What is the ultimate mistake in life?


I had the privilege to be the guest speaker at the SAF Leadership Dining-In last week, where the theme was “Our SAF – For Singapore, For Singaporeans”.

It was a generation of SAF leadership I had had no opportunity to work with during my 22 years in the Ministry of Defence, the last 13 of which was as its Permanent Secretary.  Preparing my speech for the evening was a time of pleasant reminiscence of the opportunities I had serving first under Dr Goh Keng Swee, who was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, and other Ministers for Defence thereafter.

In my speech I recalled Mindef as the place where I brought in various initiatives which later proved highly valuable for the larger public service.  These included introducing:

  • Total Defence, comprising Military Defence, Civil Defence, Economic Defence, Social Defence, and Psychological Defence, as the framework for defence and deterrence to maintain the security of Singapore;
  • Promotional advertising by government agencies, starting with Total Defence using the tagline “There’s a Part for Everyone” and moving on to promoting the SAF and the three services of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force;
  • The Currently Estimated Potential (CEP) system, learnt from Shell International, as an organised way to assess the career potential of everyone in the SAF
  • The MINDEF Productivity Movement to promote initiative and ideas at every level in the SAF;
  • The Block Budget System of financial budgeting with its attendance mechanisms of budget control and resource allocation within a non-negotiable budget limit.

I also described how these concepts were adopted to wider effect in the public service, namely:

  • Promotional advertising for teaching and education, with the taglines of “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” and “Moulding the Future of Our Nation”;
  • Introducing the CEP system throughout the public sector as a way to develop officers according to their abilities and for managing their careers;
  • The PS21 (Public Service for the 21st Century) movement to promote quality service, organizational excellence, and initiative and innovation;
  • The Block Budget System throughout the public service.

And I said the most important point I learned from Dr Goh in starting the SAF from virtually nothing was his imperative to try unceasingly as the only way to succeed. Indeed, not to try would be irresponsibility.  He said, “The only way to avoid making mistakes is not to do anything.  And that, in the final analysis, will be the ultimate mistake.”

As my mind surveys these past events, I am reminded of what Steve Jobs had said in June 2005 in his Commencement Address to the Stanford MBA graduating class when he started by talking about connecting the dots in life:

“I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?

“It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

“And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

“It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

“Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

I find the point about only being able to connect the dots in our life looking backwards and not being able to do it looking forward, to be both instructive and inspirational. 

Whenever I am asked what advice I can give to young people contemplating their next steps in life, I tell them not to chase the rewards but to chase the opportunities. 

At a graduation ceremony of the University of Adelaide in Singapore in April 2012, I had said, “Seek to be the best you can be. Anything less is less than fair to yourself and to your capacity to contribute to the well-being of the people around you. Build a reputation for hard work, integrity, trustworthiness and reliability. Opportunity comes to those who are able, ready and prepared. Use your brain, use your hands, use your heart. Your degree today is not the end of your hard work. Your degree gives you a new starting point to apply hard work to bigger ends and higher ends. Enjoy today. Tomorrow brings you new possibilities and more work.”

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