the same resources. Some have more to work with, or “privilege”, which can help them run faster and further, and get higher in life.

This theme is not new but has recently taken hold of public consciousness again, in the US as well as Singapore.

Scions of the well-heeled and well-connected mostly continue to do better than their peers (should they even be considered peers?). Realist theory dictates that players in power can rewrite rules of play to continue favouring offspring and descendants, and preserving the status quo. It’s a virtuous cycle for those at the top, and a vicious cycle for those at the bottom.

Of course, while we should not ask for equality of outcomes, most of us believe in equality of opportunity. But the truth is opportunity is not equal.

Privilege entrenches privilege?

I grew up being taught that one’s standing in life wasn’t fixed or pre-determined. Many friends and people I know had humble family circumstances, yet went on to good careers in corporate, civil service, the military. Some founded start-ups, pursued academia, sport or music, became top engineers, scientists, lawyers…

The most remarkable story is that of a chap I met while working in London - a managing director of an investment bank covering our account (I was the Monetary Authority of Singapore’s London-based Portfolio Manager) — with the humblest of beginnings — he was the son of an African goat-herder, did well in school, worked hard, got a job in London, and rose the corporate ranks.

The son of a goat-herder!

In my simplistic view, so what if we don’t start at the same starting line? We can still run fast and go far. Sometimes faster and further than someone starting further ahead.

I simplistically thought it was all about choices. Luck plays a part, but in general we could improve our standing in life, if we only made GOOD CHOICES. We could make the choice to study harder, work longer, harder, smarter, “network” more… We could be anything we want in life that we set our hearts on, and we had the same opportunities as those higher up the ladder — the essence of the Singaporean / American / {insert country} Dream.

I had several impassion-ed arguments with the missus on this, who told me (in nicer language) I was a fool to believe that everyone CAN make GOOD CHOICES to progress in life, that the same opportunities were open to everyone.

The reality she wanted me to see is not everyone has the OPPORTUNITY to make good choices.
I’d like to have the opportunities to make the same choices you make too. | Photo by Jessica Mulder on Unsplash

Children in the 3rd-world have nowhere near the same opportunity to make the same choices as children in privileged Singapore.

But I kept thinking back to the goat-herder’s son… and what about that Kenyan’s son who became US President? Or the English teacher who couldn’t get a KFC job and now runs one of the world’ largest companies?

A Mile in their Shoes

I’ve since realised that I, and probably many others did not have enough awareness of the specific situations people “without privilege” faced. Often, there is judgment that one struggled in life because one made bad choices. We frame their situations through the lenses of our own VERY different experiences and contexts.

This judgment borders on arrogance, perhaps elitism as a result of having gone to different schools, and living within very different social strata. These all goes to further entrench the differences that are dividing our societies within and without.


I’d spent the last couple of years volunteering with Edugrow for Brighter Tomorrows, an early intervention programme for children from lower-income families, ably administered by the big-hearted people of Life Community Services Society and WeCare @ Marine Parade.

Edugrow is not a pro-bono tuition agency. Instead, it aims to work through mentors to help these children build aspirations, character and important life skills like financial literacy (yes!). One of the programme’s key objectives is to brighten and magnify the dreams of these young ones, to bring them beyond their present surroundings which may not be too uplifting.

Through Edugrow, I got to know a young boy (let’s call him “H”), with whom I spend 1–2 hours with every Monday evening.

It was hard in the beginning. One job hazard of being a founder is the tendency to view everything as “problems to solve”. I had pigeon-holed my mentoring of H in that framework and perhaps got a bit too analytical about his family background, problems he was facing in school, why the current intervention activities he joined may not be helping etc. I chaffed (internally) at his academic performance, school attendance issues, staying up late playing computer games, why he was eating dinner so late, why he spent all his money on snacks, why he wasn’t doing his homework etc.

While my intentions were good, I had framed the situation within MY OWN context. Even though I did not express my negativity (I hope), I had inadvertently adopted a judgmental mindset, which surely wasn’t benefiting H.

I realised later I had missed the point of what I was there for. My “brief” is not to tutor H or solve his problems. It’s simply to be his friend.

H was not a problem to “fix”.

H is a PERSON, a genuinely nice boy, whose first thought always went out to his family whenever he received something nice, a responsible kid who helped his mum take care of his younger siblings when she was at work, who was always carefree and positive, always smiling (even though he was often distracted — but then again who isn’t these days).

H had severe family constraints, not of his own doing. He had to help cook dinner, he had to take care of his younger siblings, he had to juggle many things. H was mostly doing the best he could, with the knowledge and resources he had. He did not have the OPPORTUNITY to make what in my opinion were the “good choices”.

May I walk with you and not judge you? | Photo by Rémi Walle on Unsplash

I have since come to enjoy my time with H a lot more, and hopefully am now able to be a better influence.

When we meet, H and I often cycle (his choice), chatting while we ride. He’s started to open up about issues he faces, what he is thinking about, and I am honoured that he is choosing to share them with me.

I try not to “offer advice”, but to just nod and ask questions, and hopefully help him to figure out his own way. As part of our mentoring training, we were taught how to encourage the kids we work with to talk, and turn problems brought out into brainstorming sessions where they provide THEIR OWN answers. It is a mindset shaping move. After we manage to do this a few times, we will hopefully be able to internalise this within the kids.

The next step is to scale up ambitions: If the ambition is to be a cook, could (s)he think about what type of cuisine, what skills to learn and master, how to progress, so that there are no dead-end paths and vicious cycles downwards.

The journey is still in its infancy. But I am walking it with H with a much more positive viewfinder. Hopefully he allows me to walk with him for a long time more, and I am helping in some small way.


Is Education still the “Leveller”?

I look at this from 2 angles:

1. Education for the “privileged”

The most fundamental thing to be educated is the fact that one is “privileged”, and others are not. If you have that realisation and want to help bridge the gap, you should first also understand the very different contexts that people who are very unlike you face.

A good way is to help out in programmes like Edugrow, and importantly, not be judgmental.

There are many other organisations that do good work that you can help. Googling should help you find those in your local area, though I’d like to mention 3 in Singapore that I’m personally aware of:

(i) CampVision — Empowerer of marginalised youth, founded by a superwoman who is a Hunter of Heads in her day job, and Shaper of Minds the rest of the time.

(ii) EDIS Cares — CSR initiative that works with underprivileged children, and is advised by another superwoman (exited founder, now angel investor, and mother of 4[!])

(iii) Advocaid — Platform that advocates for those in need through crowdfunding. Founded by a Professor who knows the swimming analogy above very well.

Go to their websites and see if something fits what you can contribute. The easiest thing to do is “click donate”, but if you are able to, please also think about donating time and skill.

If you’re unable to volunteer, at least educate yourself in the contexts our underprivileged friends face, and why making “good choices” (in conventional terms) can sometimes be very hard.

Simulations like Spent are great for adults to learn this, while learning games like Life of Bryan ( iOS & Android) can help privileged children understand the lives of those not as fortunate as them.

And hopefully there might be a future opportunity to help when your schedule opens up.

2. Education for the marginalised

They say education is the greatest leveller. But traditional education systems and methods often do not work for those at the very bottom, for various reasons which I will talk about in a future piece.

Hence, at an organisation level, we have been researching a better way to deliver skills-based education and training to those most in need.

Can we EFFECTIVELY combine education, tech and HEART to uplift lives at scale? | ArcLab

Our work is still in its early stages, but we are thinking about ways to best use our Nano Learning methodology (bite-sized, on-demand, just-in-time digital learning) — currently being used in the workplace, to help the less privileged.

Our work has 3 prongs:

(i) Researching and refining our Pedagogy to best teach the skills that are needed, in the most effective and time-efficient ways (Fact 1: average attention-span now <8 secs).

(ii) Improving our Technology, to make it easy to self-serve content creation for skills training and scale the reach to impact more lives, ideally in the areas of the world where skilled trainers and educators are scarce.

We will still need to lift lives face-to-face, but the omni-present smartphones can be great complementary tools (Fact 2: the average person touches his/her phone >2000 times a day).

(ii) More importantly, finding the Partners to work with to uplift lives, at scale. Let us know if you know anyone we should talk to.


Back to that 100m race

I’ll end by giving MY answer to the question I posed in the title.

My answer: it is IMPOSSIBLE to win a 100m race when starting 90m behind the other competitors. Unless physics laws change, this is what I’m sticking to.

Thankfully, the race of life is not 100m. It is a much longer race, and if we remember Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare, there is plenty of room to catch up even if you are disadvantaged and start further behind.

Not all hares in real life are as complacent as Aesop’s. But unlike in the fable, I believe hares can also help tortoises in the race, perhaps through some of the ways I suggest above.


Postscript: The issues touched on in this piece are complex and multi-faceted, which I only manage to skim for brevity’s sake. It is not my intent to trivialise the challenges many face, and which many are working hard to help with.

I’ll be grateful for ANY feedback and suggestions you might have on how I can better help, or how we could work together to further the cause. Please reach out at james@arclab.io. Thank you.