Career Guide

Going beyond ordinary

How to help your employees and your children to reach their potential

Every time I ask an audience of adults or students “who considers themselves ordinary?”, a lot of hands shoot up. A majority, in fact. More shockingly, it is very successful adults and strong students who have got their hands up as well.

What made them think they are ordinary? Who told them they’re average? Every time a student doesn’t get into an A class or is not in pole position in class, they accept that that is their lot in life. Similarly, each time a young adult fails to get acceptance into a university or does not get into a ‘top’ university, they beat themselves into thinking they are not good enough.

Throughout my life as a teacher, one of the things that I have learnt is that few people are just “average”. In fact, by having just a few small things in place, anybody can be taken from “average” to “extraordinary”.

A very good example would be an ex-student of mine. When he first joined us, he was the conventional definition of “average”, perhaps even less than that. He was not good in his studies, could barely speak English, was rebellious and found it hard connecting with his peers.

However, that was not his be-all-and-end-all. Through his time with our school, we elevated his strengths and worked with him on his areas of weakness. Today, he has businesses in Australia, China and Malaysia, at the age of 22.

There are so many amazing stories of individuals rising from the ashes of mediocrity and achieving great success, impacting lives, disrupting the world.

So how does one become the tipping point that impacts another to reach their full potential?

Stop encouraging mediocrity

As simple as it is, most people often overlook the importance of being encouraging. Point out what they do right. ‘What if I don’t point out what he did wrong? How will he ever learn?’

They certainly won’t grow if all they are told are their faults. And herein lies the conundrum.

The point is to build the person up to be confident in what he/she is doing. That encouragement can come through focusing on what they’re good at and what they’re doing right.

For example, in most conventional education systems, parents and teachers tend to fixate on a child’s weaknesses, criticising and pushing the child to improve on that particular skill (or lack thereof in this case).

Well-meaning as that is, any strengths and passions that the child has are tossed to the side to make sure that they overcome their weaknesses. Over and over again, I hear parents tell their kid to stop reading story books and say: ‘You’re good in English already, you should be focusing on your terrible maths instead.’

These parents stop focusing on their kids strengths to pull up their weaknesses. In the end, they end up average in everything. Stop encouraging mediocrity!

‘But, you mean, don’t give him tuition for maths?’ asks that same parent. What I’m saying is continue taking his English as far as possible. At the same time, get him help in maths.

Fist bumps and high fives

Always, always, celebrate their wins. Even the small ones that are just as important as the big wins. As Michael Kerr, international business speaker and the author of The Humor Advantage, said in an article on his website, “small wins can have a disproportionate amount of power and influence beyond the achievement they represent”.

Of course, when I say celebrate, I don’t mean throw a full-blown party for the smallest achievement. A simple gesture of acknowledgement like a high five and saying “great job” will do the trick. These go a long way in setting the people around you up to embrace successes and being extraordinary.

In this sense, adults are the same people who were once children that came out from the same conventional systems and grew up believing average was all they could offer.

Helping people go from average to extraordinary happens in our organisation all the time. You wouldn’t believe how simple and similar it is when dealing with children.

That “feel good” feeling

Like educators and parents, supervisors and bosses are also responsible for providing a supportive environment for their people to grow and flourish in. Again, words of encouragement and empathy are a key component.

You can do simple things like telling them “well done” or “thank you” when it is merited. Letting them know that they have done a terrific job or taking them out for a meal after hours have been shown to be highly effective motivators.

Oftentimes, when friends complain about their jobs, it is invariably about being unappreciated by superior and colleagues. The work culture is: ‘It’s your job!’

I see those same adults do that to their own children. I have asked my high-achieving students what their parents’ reaction was when they scored 80+% on a test. Very often, the reply was, ‘My mum (or dad) said the test must be easy!’

I was horrified for the children who do not do so well. And trust me, those tests were not easy.

Always give credit and appreciation where it is due. We are human beings and, as such, we are social creatures and could do with appreciation here and there. Most people thrive on support and encouragement.

What I’ve seen help people to embrace being extraordinary is when they’re happy with what they’re doing first and foremost. The support system provided by their supervisors and peers is a big part of sustaining a happy, productive workplace.

A company that employs that support system would be NetApp. It runs an internal program called “Catch Someone Doing Something Right” that works on a simple, powerful concept – any employee who sees another doing extraordinary things simply has to reach out to the vice chairman, who calls that employee to thank them.

Sounds neat, right? Just imagine how motivated and productive their employees feel at the end of the day!

Be Critical. .With Love

Does positive reinforcement mean we ignore the things that our peers and people don’t get right? Absolutely not.

We all slip up at some points and dealing directly with issues has its place in paving the way towards being extraordinary. How does one grow without also working on their blind spots and refining their strengths?

As leaders, it is our job to elevate people to greatness. Part of the job involves practicing the art of giving constructive criticism.

To read the rest of Anne’s article and her advice on how to give constructive criticism, visit

Anne Tham is the founder and CEO of ACE EdVenture, an organisation that makes exam-based education fun and engaging for students. She’s at the helm of an award-winning line-up: Sri Emas International School, Dwi Emas International School, a chemistry role-playing game called ChemCaper, and a host of learning centres. To get in touch with Anne, e-mail

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