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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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Remembering Steve Jobs – The Crazy One

He was a dreamer and a misfit who built one of the most endurable brands in history. He took us through revolutions in computers, music, and entertainment. He even master-minded one of the most popular advertising campaigns in history: Think Different: The Crazy Ones (featuring 17 iconic figures from Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Pablo Picasso, Bob Dylan and John Lennon to Richard Branson, Muhammad Ali, Ted Turner, Mahatma Gandhi, Amelia Earhart and Martin Luther King, Jr.).

And on October 5, 2011, we lost Steve Jobs. He left behind an entrepreneurial spirit we may not see for a long time. His biography (Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson) reveals the saga of a complex soul who vacillated between genius and madness. In Isaacson’s words, we discover a “deeply emotional, sometimes mean, anti-social human being … who lived in his own altered reality.” But we also discovered a creative mind with a passion for what’s possible and no space for mediocrity.

When he passed away, I thought about one of the essays I wrote in The 4 Essentials of Entrepreneurial Thinking. I had a little fun comparing Gates to Jobs and Mozart to Tiger Woods in order to dispel the myth of born genius, born entrepreneur, and take on a bit of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outlier Theory that suggests 10,000 hours or 10 years of practice are secrets to success (yes and no in my book).

Most of us know the stories of Apple founder Steve Jobs and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Volumes have been written about both juggernauts so I can offer little to their biographies. But there’s a unique lesson I picked up watching a 2010 Apple commercial comparing PC to Mac. In its cheeky ad campaign, Apple pokes fun at the ongoing glitches of Microsoft’s operating system. Apple had similar bugs throughout its storied past, but since Microsoft’s PC is known to crash more than Apple products, the audience gets the joke. The commercial is clever but I came away with a totally different take than the one intended. It starts with a hip-looking kid i jeans (Jobs), standing next to a geeky, older guy in a suit and glasses (Gates). The next 60 seconds goes something like this …

Kid Mac: “Hello, I’m a Mac.”

PC Gates: “And I’m a PC. Hey Mac, did you hear the good news? Windows 7 is out and it’s not gonna have any of the problems that my last operating system had. Trust me.”

Kid Mac: (suspiciously): “I feel like I’ve heard this before, PC.” For the remainder of the commercial, we see PC Gates in decade-old leisure suits, insisting each new version of Microsoft’s operating software won’t have the previous problems.

PC Gates: “Windows Vista won’t have any problems Windows XP had, or any problems Windows ’98 had, or any problems Windows ’95 had … or any problems Windows 2 had. This time it’s gonna be different. Trust me (winking).”

What I gleaned from this time-capsule wasn’t that Mac was better than PC, Apple better than Microsoft, or Jobs better than Gates. My epiphany was that neither guy ever stopped innovating. Microsoft was still working out the kinks on Windows 7.0 when I wrote this. By the time you read this, the latest versions of iPads and iPhones will be in stores for at least 12 months anyway (trust me, wink-wink).

So as we remember Steve Jobs, we have to ask, “Was he a genius or just crazy enough to be obsessed with a passion for excellence?” After all, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was the original tech guy but could never have created Apple Computers the multi-billion dollar empire without a crazy sidekick. Jobs was the visionary and marketing guy who told us everything was “insanely great!” For Jobs, crazy was as much about form and beauty as function. And for that reason, he was more of a poet and artist than Gates even though both were crazy enough to think they could change the world.

Fortunately, Jobs left behind some of that crazy poetry, mantras that almost every artist and entrepreneurs alike know…

“Think different … Don’t be trapped by dogma and other people’s thinking … Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition … They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

With all his foibles, we admire Jobs not because of his perfection, but his imperfections. He told us to never stop asking, “What if ?” To that end, we classify him as modern-day Mozart who played with passion and practiced with purpose.

For any of us to harness the essential legacy of Steve Jobs, we can’t wonder rest on our laurels. If the goal is “insanely great,” then the crazy question is “What’s next?”

Thank you, Steve. (R.I.P.)