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The Learning with series: Dr Tan Lai Yong (Part 2)

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

The 4Cs of Learning (Part 2: Clarity and Cheng Zhang 成长)


Clarity In learning, there are many knowns and unknowns. Problems arise when students confuse what is known with what is not known. But there are also issues when the knowns are not prioritized properly.

Dr Tan Lai Yong recounted a time when he was volunteering as a doctor in the Singapore national soccer team in the 1980s. Everyone loved the skillful players who could run rings around everyone and dazzle fans with acrobatic bicycle kicks. However, there were certain basics such as teamwork and fitness that were sorely lacking.

In learning mathematics and various languages, it is important to write the equations and characters accurately because it instils a certain discipline. Parents and educators could affirm these values as they guide their children through school.

Another intangible value that Dr Tan highlights is that of humility.

Being in Yunnan, China, without the ability to speak fluent Mandarin, Dr Tan was forced to learn the language and culture of the place. As he recounted, “If I had known Chinese, I might just have gone in and thought that I was the expert. That would have been the path to failure.” Instead, he was forced to listen and that formed the bedrock for the eventual God-given success that the team enjoyed later.

Cheng Gong(成功) and Cheng Zhang(成长) One of the greatest illusions in learning involves four Chinese characters. The first two characters are: Cheng Gong (成功). This simply means success or achievement. When Dr Tan first got into medical school, it could almost certainly be described as a major achievement. However, his mother knew better. She simply shared with him that the journey ahead would be difficult.

Many years later, Dr Tan understood what his mother was referring to. It was not simply that it would be difficult to graduate from medical school but rather that the journey ahead of being a physician would be challenging. It involved understanding the person and their conditions before treating their disease. When Dr Tan served in Yunnan, China, he had to keep learning how to help the village doctors there to learn to be better physicians too. This continuous growth and development is at the heart of the other two characters: Cheng Zhang (成长). Dr Tan shared that there was a fundamental difference between Cheng Gong (成功) and Cheng Zhang (成长). “Sometimes, we are so fixated on Cheng Gong (成功) that we forget about Cheng Zhang (成长),” said Dr Tan as he recalled about what his mother had told him decades ago. Dr Tan was given the wise and counter-balancing mandate of going out to play because the world was out there. Go out there to learn about life and grow in character. As you grow, the success should come. Don’t be too fixated on success because it may not be the stepping stone to growth and development.

The next time you hear a child being asked what they want to do when they grow up, listen to their answers, and don’t react too quickly.


Protect and nurture their sense of curiosity, remind them that they are loved – always, help them to be clear about their priorities, and remember the difference between Cheng Gong (成功)and Cheng Zhang (成长).








Dr Tan Lai Yong is a medical doctor by training. In 1996, he and his family moved to Yunnan, China, to serve in the community and train village health workers. He has received numerous awards for his excellence in teaching in NUS. He has 2 grown children and still enjoys the outdoors very much. In the past, he has led trips to countries like Botswana, China, India, and Myanmar.

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