Information Services Office   19.3.2012


Prof. Lee Ou-fan Leo
Newsletter No. 394 > Campus News > Distinguished Lectures > Lee Ou-fan on the Nobility of Failure

Lee Ou-fan on the Nobility of Failure


‘Success is empty without failures,’ said Prof. Lee Ou-fan Leo, Sin Wai Kin Professor of Chinese Culture, CUHK, to over 400 students and staff at the first University Lecture on Civility on 8 March. The lecture was part of the I‧CARE’s Blossoms of Life Floral Festival.

An internationally-renowned scholar in cultural studies, Professor Lee has a sea of interests encompassing literature, movie, music, history, and urban culture. He studied and taught in renowned universities, but who would have thought his impressive career path was paved with failure. Professor Lee spoke on ‘The Nobility of Failure’ to share with the audience his bad days and how he learnt from failure.

Professor Lee encountered his first failure in primary school, when getting a score of 40 out of 100 in a mathematics exam. ‘It took at least 60 to be admitted to secondary school. I was so ashamed and felt so guilty towards my parents. Fortunately I was put on the waiting list and eventually was allowed to enrol.’

Upon graduation from the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature of Taiwan University, Professor Lee experienced another setback as he prepared to further his studies in the US. ‘I had applied to several universities that I felt confident would accept me. But I was turned down by every one of them, except the University of Chicago which offered me a scholarship covering only tuition.’ As his family was not wealthy, supporting him through overseas studies would have been hard without a full scholarship.

In the end, he did begin postgraduate studies in international relations at the University of Chicago. He soon realized that his interest was Chinese literature rather than international relations, and he transferred to Harvard University. But life was not meant to be easy for him as a young academic. He failed to get tenure at Princeton University. But just when he was feeling helpless, he got an offer to teach at Indiana University where he inaugurated the study of modern Chinese literature.

Professor Lee mentioned several times during the lecture that because he felt inadequate during his studies and research in the US, he read a lot. ‘Others read 10 books. I would read 20.’ He wrapped up with a quote from Samuel Beckett: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’

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