On Success and Learning: Interview With Dr. Tan Kwan Hong

When the going gets tough, the tough gets going

By Zhen Yin

July 11 2019

With three Master's degrees and eight specialist diplomas bagged down to date, it’s no wonder that Dr. Tan Kwan Hong is well-recognised as a great trainer and speaker to people worldwide. STYLEGUIDE delves into how Dr. Tan Kwan Hong achieved what he did, the factor to success and how others can do the same. 

STYLEGUIDE: Tell us more about yourself and what you do.

Kwan Hong: My name is Kwan Hong, and I am an international speaker. Currently I’ve spoken to about 156,000 people over nine countries. In the midst of this, I have also served 400 organisations and schools, both local and abroad. On the side, I also offer consulting services and other businesses such as an import-export business!

STYLEGUIDE: How did you manage to balance your work while juggling both your import-export business and concurrent studies of three Master degrees?

Kwan Hong: I just did my best (laughter). In the process of it all, there were a few basic tips I used to help me manage. The one that I used the most was forward planning, which is essentially, planning ahead for what’s likely to happen in the future. It allowed me to foresee and be prepared for the chokepoints that’s going to occur, periods of time where I’m the most busy and the schedules are hectic. So I would delegate my work in time, accordingly for my business and my studies to maneuver through these tough phases.

Studying for the three Master’s degrees simultaneously was also aided by a lot of research done in my part. I maximised my efficiency when studying through the use of pre-existing study techniques and also read up on relevant material relating to my modules as well just to have a grasp on how and what to write, and what not to.

STYLEGUIDE: There was a point in time where not being able to get into a double-degree program in university prompted you to model after the top students in your school. How did you go about doing that?

Kwan Hong: I begun to rethink the way I did things from different perspectives,  I went to factor in the little details through observation of how the top students did their assignments. From how they did up their slides to how they crafted their leads and content in essays and presentations.

I even went to see how good writers wrote their academic forms in school, and read up on a lot of past essays that helped to craft my style of writing accordingly. Along the way I’ve also learned various ways to do up my presentation slides to cater to different audience needs.

STYLEGUIDE: Why did you think it was necessary for you to make that change?

Kwan Hong: Because back then when I just entered university, I was totally clueless as to how this entire system aka ‘the game’ worked. I had absolute, zero notion; I didn’t know what exactly was the Grade Point Average or how it was calculated. I didn’t even know what scholarships were available in school or what a double-degree programme was and what it entailed. I simply had no idea.

But making these changes to reflect, analyse, practice and when possible, reinvent the methods used by the top students allowed me to understand and master the rules of ‘the game’. After all, the reason why I was not eligible for the double-degree programme in the first place was because I didn’t manage to get the grades required due to just one semester. It was a complete disaster and no matter what I did, nothing worked and there was nothing I could do to save it. Making these changes enabled me not only to prevent such history from repeating itself, but it also propelled me to perform well at whichever field I was working at in the future.

STYLEGUIDE: Essentially it’s important for people to reflect on their past actions and make active changes from there onwards to do well?

Kwan Hong: Yes. Regardless of what field you are in, whether it’s academia or whichever career you choose to do in life, you must make an effort to find out what are the ‘cream of the crop’ doing that’s different from the rest. Afterwards, you can set out and model after their action plan to the best of your abilities.

Do not waste your time trying to reinvent the wheel that’s already set in place by trying to invent a new method to go about doing things, at least initially. Dedicate your time and energy to perfecting the pre-existing methods in place instead and once you have mastered it, go out and add your personal touch to it which will help you to be differentiated from the rest. So always, always learn how to model after the best players of ‘the game’, before breaking the rules and creating your own game.

Trust me when I say the top-performing individuals sometimes know as much as you. Both of you have the same knowledge. It just makes the all the difference on how the idea is portrayed and presented.

STYLEGUIDE: What should those who want to do well, whether it’s school or work, take note of then?

Kwan Hong: Just remember that, if you want to do well in anything, you must always know how the game works. That’s of utmost importance. You must know the rules of the game, in order to optimise your performance accordingly to it. This is a very powerful position that you can be in as it empowers you to control the direction and momentum of your life.

Again, the setback of not getting into the double degree programme made me learn what worked and what didn’t, and to do constant tweaks in order to get good at the game. And I did get good at it, really good. It was an indirect causal effect that got me to have a hunger in knowledge and study for three Master’s degrees in the first place.

PHOTO: Dr. Tan Kwan Hong (centre) facilitating the Career and Education 2015 job fair

STYLEGUIDE: Naturally, everyone will want to do well and succeed in their lives. What factor, in your opinion, is the key factor that will help someone find success in life?

Kwan Hong: I think the biggest success factor is not intelligence. It’s not looks, nor is it charisma and it’s not presentation skills either. The greatest factor that will determine your success in life is actually the amount of grit you possess. 

Grit means the amount of determination you have, your level of fighting spirit and power for what you want to achieve at the end. This means that no matter what life throws at you, do you persevere and keep forging your path ahead? 

Have you demonstrated grit in the past?

What challenges have you faced in life and what did you do to overcome them?

STYLEGUIDE: It’s common to see people hustling hard for what they want to succeed in life, even if it’s not necessarily their niche. Sometimes they fake it until they make it. Do you think that really works in real life?

Kwan Hong: I feel it depends. From what I’ve seen and read, faking until you make it does work to some extent. Especially from a branding point of view. Take for example our current society now - do you realise that when a message gets repeated over and over, and over again, some people tend to end up believing it in the long run. History, in many instances has shown that this method of faking it until they make it really works.

STYLEGUIDE: What about the ones who are still lost as to what they should do in order to find success in life?

Kwan Hong: If you are lost with regards to the direction in your life, just explore doing different tasks, learning different skills, and read widely on different genres to find out what you might be keen in. Meanwhile, while you figure out your direction in life, you can work on Life Skills. These skills are transferable skills, flexible enough for you to use it regardless of the career, industry or life direction you choose in the future. Life skills include public speaking, reading body language, learning rational thinking skills, learning how to speed read, how to learn faster though brain development techniques et cetera.

STYLEGUIDE: Do you think if there’s a way or method that someone can use to tell if what they are doing really is their true calling, and when to throw in the towel if it’s not?

Kwan Hong: Honestly, there’s no definitive way to really find out if something is for you or not. The only way to do this is through repeated trial and error. It will be wise for the person to really go all out to try new things. Because you would never know which activities are really cut out for you to make a career out of unless you try it in the first place.

Trying out new activities or work can help you get a sense of what kind of skills or careers will come naturally to you, and allow you to focus on them once you have them set in stone. It really helps to focus on your strengths - what do you take half the time of or more for others to learn? Consider if someone takes a day to solve a mathematical concept, but you only take half a day. Maybe you can conclude that logical reasoning skills in general is your niche.

But that doesn’t mean that you should give up on something just because it doesn’t come naturally to you in the first place. We can’t deny that some people still managed to find success in something that they struggled a lot in. They got to where they are in the end due to the great amount of grit and tenacity they had. A great book that I read a while back called ‘Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain’s Potential’ touches on this topic. In general, it discusses that many top notch people who are known to have excelled in their careers were not great at what they were doing initially.

To  decide whether or not to really throw in the towel, there are various factors to consider.

Does he have any other opportunities available? What are his alternative routes and can he even afford to quit whatever he has embarked on in the first place. If he can, then it would be wise for him to take time out and explore those other options available instead. In this scenario, it’s best to practice the ‘80/20’ rule - 80 percent of his efforts should be invested in the current course of work that he is involved in, and 20 percent would be dedicated to exploring something not related to what he is doing now.

The next factor would be his personality. Do he have grit, the tenacity to push on? If he does, then I think he can just hold on and keep working hard. Push on, especially if what he is having difficulty in right now is his main passion and interest in the first place.

Finally, the last factor to consider is the learning curve of the activity that this person is working on. How likely is he to reach that tipping point in their learning curve, and how much time can he afford to spend before he crosses that tipping point and finally get better at what he was learning later on.

At the end of the day, I think it’s really up to the person in question to decide if they can afford to carry on.

PHOTO: Dr. Tan Kwan Hong (far right) presenting to a group of junior college students

STYLEGUIDE: Personally however, have you finally achieved what you have always wanted to achieve in your life, and what upcoming projects are you going to be occupied with in the future?

Kwan Hong: It’s definitely always going to be an ongoing list for me. I did question myself at one point on when will I reach my equilibrium point, which is a steady state in life where I do not experience much changes. But I couldn’t identify one. So right now my goal is to set benchmarks for myself on a constant basis that will allow me to keep pursuing what I love to do in the future.

For my upcoming projects I do have a lot of them to achieve in this coming year and the next. Career wise, I’ve got the aim to speak at 12 to 18 countries and to 200,000 people within the span of next year. Leisure wise, I have the aim to travel to 30 countries before I hit 30 and personal development wise, I might be taking up new coaching certification courses just to hone my present skills!

STYLEGUIDE: Thank you so much for your time!