The St. Louis Gateway Arch is this city’s signature monument. It defines the city’s place in American history and for nearly half a century has stood as one of the nation’s architectural points of pride and engineering ingenuity.
But few of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who swarm the Arch each year understand the monument’s complicated history. Originally conceived by civic leaders in the early 1930s, it ran into opposition from residents who wondered if it would make more sense to instead spend the money on projects that had a more direct impact on the lives of the taxpayers.
Its completion almost 50 years ago was the culmination of the hard work of politicians, the federal government and civic leaders who worked together with land owners, real estate agents and bankers to bring the project to fruition. Together they convinced the city’s residents that this was both a viable and worthwhile project.
Today, the Gateway Arch is revered for the way it transforms a simple curve into an awe-inspiring experience of place. The genius of the Arch is that it is both traditional and modern, disarmingly simple and extraordinarily complex, unadorned yet elegant. It is 630 feet high; the nation’s tallest monument. Taller than the Washington Monument and twice the height of the Statue of Liberty.
It has defined this great country’s landscape for almost half a century and still stands as one of the most iconic structures on this planet.
And to think it was almost never built. Never built because public sentiment argued that there were more practical uses for taxpayer funds than a gleaming bended beam of stainless steel.
The naysayers couldn’t see beyond the perceived impracticalities of the project. They weren’t concerned with a monument to “American culture and civilization.” They were concerned with potholes being filled and teachers being hired and fire stations being built.
But the visionary vanguards were grander than them, and the impetus for innovation was stronger. And because they held true to their dream and found the whys when everyone around them was giving them the why nots, millions of people from around the world have since been graced by this magnificent edifice, which we are blessed to have in our backyard.
Remember, the difference between success and failure is really a matter of time. The take-aways from this monument are intrinsically powerful. We should not be preoccupied with doing things right, pay more attention to doing the right thing. Learn from the mistakes of others because we can’t live long enough to make them all ourselves.
The lesson is clear: We must each find and fulfill our grandest vision for ourselves. We must find our own arch, and we must not let anyone around us keep us from doing so. This will require an expansive mind, an inventive spirit, a tenacious grip and a brave heart. There will be people who love you and who want the best for you who will try to steer you onto another path. A safer path. A well-worn path. A path that carries with it health insurance and a 401k plan.
And as much as you love them in return you must stay true to your calling and your highest expression of yourself and continue to plot your own course. There will be trying times, no doubt, and you may look longingly at those who followed in the wake of those who had already figured things out. But like the Arch, you will have the inherent flexibility to bend, but not break as you create your own St. Louis “spirit in the sky.”
I promise you: The view will be worth it when you arrive at the top.
Benjamin Ola Akande is dean of the Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.