July 6, 2017

Editor’s Note: In our third compelling story on risk, I find myself relating to this piece quite deeply because I do see myself as an artist. Writing is also a form of art and words are my medium of expression. However, any kind of art has an element of subjectivity. When we write in-depth profiles, there is always a risk that the interviewee does not like how he or she is portrayed. Or when we experiment with new content (such as this series for example), our readers might not appreciate or relate to it.

But every artist thrives on risk, in their pursuit of mastery because the act of creating is a reward in itself, regardless of the outcome.


Over the past few weeks, this provocative little question had me mulling over the meaning of risk, scanning my life for instances of ‘heroism’ and ‘derring-do’ and to my dismay second-guessing whether I’ve just been playing it safe this whole time. Thanks a lot, Wy-Lene. I’m going to be very honest when I say that at this stage in my life, I have yet to take “The Greatest Risk”. I know the question is probably asking me about the greatest risk I have taken so far—it’s just that I look back on my life and struggle to find anything superlative-worthy.

Perhaps, this has to do with my personal understanding and perception of risk. For me, I see risk-taking as ever-emboldened steps outside of my comfort zone. Good outcome or bad, I see it as a necessary aspect of expanding the territory of “Things that no longer intimidate me”. Some elements of risk and uncertainty can be mitigated by reason, inference and due diligence. But, no matter how much “homework” and preparation you do, the final decision of taking a risk still rests in the belief and confidence of your own judgement. No pressure.


To me, risk-taking is integral to the conquest of our manufactured fears. This excludes fears that register genuine risks of mortal and moral consequences such as “I should not go near that agitated-looking predatory animal” or “It may not be wise to go into partnership with this person of known questionable business practices”.

Manufactured fears could mean not exhibiting your work because you doubt your own creative legitimacy and worry about critical contempt or it could be staying in a bad relationship because daring to be alone is just too terrifying. It could be withholding your true feelings and nature from someone because the risk of emotional rejection is too painful. None of these gestures in the scheme of things are grand or great, but to the person in question, it could be the single most decisive hurdle they cross in their life.

What we perceive as risks are linked to the fears that are created in our mind, internalised by society and shaped by our upbringing. When we allow these fears to define our choices in life, to limit what we dare to do, we become held back.

To come out surviving from a risk in triumph or failure is itself a success. Many risks I faced seemed paramount at the time and have now become normalised. Some perceived risks turned out not to be risks at all, just products of an overwrought imagination. Are these risks real? If they have the same effect imposing on our will and our actions, aren’t they real enough? What about the aftermath of risk? It’s also important for neither past failures nor successes to diminish our appetite for future risk-taking.

I would like to believe that even if our greatest risks lead to devastating failures, they prove no less formative and revelatory. In the world of art and design, every new piece of work is on some level a gamble. The outcome is not what you might expect. Success can lead to crippling paralysis. Failure and rejection can lead to amazing discoveries, incredible pathos and creative impetus. What would good art and design be without a cycle of conflict, struggle and resolution? Nobody joins the creative field for stability and to feel safe. They enter the fray simply because they have to.


In my line of work, the very nature of creating, designing and making good art demands the taking of risks. There is no disruption and innovation without risk. There are no new inventions without leaps of faith into the unknown. This field welcomes you to go against the grain. It entails challenging the status quo, bracing for potential backlash and spawning new ways of doing things. If that is not difficult enough, we are required to convince our clients, commissioners and collaborators that the risk is worth taking too. Yet, even when risk and failure are embraced and even extolled as a virtue in the creative fields, it makes the prospects no less intimidating.

In many cases, the professional and personal identities of artists and designers are inextricably linked. We pour so much of ourselves into our work that we become synonymous with it. Our risks and rewards, hopes and anguish are doubled in the critical reception of our work.

Risks are relative and temporal. Our greatest risks always appear to loom ahead of us, while the risks we have overcome and look back on diminish in awe over time. I think it’s important to acknowledge the context of our risks, consider who we were at the time when we confronted those decisions—our level of maturity, personal histories and breadth of experiences. This would remind us that every size of risk we take is significant. They are macro and micro steps towards demanding more of ourselves.

At 12, it was overcoming my stage fright to recite a poem at Monday school assembly. At 17, my greatest risk was probably reaching out to hold the hand of a boy I really liked. At 21, it was moving to a country I’d never been to and starting over in a new school full of strangers to fulfil a dream. At 26, it was forgoing the progression of my personal design practice to join the Economic Development Board to develop the design sector. At 28, it was quitting a good job and finally mustering the courage to start a full-time eponymous design studio.


Most recently, after months of labouring and fretting, I debuted my studio, OLIVIA LEE, and conceptual design collection “The Athena Collection” at Milan Design Week 2017. The 10-piece furniture collection presented my vision of an analogue smart home system. Milan Design Week 2017 is the most important international fair in the world for furniture and interiors. You will laugh at the permutations of imagined disaster scenarios that kept me up at night. This was the first time I was presenting my work overseas in my own stead. I had hesitated for many years and soundly rationalised my decision to do so.

At a design fair, the resources invested in your exhibition have absolutely no bearing on the how you will be received and what the returns will be. There are many factors outside your control, such as timing, sentiment and your work in relation to the zeitgeist. It is possible to spend all this effort and barely make a dent in the industry. But in the end, I knew that it was only I who stood in the way of myself. Everything else I knew could be figured out. So, this year I took my greatest risk (so far) and I am happy to report that I am alive, motivated and that many of my fears proved yet again to be unfounded.