About the author: David Quan, one of thirty recipients worldwide of a Cambridge Trust Scholarship, was one of our state’s top performing students, earning a near-perfect ATAR and International Baccalaureate (IB) score. An Order of Australia Association Student Citizenship Awards recipient, David has tutored, coached and mentored hundreds of Primary and Secondary students over the last half-decade, especially through his active volunteering and leadership roles for school, basketball, music, public speaking, social enterprise and community service.


Advanced Education SA is pleased to partner with David before he commences his undergraduate studies at the world-renowned University of Cambridge. We hope that his fresh insights and perspective may offer all our students further inspiration to access excellence and advance their education. For private and group tuition enquiries, please visit our website at https://advancededucation.com.au/

It was a typical Monday afternoon orchestra rehearsal. The same tunes echoed, albeit quieter as a number of our brass members were absent due to illness. For me, as a bass trombonist usually neglected at the very far left side of the back row, the absentees meant I moved more towards the centre. More importantly, I had the rare opportunity to sit next to one of my role models: Don.

As an aspiring young student, I thought the world of Don. A respected school leader, high academic achiever, and well-rounded student, he was a natural talent. Unlike me, he had never struggled in any areas of his schooling. How he balanced his co-curricular commitments on top of achieving stellar grades particularly inspired me, especially as his involvements were similar to mine.

Meanwhile, our orchestra conductor was an empathetic and caring gentleman who allowed plenty of discussions; he believed that communication enhanced orchestral musicality and also understood that we, after a hectic day at school, would appreciate bonding with others throughout rehearsal. It was all the perfect Monday afternoon balance of learning and enjoying – an opportunity for me to satisfy my curiosities.

Learning From Don


So, like many other naïve young students, I asked Don some pretty immature questions like ‘Do you simply love studying?’, or ‘What will be your ATAR?’. Surely, I thought, an intelligent person like him just loves to study and can accurately predict his results 8-months in advance, right?

After many more questions ranging from his subject choices to his sleep routine, he must have sensed my adamant perception of him as this near-perfect high achiever. He stopped my questioning to show me some text messages and emails. To my surprise, many of them read something along the lines of: “Hey Coach, I’ve had a terrible night of sleep and am honestly struggling to complete my assignment so I may give training a pass.” or “Dear Miss, can we please arrange a time to chat about that last test? I’m really, really stuck as to how I can improve from my subpar results for the summative exam.”

He further elaborated that the point was neither about skipping training nor seeking help. It was rather to show that external accomplishments or end results can be an illusion. It is half the story. Internalizing this appealing yet misinformed belief that ‘successful’ people are infallible can be very unhealthy, because it makes us feel incapable when faced with inevitable setbacks rather than motivate us to conquer them or see challenges as opportunities. In short, we become more fixed-minded as opposed to growth-minded.

Don’s struggles disappointed my initial perceptions of him, but his openness liberated me. When faced with further failures, of which there were many, I became optimistic knowing that somebody like him also had to confront similar obstacles. I developed a craving for his ways of dealing with setbacks. What differentiated him from others to repeatedly not only bounce back but even forward? Considering this has been most helpful!

Moving Forward

The problem is that not all of us have had our Don, our respective role model, reveal their vulnerabilities. When I first started tutoring, for instance, I noticed that many of my students viewed me in a similar light as that of how I once saw Don. Just like me, they were fooled! When I subsequently showed them my subpar NAPLAN, Year 10 or even some Year 12 results, they too were shocked and perhaps also disappointed. But it is my sincere hope that just like Don, keeping honest about my vulnerabilities can liberate others – in this case, my students – to realize their own potential to grow, achieve and learn.

Looking ahead, we will continue to be exposed to so many incredible accomplishments from remarkable people that it can make us feel incompetent. I am not suggesting that their achievements be discounted. In fact, I believe quite the opposite. Those people successfully differentiated themselves through their respective choices, so their strategies are worth exploring and perhaps emulating. But on top of this, let us also keep in mind that no one wants to – or have the opportunity to – show you the hours and hours of becoming, the struggles from failure, and the insecurities ever-present from within. We must constantly challenge the narrative that our mind is generating from its biased and limited information in order to take into account the whole picture. In turn, we can be more rational in realizing that success is not achieved through the luck or art of evading mistakes. Rather, success is learning how we can repeatedly bounce back and even forward from inevitable setbacks.