My Fear is to be Average

(A Review of In Search of Purpose Talk #14: “The Advantage of Being Disadvantaged”.)

Ad-man Adrian Tan has reached the top of his game in spite of – he might say because of – his ADHD, Dyslexia, OCD and a “tinge of Asperger’s”. So what makes him tick?

On 30 March 2017, I attended a talk by husband and wife team, Adrian Tan and Tan Shook Wah. Adrian is the founder of Ad Planet, Singapore’s largest independent advertising group, which has collected 400 creative awards, including honours at the prestigious Clio Awards and Cannes Lions. Much of its success is credited to Adrian’s ability to “think out of the box” and to defy conventions. Shook Wah is the founder of the Dare to Dream Scholarship, which focuses on helping special needs students with limited financial resources. It is anchored on the belief that education should be inclusive, and that all persons should have the opportunity to learn and realise their potential.

The evening was hosted by Ms Denise Phua, Mayor of Central Singapore District. In January 2015, Central Singapore Community Development Council (CDC) launched the In Search of Purpose Talk Series (ISOP), a TED-style inspirational talk series that seeks to help adults and youth discover their bigger role in society. Speakers, either local or overseas, are invited to share their personal stories and experiences about various topics in order to encourage the audience members to give back and be part of a more caring community in Singapore.

In her introduction, Ms Phua quoted Rick Warren (author of “The Purpose Driven Life”), who once wrote that we can live life at one of three different levels:  Survival, Success or Significance. Living a life of Significance means living “beyond oneself”.

Pastor Warren has written, “Significance in life doesn’t come from status, because you can always find somebody who’s got more than you. It doesn’t come from sex. It doesn’t come from salary. It comes from serving.”

Adrian Tan then took the stage and it was interesting to note that, although an attractive figure, he did not employ a particularly dynamic delivery style. It was the content of what he said that made the impact.

He pointed out that Singapore has no resources yet has produced many multi millionaires. He described Singapore as “the Monte Carlo of the East”.  As in many 1st world countries there is a large gap between rich and poor and the Income Divide needs to be narrowed.  He reiterated the question at the heart of ISOP talks: “What do we do with what we have?”

My impression was that the couple’s Christian faith informed both their professional and personal lives. “Belief Creates Possibilities”, the tagline of their award-winning ad company, is based on the bible text “Nothing is Impossible with God”.

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception” (Aldous Huxley)

Adrian pointed out that the advertising business is all about perception.  He went on to challenge the accepted view of what is “normal” and what is “not normal”.  He redefined “normal” as “ordinary” but by the end of the evening it was clear that he regarded “normal” as rather dull. It was tempting to agree with him.

He described his various “extraordinary” conditions and, in redefining them, appeared to give them credit for much of his success. He did concede however, that disadvantages are not “immediately advantages” and that he had to learn compensatory skills.

  • People with ADHD have a high level of energy. They are physically restless but also mentally nimble and flexible. Children with ADHD can be unfairly labelled at school as “worthless”, “bad”, “lazy”, “dumb”. Adrian quoted Vikram Khanna, an editor of the Business Times and his headline “The present can change the past”: The past does not define your future. Adrian averred that the converse belief can be a danger in the education system and that we must “always believe in everybody”.
  • People with dyslexia are lateral thinkers. They are visual thinkers. Steven Spielberg, film director, was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 60. He said, “It was the last puzzle part in a tremendous mystery that I’ve kept to myself all these years.” One teacher wrote of a student, “He is too stupid to learn”. That student was Thomas Edison. Interestingly, Ms Phua pointed out that Edison’s mother kept the letter from him and it was discovered years later.

“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” (Albert Einstein)

Albert Einstein, the famous mathematician and physicist, had a learning disability and did not speak until he was three years old. He found maths and writing difficult at school but went on to become one of the best known scientists of all time winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921.

One of the most important staff members in an advertising company is the Creative Director. When a vacancy arises Adrian stipulates that the person who fills the post does not have a university degree as he wants someone who breaks the rules and does not follow the crowd. In the Q&A session, a member of the audience (a teacher by profession) asked the speakers what advice they would give to teachers, how they would like teachers to treat students with special needs. Adrian reiterated that (negative) labelling is a very big issue as it makes a person lose his/her confidence. “Kiasu-ism” pervades Singapore society – including education. People are scared to lose, so they do things that are safe, an attitude that militates against innovation and creativity.

  • People with OCD chase perfection and do not compromise that goal. They have an obsessive compulsion to conquer the new world, to set new limits and a new order. Adrian does not see OCD as a disorder and would rather the condition be termed Obsessive Compulsive Determination. He sees a world in disruption and believes that you must “disrupt or be disrupted”.

“If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.”

(Jack Welch, Chairman & CEO of General Electric, 1981-2001)

Adrian did not talk much about his “tinge of Asperger’s” (a term not clinically recognised after DSM V but which is still used by many people as it is more familiar and distinctive). He alluded to the fact that he finds social gatherings difficult and was determined to be successful in advertising without spending a lot of his free time entertaining clients. In fact, his priority is his family and he was proud that he managed to have dinner with his two sons 90% of the time during their formative years (0-21 years).

Tan Shook Wah then took the stage and described recent Ad Planet campaigns

  • In 2014, as part of Singapore Press Holdings’ “See the Big Picture” campaign, Ad Planet brought Stephen Wiltshire to Singapore. Stephen has savant syndrome and was described by Sook Wah as “a highly talented silent communicator”. He surveyed the civic district from a helicopter for half an hour or so then spent a few days sketching it from memory
  • In 2016, Singapore and Japan celebrated SJ50, 50 years of Singapore/Japan Diplomatic relations. Ad Planet presented
    • “A Stroke of Genius”, featuring Shoho Kanazawa, an acclaimed calligrapher who has Down Syndrome; and
    • “The Sound of Silence”, with classical pianist Azariah Tan, who is profoundly deaf
    • “Perception”, a video by celebrity photographer, N D Chow, features people with various special needs. Caregivers were very moved to see their charges in a different light and being presented in such a confident and positive way. Members of the production team and N D Chow himself had to broaden their skill set when dealing with people with special needs:

“We hope for a world that looks beyond disabilities, a world where disabilities are not perceived as no abilities. A world that is kinder. A world that is free of bias… “Perception” hopes for such a world.”

SJ50 Shoho Kanazawa, “A Stroke of Genius” –

SJ50 Azariah Tan, “The Sound of Silence” –

“Perception”, a video by N D Chow –

One audience member pointed out that many special needs people do not have the spectacular talents demonstrated in the course of the presentation. Shook Wah conceded that Adrian was privileged to be born to parents who had the means to support him. In 2013, in conjunction with La Salle College of the Arts, she founded the “Dare to Dream” scholarship for people who need financial help for their educational fees. One recipient, Isabelle Lim, a talented photographer, was in the audience. Isabelle has Nager Syndrome.

It was truly an evening celebrating the Extraordinary. Perhaps the unsung heroes of the evening (though mentioned in passing) are the parents who support their extraordinary children through the years and through all their challenges. On the “Perception” video, Isabelle Lim’s mother, Jacqueline, said and signed this:

“It’s always good to look at the bright side.

We try to stay positive.

Our perception is that we can still do it, despite our challenges.

Yes we can.

Cry but also laugh….”

Jan Evans

DPA Volunteer


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