Editor’s note: This interview was originally recorded in 2013.
Johan Mahmood Merican has known failure. As a young man, his parents were worried about his academic ability. He flunked his first interview at Cambridge University, and he was among the worst performers in the first year of his first job.
Had anyone told the young Johan that he would end up graduating with a first class degree in Economics from Cambridge – one of the world’s most esteemed institutions – he would have shaken his head in amused disbelief.
If they had added that he would go on to enjoy a successful career that would include a stint as chief executive officer of TalentCorp and becoming deputy director-general of Malaysia’s Economic Planning Unit of Prime Minister’s Department, as well as being a noted motivational speaker, he might have advised the person to take a much-needed lie down.
And yet, Johan’s career has included these impressive milestones and more – and it all stemmed from a moment when his father addressed his mother’s concerns by saying, “Maybe we just need to accept that he’s not as bright as his siblings.”
That was all the motivation the young Johan needed to push himself to success. In an interview with Leaderonomics, he explained how that moment hit him hard – it’s a painful thing to know those closest to you openly expect little of your chances to build a great career.
Real and reel leadership
Johan is not your typical leading business figure. His softly spoken manner betrays a resolute humility, and the movie buff strives to squeeze film analogies in wherever he can to get his point across.
Some of his written wisdom from movies include:
- Magical Leadership Models (Harry Potter)
- One Ring To Rule (And Make Leaders Of) Them All… (Lord of the Rings)
- Use The Force (Star Wars)
- Leadership Lessons From The Matrix
Johan also has a steely determination that radiates from his core – however tough a situation may be, he never gives up trying to make the best of even the most challenging circumstances.
He explains how he “felt like a hero” after gaining a first at Cambridge, following the award of a Sime Darby scholarship. He was a top student; however, in his first graduate job at a London audit firm, his performance bombed in the first year as he found himself among the worst performers.
It was this experience that taught him humility, as well as the importance of examining where our strengths and weaknesses lie.
This might interest you: Why It’s Important To Know Your Strengths And Weaknesses
Fear failure, not!
Johan has clearly made great use of the lessons learnt from his failures. Indeed, he advocates a fearless approach to failing. We are all bound to make mistakes – what counts is how we move forward and learn from those mistakes. Perhaps it’s the fear of failing that holds many of us back from realising our potential and contributing to society with meaning and purpose.
But for Johan, it’s in daring to fail – to take chances on ourselves – that we are able to make the best and give the best of who we are.
Johan’s top 4 tips for success
1. Prove yourself
People may doubt you, and maybe certain skills and qualities don’t come easy to you – but your fate is far from sealed. If you want to succeed, take control and push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Use those who doubt you as motivation to prove to them – and yourself – that you can be a success.
2. Respond to luck
Johan failed in his first interview at Cambridge University, but through a stroke of luck, he gained admission through a scholarship programme. Regardless, he still had to put in the work. Rather than thinking he had “made it”, he took full advantage of his good fortune and put everything into his studies.
Recommended reading: Luck Is Not Luck: You Can Influence Your Return On Luck
3. What do you want in life?
Ask yourself this question – too many people neglect to do so. You don’t need a detailed plan to begin with, but having some idea of the direction you want to head will allow you to have a better idea of what you need to do to get there.
4. Push yourself
According to Johan, if you’ve never failed, it’s likely that you’re playing it safe. As the saying goes, comfort zones are beautiful places, but nothing ever grows there. To stretch the boundaries, to keep learning, to rid yourself of the fear of making mistakes – to push yourself towards realising your potential is exactly what will lead the way to great accomplishment.
3 leaders who turned rejection on its head
1. Albert Einstein
When the professor who revolutionised physics with his theory of relativity was 16, the head of his Munich school wrote in a damning report: “He will never amount to anything.”
Einstein, who died in 1955 aged 76 after a career garlanded with honours including a Nobel Prize, clearly took the criticism on the chin.
2. Oprah Winfrey
The undisputed queen of the United States TV was fired from her job as a news anchor in Baltimore after seven months in the early 1980s for getting “too emotionally invested” in the stories. Her boss said she was “unfit for TV news”. Winfrey called it her “first and worst failure” but she went on to have a daytime show for 25 years, her own TV channel and a fortune estimated at £2bil.
3. John Lennon
He led The Beatles from a sweaty cellar in Liverpool to conquer the world with music that was both hugely popular and ground¬-breakingly radical. Then he became a global icon with a series of inspirational solo anthems. The world mourned when John, 40, was shot dead in New York in 1980.
None of this was foreseen by the teacher at Quarry Bank School, Liverpool, who wrote in the 1950s that he was: “Certainly on the road to failure.”
Sandy is a freelance writer who faced a number of rejections in his early career. Nevertheless, he kept pushing and continues to this day to irritate editors on an international scale. To connect with Sandy, follow him on Twitter @RealSClarke – you can also find Johan @JohanMerican. To engage us for Corporate Soldier – Success Without Stress programme in your organisation, write to us at email@example.com.