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Celebrating monuments to failure

Travelling in Europe over the past couple of months, my fiancee and I have seen some of the most spectacular sights - both man-made and natural - but we have also wasted time and money on many more overrated, but no less popular, tourist attractions.

Upon reflection, some of the most interesting and memorable places we visited were the ones that we dubbed "lemonade stands" - after the popular saying, "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade". These were the ones that, despite their shortcomings, turned what would ordinarily have been written off as embarrassing disasters into proud celebrations of failure.

The most famous of these is probably the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy. The construction of it began in the 12th century, and it was the embodiment of poor design and poorer due diligence, yet millions of people from all over the world flock to see it.

Equally impressive are the likes of a painstakingly preserved 17th century warship which sank within minutes of being launched, now displayed in Vasa Museum in Sweden, and the notorious Ecce Homo church fresco in the tiny village of Borja, Spain - it shot to fame in 2012 when an amateur artist botched the restoration of the artwork depicting Jesus Christ.

Reflecting on the possible reasons for the enduring popularity of these tributes to terrible judgment, the explanation which I found the simplest and, therefore, the best, is that we perhaps appreciate the honesty of how they are presented. After all, to err is human.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy may embody poor design and poorer due diligence, yet people flock to see it. The allure of attractions like the tower lies in the fact that they are a celebration of humanity and the imperfection that is common to a
The Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy may embody poor design and poorer due diligence, yet people flock to see it. The allure of attractions like the tower lies in the fact that they are a celebration of humanity and the imperfection that is common to all of us. PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

Reflecting on the possible reasons for the enduring popularity of these tributes to terrible judgment, the explanation which I found the simplest and, therefore, the best, is that we perhaps appreciate the honesty of how they are presented. After all, to err is human.

While the majority of our most feted achievements are valued for their perfection, or pursuit thereof, I think the intuitive allure of these attractions lies in the fact that they are a celebration of humanity (and the imperfection that is common to all of us).

There are a few lessons to learn, or basic ideas worth reiterating, that arise from these "lemonade stands" and the stories behind their creation. The first and most obvious are the ones regarding persistence, optimism and salesmanship, which anyone who has ever seen or attended a Tony Robbins-type seminar will know. I have to confess to not being a big fan of motivational speakers and the self-help industry in general. However, if there's one thing they have got right, it is that attitude and self-confidence, even if undeserved, really do matter.

My personal experience, having worked in London for almost 10 years, is that the maxim "fake it until you make it" certainly holds true (at least, for the finance industry), and that even an inferior product, cleverly marketed and confidently sold, can ultimately prove more commercially successful than a technically superior one.

The second point to make is that we should not be afraid to fail and even when we inevitably do, we should embrace failure as the opportunity for growth that it is. This goes against our Singaporean instincts because our society is one that likes to minimise risks and we don't seem to take failure very well. In fact, it is even enshrined in our Singlish vocabulary - for example, "kiasu", which literally means "afraid to lose".

The Government recognises that, while this attitude may have served us well in the past, it is incompatible with the unique challenges of the 21st century. In an increasingly globalised and competitive world, the traditional approach of eking out marginal improvements and incremental gains is diminishing in value, and the more we cling to the old ways, the more we run the risk of being made obsolete or leapfrogged by technological progress.

It is perhaps with this in mind that Singapore's policymakers have been on a drive to promote the growth of industries such as fintech (financial technology), and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently urged the young to "not be afraid to make mistakes" (presumably because he understands that significant breakthroughs require the assumption of significant risk).

Lastly, but by no means least, I think we all need to have a sense of humour and not take ourselves too seriously. The success and very existence of attractions such as Pisa's Leaning Tower and Borja's Ecce Homo have been made possible by the conscious actions of decision-makers to, despite their sometimes laughable mistakes, "just go with it" rather than requiring a complete do-over.

Even prominent leaders have been known to let loose once in a while - for example, US President Barack Obama "slow-jammed" on a recent episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, while PM Lee marked Youth Day on July 3 by posting a picture of himself doing a "jump shot" on Facebook - far from diminishing their authority, I think these acts endear the leaders to netizens.

Attitude, adaptability and resourcefulness can make the difference between an individual or country either brilliantly thriving or simply surviving. With the world still facing serious political and economic risks, be it Brexit (and the uncertainty created for the European Union), China's gaping imbalances, or the increased frequency and ferocity of terrorist activity, to name a few, there will surely be no shortage of lemons in our future.

We should get juicing.

• The writer is co-founder of 31-East.com, a start-up that aims to tackle waste, corruption and inefficiency in the property sector.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2016, with the headline 'Celebrating monuments to failure'. Print Edition | Subscribe