Monday, December 16, 2013

Carpe Diem Strikes Back

The following is the text of a speech given to a Toastmasters club back in April 2012.
Carpe diem.  It’s a Latin expression, applicable for when you are presented with such a fantastic opportunity to obtain success or great riches or encountering so wonderful a moment of incredible beauty and joy, you feel compelled to act quickly and seize it, embrace it.

Carpe diem.  It means “seize the day”. 

It is an expression that became rather prevalent in American pop culture several years ago with the release of the film Dead Poets Society.


Dead Poets Society was set an old boy’s school, a very stolid, tradition-minded, boring environment. And into this school comes a new teacher, played by Robin Williams. As you might expect from a character played by Robin Williams, the new teacher upends expectations and upsets traditions. 

He is not merely content to teach his students about words as mere letters on a page.  No, he wants them to embrace words, be enthralled by the beauty of words, to be enchanted by the beauty of the world that words describe.  He wants his students to feel passion for words, for beauty, for life, for the endless possibilities that exist.  “Carpe diem,” he teaches them.  “Seize the day!”  

And this is good advice.  For no goal has ever been reached, no destiny made manifest, no dream made real without someone taking bold, decisive action. 

But what happens when carpe diem strikes back?

Carpe diem! I’m holding 3 kings and I’m going all in, baby!

Carpe diem strikes back:  Who knew the schmuck across the table was holding a full house?

Carpe diem! I love you!

Carpe diem strikes back: I love you too, comes the response, just not “that way”. 

So seize the day, by all means.  But there may be a price. 

But what if I said that sometimes, the price isn’t really a price at all.

To explain what I mean, allow me to share with you a story.  It’s a story that I read in the autobiography of Groucho Marx.

Now Groucho Marx may be a bit beyond the demographic of some of you.  Suffice to say that in his day, Groucho Marx was a star performer of comedy in film, stage, radio and television. He was, if you will, the Robin Williams of his time, playing fast talking characters that upends expectations and upsets traditions.

Before he was a star, Groucho Marx was just a kid in his teens, looking for a job, for much needed money in his pocket.  He got a job in New York City, working in an office.  He was the only employee.

His boss would tell him at the start of the day, “I’m a busy man, lots of important things to do.  I can’t hang around here all day.  So I need you to say here.  If the phone rings, take a message.  If someone comes to the door, take a message.”  And the boss would leave and never return for the rest of the day.

Meanwhile, young Groucho sat there, hour after hour, day after day and the phone NEVER rang and no one ever came to the door.  So his attentions turned to the window.

Outside the window were the teeming streets of New York City, bustling with men and women, working hard, striving for survival, then success and prosperity.  But more than all that, to be…a star.  No, not just a star of the stage (although that was where Groucho’s ambitions lie) but to be known by everyone as being the best at what you do.  A corner butcher known by the whole city as having the best cuts of beef that anyone. An accountant known all over that his numbers are never wrong and there’s always a refund at tax time. 

Groucho had a dream, a fantasy.  You would go out into the busy streets of New York,  It would be windy, blustery day.  And Groucho would spot, born aloft on the wind, a hat.  A man’s hat.  And he would snatch that hat out of the air and return it to its grateful owner. 

And the man would exclaim, “Young man! You got style, gumption, moxie! I could use a man like you in my organization! Come with me, kid; I’m going to make you a star!”

But that was never going to happen, stuck in an office with a phone that never rang and a door that never opened and a boss who was missing…all…day.  Our young Groucho realized he did not need to be there for the phone not to ring and the door not to open.  So outside he went. 

And outside….streets crowded and energy everywhere as millions went about getting things done. 

Groucho noticed that the day was windy, blustery.  His eyes looked up and…. 

He could not believe what he saw, born aloft on the breeze.

A hat.  A man’s hat! 

This was the opportunity of his dreams.  Carpe diem! Groucho stretches his long legs, he stretches his arm, he stretches his fingers and with just barest grasp of his fingertips upon the brim of the hat and he snatched it out of the air.

 And he handed it to….his boss!

 Carpe diem strikes back: Groucho was summarily fired. His source of income…gone. 

But consider this.  In his book, Groucho noted this as a turning point.  No man with a flying hat was going to make his dreams come true and those dreams would never be made really if he had stayed in the safe but boring office. 

And it was on the foundation of this moment that Groucho Marx became a star. 

So by all means, carpe diem.  And yes, carpe diem may strike back.  But that price may be just another opportunity. 
Rise up and seize it. 

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