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Virgins & Dead Poets > A Tribute To Robin Williams

20 YEARS GO, I walked into a Manhattan deli. Robin Williams and Billy Crystal strolled in behind me. I looked at Billy and said, “You look Maaaahveous!” Billy winked. I turned to Robin and said, “Carpe Diem.” Robin smiled and said, “Carpe diem kid … make your life extraordinary!”

I was crushed by Robin’s passing this year (1951-2014). He was more than a comedy genius. As co-founder of Comic Relief, he also helped raise over $50 million dollars for the homeless. He was an iconic mentor and king of “The Crazy Ones.” He also navigated the comedy-actor gauntlet with unique aplomb. He was Mork, Garp, Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire and psychologist Sean from Good Will Hunting. But if I had to choose one performance that struck us most, it was Professor Keating in Dead Poets Society (Best Original Screenplay in 1989). In that role, Robin pushed the Latin phrase “carpe diem” into our pop culture lexicon and inspired millions worldwide.

SPOILER ALERT: In 1990, I wrote the following review of Dead Poets Society. It reads as true today as it did then. Let’s all watch it again. Let’s SEIZE THE DAY!

To The Virgins

Dead Poets Society introduces a group of teenage boys at Welton Academy, a conservative prep school with a tradition of honor and discipline. On the first day of class student heroes meet their poetry teacher, Professor Keating (Robin Williams). In a powerful scene, Keating encourages the boys to “make their lives extraordinary.” He begins by asking a student to read a verse from a poem titled: To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old time is still a flying,
and this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.”

“The Latin term for that sentiment is carpe diem,” says Keating. It means, “Seize the day.” He then instructs the students to rip out the boring introductory pages of their textbook because the author suggests poems be rated on a mathematical scale. This offends Keating’s artistic soul. Keating then cajoles each student to stand on a classroom desk to illustrate that “the universe is wider than our view of it.”

Discovering an old yearbook, the boys soon learn that Keaton was once a member of a secret literary club called Dead Poets Society, whose members dared to live extraordinary lives. The boys decide to revive the club and embrace its carpe diem spirit.

Tragedy and Triumph

In a series of trips to a secret cave, the boys read from great poets and become inspired. Todd will find his sense of self worth. Knox will pursue the object of his affection. But when Charlie breaches school etiquette by submitting an anonymous article to the campus newspaper suggesting girls be admitted to Welton, he’s gone too far. The boys are soon threatened by the headmaster with expulsion but Charlie refuses to reveal the names of his fellow Dead Poet members.

When Keating hears that his students are in trouble, he tempers the carpe diem mantra with more fatherly advice:

“Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.”

The boys must now come to grips with their actions and parents. In the film’s climax, Neil Perry, a student with a passion for acting, ignores his father’s instructions and takes the lead in a Shakespeare play. On opening night, Neil’s father discovers appears unannounced and withdrawals Neil from Welton in front of his peers. Mr. Perry tells Neil the next ten years will be spent studying medicine. Feeling hopeless under his father’s rule, Neil commits suicide.

Mr. Perry demands the Academy launch an investigation into Neil’s death intimating that Keating is to blame for planting seeds of independence in Neil’s mind. One by one, Neil’s classmates are shuttled into the headmaster’s office and threatened with expulsion if they don’t implicate Keating. Keating is fired without a hearing.

In the movie’s final scene, the headmaster is teaching from a boring poetry text as Keating stands at the doorway prepared to leave Welton forever. In a single act of loyalty, Todd stands on his desk and says to Keating. “Oh, Captain, My Captain.” It’s a verse from a Walt Whitman poem that Keating taught the boys on day one if they ever chose to address him with a bit of daring. One by one, half the class has the courage to stand on their desks in solidarity.

The headmaster screams, “Sit down!” But the boys have chosen to seize the day.

RIP Robin Williams


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Harvard Joe & The Fisherman | Essential 1, Skill 1: Define Success

What’s Your Definition of the Good LifeWorld Peace ~ Love & Laughter ~ Art & Innovation ~ Giving & Gratitude ~ Friends & Family ~ Money & Fame ~ A Healthy Mind, Body & Soul?

Fifteen years before I wrote The 4 Essentials of Entrepreneurial Thinking, a friend sent me a fable about how we define success. I included the principle in my book as Skill #1. Hybrids of the famous story floated on the Internet for decades, written by countless poets with themes from pirate’s tale to Buddhist myth. Curious to its origin, I stumbled upon a German writer named Heinrich Böll, a Nobel Prize winner who wrote a parable in 1963 about a traveling businessman who attempts to lecture a humble fisherman about success. Instead, the biz guru learns a valuable life lesson from the fisherman.

A modern version of the fable written in 1996 is titled “The Mexican Fisherman” by Dr. Mark Albion, a former Harvard business professor. In 2009, Mark changed the title to “The Good Life.” When I told Mark about The 4 Essentialshe graciously approved my spin on the famous fisherman’s tale. I hope you enjoy it …

Harvard Joe and the Fisherman by Cliff Michaels

After graduating from Harvard Business School, an American stock broker named Joe decided to take a vacation. He chose a small island, famous for a quiet and friendly fishing village. If only to take his mind off work a few days, Joe vowed he would fish a little and avoid the money-talk so prevalent on Wall Street.

On his first vacation day, Joe strolled the beach. He spotted a small fishing boat coming into shore. Inside the boat were a lone fisherman and a fresh catch of large yellowfin tunas. Dozens of tourists were handing over cash as the fisherman docked his boat. Joe was so impressed, he complimented the fisherman and asked how long it took to catch so many beautiful fish. “Not long,” said the fisherman. “The supply is endless in this treasure cove.”

“Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” asked Joe. “You would certainly make more money in such rich waters.”

The fisherman smiled and said, “Oh, I catch more than enough to support my family and lifestyle.”
“But what do you do with the rest of your time?” asked Joe.

The fisherman replied, “I read, nap, and play with my daughters. Some days I teach kids how to fish. Other days I play soccer with school children. In the afternoons, I stroll into the village where I sip wine with my lovely wife and play guitar with my friends. Most nights we cook fish and share recipes with tourists.” 

“Wow, you have tons of free time!” said Joe. “Listen, I have an MBA. I can help you vastly expand your business. If you simply spend more time fishing, you would earn enough money to buy a bigger boat.”

“Really?” asked the fisherman.

“Absolutely,” said Joe. “And with a bigger boat, you could catch enough fish to buy several boats and then a whole fleet. At that point you would be successful enough to sell directly to a processor, cut out the middleman, and vastly increase profits. Then you could open your own cannery and control distribution.”

“Then what?” asked the fisherman.

“If all goes well, you’ll find yourself in a big city, running a rapidly expanding empire,” said Joe.

“How long would all this take?” asked the fisherman.

“Not long at all. Maybe 7 years,” replied Joe.“With me as your CEO, I’ll bet we can do it in 5 years if we hustle. I’m all about the hustle!”

“Then what?” asked the fisherman.

Joe grinned and said, “When the time is right, we could take the company public or sell to the highest bidder. At that point, you would be very rich — a millionaire many times over.” 

“Really? A millionaire? Then what?” asked the fisherman.

“What do you mean?” asked Joe.

“I mean, what would I do if I was a millionaire?” asked the fisherman.

“Whatever you like,” said Joe. “You could retire, move to a coastal village, fish a little, play with your kids … sip wine at night with your wife … play guitar with friends … and …”

Without another word, Joe and the fisherman shared a good laugh. The fisherman then invited Joe to return for dinner. By sunset, the fisherman had built a small fire to share his catch-of-the-day with tourists. Joe arrived just in time for the most scrumptious fish he ever tasted. As the sun faded, Joe and his new friends sang along to soothing sound of the fisherman’s guitar.“Ahhh,” Joe whispered. “The good life.”

Final Thoughts
From Harvard Joe to the island fisherman, success means different things to different people at different stages in life. Kids dream of becoming an artist, athlete, or rock῾n’ roller. Athletes hope to break records and win championships. Parents want the very best opportunities for their kids. Third-world villagers need food, shoes, clothing, shelter, education, medicine, and clean water. Volunteers and social entrepreneurs measure success by giving back. We all search for love, health, and happiness. Clearly, definitions vary. But successful people share a common thread. They define success with purpose behind passion and a journey without compromise. At some point, we all have to define it.

Are you there yet?

This blog is based on a chapter from The 4 Essentials of Entrepreneurial Thinking
Essential 1, Skill 1: Define Success > Read of Listen TODAY | audio, e-book or paperback!