Successful people laugh in the face of failure

First came a misspelled word, then the slow horror of recognition and, for some, the tears. Some were stilled by an embrace or kind word, others took longer, and not before they dissolved into sobs. To watch their sorrow, you would think these under-13s were at a funeral.

Alas, theirs was the agony of crashing out at the RHB-The Straits Times National Spelling Championship, with one competitor even likening the experience to The Hunger Games, "except you don't get killed, just eliminated".

Welcome to The Big Spell - evidently, no laughing matter - whose grand final on Saturday will be the climax to the search for Singapore's top speller.

Zonal winners were named on April 14, but I'd wager many who didn't make it might still be mourning.

Never mind braving an auditorium of people to attempt words which trip up even erudite adults. For many, choking on the likes of "throes" or "perturb" was crushing. They were, after all, the top 9 per cent of 1,200 participants who had participated in the preliminary round.

As an east zone judge, my heart twisted watching them crumble. Many looked as though they had been kneed in the gut, while others started crying as they left the stage. But as similar downpours were reported in the three other competition zones, I realised that young Singaporeans are sadly unschooled in coping with defeat.

Worse than failing to spell a tough word aloud, my concern is over the "F" we are getting for sportsmanship; that is, the ability to give people you play with the same regard you expect from them, whether you win or lose.

Being a good sport is a healthy way to live, especially in the face of everyday failures. A good sportsman, for instance, will quickly turn his attention to the bright side of things, aim to recover from setbacks and forge ahead.

A psychological study on young people who lived successful lives uncovered their knack for reframing disappointments positively. In a paper published in the international journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping, Dr Joachim Stoeber and Dr Dirk Janssen from the University of Kent's School of Psychology found that acceptance and humour were key to developing bouncebackability.

Noting common habits from the diaries of 149 young people over 14 days, researchers found that the more often laughter was used to respond to failures, the more satisfied a person felt at the end of the day. (Compared to turning to denial or blame, or relying on comfort from others.)

Dr Stoeber, a leading authority on perfectionism, motivation and performance, said his findings are particularly helpful for perfectionist students - "those who have a tendency to be dissatisfied no matter what they achieve".

Rather than dwell on small failures which "drag yourself further down", he recommended they focus instead on what they have achieved. "It is more helpful to try to accept what happened, look for positive aspects and - if it is a small thing - have a laugh about it," he said.

Competitions, after all, mirror life situations. Not everyone gets what they want, when they want it. But even if a top prize remains elusive, all players stand to benefit from a challenging experience.

Character building begins when you can acknowledge the success of another who has bested the odds, even when you did not. So, congratulating a winner and thanking your opponent for a game well played is not only civilised, but also healthy.

Putting your best into a game is nothing to be ashamed of, whatever the results. Go ahead and cry a little, but only, so the song goes, until the clouds roll by a little. Then accept it, laugh about it and leave it behind.

That's just how you develop resilience for the ultimate test there is: Life.