The unspoken story that formed the foundation of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally speech was this: We all want to be winners, and we know exactly what a winner looks like.
This story we tell ourselves compels us to do whatever it takes to get to the top. After all, if you're not a winner, then you must be a loser.
Nobody wants to be a loser.
The fear of being a loser drives much of our behaviour, whether it's taking any job just so we don't have to tell people that we're unemployed, or whether it's refusing to be seen eating alone in public.
In his speech, PM Lee mentioned many people who are clear winners.
The team that won the International Biology Olympiad.
NUS High School of Mathematics and Science student Lim Jeck, who came in first at the International Mathematical Olympiad.
The Nanyang Polytechnic team that won 12 medals at the FIRA RoboWorld Cup competition.
Even those university graduates we're aiming to produce, whom PM Lee described as "highly sought after" both locally and abroad.
Is there only one type of winner?
We're taught to believe, from an early age, that these are the only kinds of people who are winners—the ones who finish ahead of everyone else.
But I want to challenge this idea that there's just one type of winner.
In any sort of competition, the winner is the person who crosses the finish line first. If, however, we want to progress as a society, we need to redefine "winner" as someone who finishes well, not first.
PM Lee alluded to this when he remarked, "I hope that Singaporeans will take advantage of this, not just to collect a piece of paper, but develop themselves, learn something useful, and make a contribution to society."
Beliefs vs. opinions
Developing yourself, learning something useful, and making a contribution to society—these are ideals we all believe in. But to what extent do these ideals influence our decisions?
After all, if you don't act on your beliefs, then maybe your beliefs are really just opinions.
You might say you believe that being a real winner is about finishing well, about leading a meaningful life you can be proud of, and about making a difference in the lives of others.
But when it comes to the choices you make with regard to your education, career and family, do you find yourself striving endlessly to finish first?
This article is a call to idealism, but not just any kind.
It's a call to realistic idealism.
Anything great that has ever been accomplished has been founded on idealism.
- The Wright brothers and the invention of flight
- Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement
- Lee Kuan Yew and the founding of modern Singapore
None of these achievements would have happened without a hope, a dream, a vision, a set of ideals.
If any of the people listed above had listened to the naysayers who were just being "realistic", how differently would history have turned out?
If all our decisions are based purely on what seems realistic, we'll probably never accomplish anything truly significant or remarkable.
I don't deny, however, that we'll need to mix in some realism in order for our dreams, both as individuals and as a society, to come true.
A university education: the ticket to a good life?
One practical measure that PM Lee brought up is increasing the number of places in university so that, by the year 2020, 40 per cent of each cohort will be able to go to university (up from 27 per cent today).
I don't doubt the excellent intentions behind setting such a goal, but I do question the underlying philosophy.
A university education is still seen as a golden ticket to employability and a comfortable life. This idea is so deeply ingrained in the consciousness of Singaporeans that many university graduates feel entitled to a high-paying job just because they have a degree. (I'll admit that I once thought this, too. I've since readjusted my perspective.)
Come on, no one is entitled to anything! I don't know where so many people get the idea that life is meant to be easy.
Nothing entitles you to a high-paying job, not even your level of service and contribution to society.
It can't be denied, though, that you'll probably be compensated handsomely if you add a lot of value to your organisation and to the people around you.
More education doesn't automatically mean more schooling
No doubt about it—more education is always better. But more education doesn't necessarily mean more schooling.
In this Information Age where there's so much free knowledge available on the Internet (visit sites like www.coursera.org or www.udacity.com if you don't believe me), your will to learn is the only thing that prevents you from becoming adept in almost any field.
Will trumps skill
We've entered an era where will trumps skill. No exceptions.
Getting a university degree is one way to make yourself more employable. But a better way is to cultivate a love for learning and to become a person of greater commitment and courage.
I'm not ignoring the fact that a basic level of competence is important in order to do a job well. But the valuable contributors in today's world are the ones who commit to a cause greater than themselves. They're people of character who care intensely about the work they do.
People like that won't ever have to worry about being employed. In fact, they're likely to be the ones who employ other people to work for them.
"What's in it for me?"
When we listen to the National Day Rally every year, we ask ourselves one question:
"What new things is the government going to do in the near future that will benefit me?"
This year, let's ask ourselves a different set of questions.
Let's ask how we're going to define success for ourselves. Let's ask what it means for us to lead a meaningful and significant life.
I've no doubt that there's a place for quantifiable KPIs and statistics, but there's also a place for the intangible things that are often of more enduring value.
As Albert Einstein once wisely observed, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
Finishing well can't be counted, but it counts.
As individuals and as a nation, let's redefine what it means to be a winner, and let's finish well together.
Daniel Wong is the author of "The Happy Student: 5 Steps to Academic Fulfillment and Success". He is an education excellence coach and speaker. He writes regularly about topics related to education, career and personal development at www.daniel-wong.com. Daniel is speaking at The Happiness Seminar 2012, and you can sign up here. Download his FREE e-book, "Singapore Scholarship Guide: The $500,000 Decision", here. Together with his team of experts, he conducts The Exam ExcellenceTM (TEE) Programme.