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Dead Poets, A Verse, and The Legacy of Robin Williams

In 1990, I walked into a Manhattan deli. In strolled Robin Williams and Billy Crystal behind me. “Yoouu Guys Loook Maaaahrvelous!” I said to the legendary comedians (Billy’s catch-phrase from a famous Saturday Night Live skit in the ’80s). I then saluted Robin and quipped, “Oh Captain, My Captain, a memorable verse from his lead role as a poetry professor in Dead Poets Society (Oscar Winner: Best Original Screenplay • 1989). 

“Carpe diem kid,” Robin replied with a wink.

I first saw Robin on an episode of Happy Days (1978) as the hilarious alien Mork from Ork. Most of us however were introduced to his manic wit on the spinoff comedy series Mork & Mindy (1978-1982). For decades to follow, Robin took us flying as Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook (1991), made us roar with laughter as Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), and challenged our fears as Psychologist Sean in Good Will Hunting (1997). But if I had to choose the most memorable performance, it was his “masterclass for life” as poetry Professor John Keating in Dead Poets Society. In that singular role, he pushed the Latin phrase “carpe diem” (seize the day) into our hearts and pop-culture lexicon.

In movies or riffing jokes on stage, Robin could do it all. As co-founder of Comic Relief with Billy Crystal & Whoopi Goldberg, Williams helped raise millions of dollars and greater awareness for the homeless and veterans. Like countless fans, I was crushed to hear of Robin’s suicide in 2014. How do we “seize the day” in such a tragic moment?

SPOILER ALERT! Rummaging through essays I wrote 30 years ago, I found one of the few movie reviews I wrote at a time that I had recently dropped out of college and considered screenwriting or journalism as a career. The first movie review I ever wrote was on Dead Poets Society. I never submitted it thinking it was too sad and controversial, but the film is as relevant today as it was in 1989. To the students, teachers, families, friends, and entrepreneurs I coach these days, I hope you enjoy my review below. GET THE POPCORN and SEIZE THE DAY! 

 

Dead Poets Society – 5 Stars!
Film Review By Cliff Michaels 

Oscar-Nominated Best Director: Peter Weir  
Oscar-Nominated Best Actor: Robin Williams
Oscar-Winner Best Original Screenplay: Tim Schulman

 

FADE IN: Ticking clocks, church bell chimes, and falling autumn leaves — these are the symbols of time we see as students rush through school hallways. The stage is set for triumph & tragedy at Welton Academy.

Dead Poets Society introduces a group of teenage students at a conservative all-boys prep school with a tradition of honor and discipline. Our students meet their Professor of Poetry, John Keating (Robin Williams), who once attended Welton Academy too. With humor, mystery, and a sense of urgency, Keating walks the boys out of class and into into a hallway. He asks 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.” So begins a life lesson for the boys to “make their lives extraordinary — to contribute a verse.” Keating returns the students to the classroom and instructs them to rip out the misguided Introduction pages of their textbook titled “What is Poetry?” The author suggests a mathematical scale to rate poems which deeply offends Keating’s artistic soul. Instead, Keating suggests the boys think for themselves, encouraging each student to stand on top of his desk and “See how the universe is wider than our simple view of it.”

Tragedy, Triumph & Choices

The boys are so intrigued by Keating’s unorthodox style, they look up his old yearbook and discover that he was not merely captain of his soccer team, but a member of a secret-literary club called the Dead Poets Society, whose fellow students pledged to live extraordinary lives. The boys decide to revive the club and embrace its carpe-diem spirit.

In a series of trips to a secret cave not far from campus, the boys read from great poets and become inspired to change their lives. A shy student Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) struggles to find his sense of self worth, but a romantic Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) will soon “woo” the love of his life. Our main protagonist Neil Perry (Sean Robert Leonard) must decide if he will pursue his passion for acting or live the pre-ordained life of a doctor that his bullying father requires. Each of the boys will take a unique journey, grappling with tragedy, triumph, and choices.

SPOILER ALERT: Final Scenes

Dead Poets is a film so rich with life lessons that it must be seen to appreciate. Knox gets his girl with romantic prose (nothing ventured, nothing gained, while others are destined for mediocrity, fearing parents, teachers, and all forms of authority. Somehow, Director Peter Weir and a brilliant cast of future Hollywood stars deliver a masterpiece. To that end, I’ll cut to the chase, encourage everyone to experience the nuanced messages first hand.

The major plot pivots on the rebellious act of our most daring and charismatic student Charlie (Gale Hansen) who takes on Welton’s antiquated “Boys-Only” policy. Charlie submits an anonymous article to the campus newspaper in the name of Dead Poets Society, suggesting girls be admitted to Welton. For the establishment, Charlie has gone too far. Unable to identify the culprit who published the article, all the boys are threatened with expulsion by the Headmaster, but Charlie refuses to reveal who his fellow Dead-Poet classmates are, even if he’s thrown out of school.

When Professor Keating hears the news, he tempers the carpe-diem mantra with a bit of fatherly advice:

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

The boys must now come to grips with old-school rules, forms of protest, and some parents who’ve mapped out their lives. In the film’s climax, Neil Perry ignores his father’s explicit directive to give up acting. Neil secretly takes the lead role in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream. On opening night, Mr. Perry shows up, disgusted that his son Neil has defied him. Mr. Perry disgraces Neil in front of his peers, withdrawals him from Welton, and declares Neil’s next ten years be dedicated to medicine. His soul crushed, Neil commits suicide using his father’s handgun. 

HOW POETS TRIUMPH over TRAGEDY

In the final scenes, Mr. Perry demands that Welton Academy launch an investigation into Neil’s death, implying that Keating is to blame for poisoning the campus with “independent thinking.” One by one, Neil’s classmates are shuttled into the Headmaster’s office, sitting with their parents, threatened with expulsion if they don’t implicate Keating in Neil’s death. Neil’s roommate Todd (the most reluctant to rock the boat) tries to defend Keating but is silenced by his parents in front of the Headmaster. Keating is subsequently fired.

In the movie’s final scene, the stoic Headmaster is now teaching the poetry class (having replaced Keating where our story began). The Headmaster attempts to use the same boring text book that the boys disdain thanks to Keating. , Forever banned from Welton Academy, Keating approaches the classroom for the last time to pick up his personal items. In a moment of clear conviction for the first time in his life, Neil’s roommate Todd (the most timid of the boys) rises to the occasion. He proudly stands on his desk addressing Keating, “Oh, Captain, My Captain.” It’s the verse from a Walt Whitman poem that Keating encouraged the boys to use if they ever wished to be “a bit more daring.”

One by one, a dozen students stand on their desks in a moment of solidarity with Todd & Keating. The Headmaster screams & screams, “Sit down!” Sit down! The boys stand firm. They’ve chosen to SEIZE THE DAY. 

FADE OUT: RIP Robin Williams

 

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Show Grit, Never Quit • Abraham Lincoln’s Entrepreneurial Legacy

Filling Gaps in The American Education System

Growing up a home-alone kid, I learned a ton of history through the stories of epic poets, writers, and artists  — Twain Dickens, and Greek Philosophers being a few of my literary heroes. It soon occurred to me that adults didn’t have all the answers, least of all most history books or the American education system.

My first year in college (1987), I was doing a history report on America’s Founding Fathers and Legacies. I stumbled on an obscure history book titled Decision in Philadelphia. It’s a dramatic summary that chronicles the 1787 United States Constitutional Convention and contradicts nearly every history lesson I learned in high school. Largely based on notes from Benjamin Franklin, Decision in Philadelphia exposes the many shortcomings of America’s Founding Fathers, not least of which was the failure to abolish slavery or even provide women’s rights. That one book inspired me to always search for legacy clues if I wanted to fill gaps in my education. I ended up watching a ton of war movies too.

A few years years later, I saw Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-Winning film Lincoln. It was a stellar period piece on Lincoln’s crusade to end slavery (an Oscar-worthy performance by actor Daniel Day Lewis) but Lincoln’s origin story is completely missing since this particular war period is set only between 1860-1865. I soon concluded that my American education (even through film) still had glacial-sized gaps (no matter how well-intentioned our parents, preachers, professors, politicians, and favorite movie producers). Spielberg’s Schindler’s List certainly comes to mind as an epic truth about the Holocaust, but I digress. The lesson from my study of Lincoln was to always consider the earliest part of the origin story — that’s where gritty stuff often leaves clues.

Lincoln’s Entrepreneurial Origin & Legacy

By the time I was a sophomore at USC, I had read a dozen books on Abraham Lincoln. These days, my favorite historian is Presidential biographer Dolores Kearns Goodwin. My Cliff Notes from her book, and others, are below:

Most people know that Lincoln was born to humble beginnings but the many tragedies to follow are what make his story so remarkable. His parents were uneducated farmers. At 7, his family was forced from their home. His father was illiterate and his mother died when he was 9. His only sister died in childbirth a few years later. His grandfather was killed when Lincoln was 23. At 24, Lincoln went bankrupt, but he spent the next seventeen years paying off debts to friends and colleagues. The legend of Honest Abe begins.

As a young man, Lincoln failed in business and couldn’t get into law school, making him a fascinating footnote in history as one of ten Unites States Presidents who never graduated from college. Nonetheless, he studied law and became a lawyer. In his 20s, Lincoln was twice defeated for state legislature. At 26, he was engaged, but his fiancé died. Lincoln had a nervous breakdown. At 33, he was married to Mary Todd. They had four sons but three of them died at ages 4, 11, and 18 (this was not uncommon in the 19th century, especially for illnesses we could easily treat today). Nonetheless, trauma and tragedy were a steady drum beat in a life that was only just beginning. 

Lincoln’s professional career was equally troubled. At 29, he ran for Speaker of the State Legislature and was defeated. Once elected to state legislature, he was defeated several times running for Congress. At 45, he ran for Senate and lost. At 47, he ran for vice president and lost. At 49, he ran for Senate and lost again.

In spite of all the personal and professional setbacks, Lincoln pressed on. Then in 1860, age 50, he ran for President, won the election, and changed the course of history. Today, Lincoln is the most quoted and revered of U.S. Presidents, fondly remembered as a statesman and champion of civil-rights. If not for his assassination in 1865, there were countless achievements to come. Still, the arduous road to the White House provides Lincoln’s most enduring legacy…

Show Grit. Never Quit. 

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Tony Hsieh Interview by Cliff Michaels (Part 1 of 2)

A Happy Maverick on a Mission

In the Fall of 2011, The 4 Essentials of Entrepreneurial Thinking was 3 months away from launch when I received an endorsement from Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh (pronounced Shay). Tony’s book Delivering Happiness had recently hit #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list so I was sincerely humbled.

As a token of appreciation, I drove from Los Angeles to Vegas with a basket of Tony’s favorite snacks (beef jerky, gourmet pickles, Red Bull and Grey Goose Vodka). Upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised that my book was in the Zappos Library, snuggled between The 4 Hour Workweek and Tribal Leadership (#1 Bestsellers). A few months later, my book hit #1 on Amazon and #3 on the New York Times Bestseller list.

The day I arrived, ABC’s Barbara Walters and her 20/20 TV crew were interviewing Tony. So I asked if he had 10 minutes for an interview with me too. He graciously said yes and we filmed an impromptu Q&A. The video highlights are at the end of this blog. Below is the article I wrote shortly after. The lessons are as true today as they were 3 years ago.

About Tony Hsieh

The son of Taiwanese parents and a computer-science graduate from Harvard, Tony Hsieh is very clear on why he wrote a book titled Delivering Happiness. In a world where attracting talent and satisfied customers is everything, Hsieh not only created a unique corporate culture driven by core values, but a global movement that includes “fun and a little weirdness.” If you don’t know the Zappos mantras, a few million fans and thousands of loyal employees will tell you why you should.

In 1999, Hsieh (24), sold LinkExchange to Microsoft for $265 million dollars. It was an Internet advertising network that he co-founded out of college. Shortly after, he invested in a series of companies, including the fledgling e-commerce company Zappos.com. Hsieh started as an Advisor and eventually became CEO of Zappos, helping the company grow from almost no sales to a $1 billion dollar juggernaut. With Hsieh’s dedication to a happy corporate culture, Zappos also made Fortune Magazine’s list of “Best Companies to Work For”.

So Whats Tony’s Secret to Delivering Happiness?

On July 22, 2009, Amazon announced the acquisition of Zappos in a deal valued at $1.2 billion dollars. Then in 2010, Tony’s book, Delivering Happiness debuted #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list and stayed there 27 weeks.

Tony also hands over a Zappos culture handbook and provides free office tours (to competitors and street tourists alike). He understands that success begins with sharing. “You never know where talent or ideas come from. Why not invite everyone to the party,” says Tony.

Feel free to also lose the suit and tie at Zappos. Employees wear anything from jeans to Halloween costumes. The vibe is like a college campus party where employees are called friends and motivational mantras hang from rafters like championship banners.

As for Hsieh, there’s no private office. His cubicle is in the middle of the madness for optimal interaction with employees.

But it wasn’t always fun and games for Tony. Here’s what I learned from our Q & A …

ONE-ON-ONE with TONY HSIEH

Cliff: Thanks for your time today and congratulations on the successful sale of Zappos to Amazon. I really enjoyed reading your book Delivering Happiness. Could you take us through your story with LinkExchange as your first baby and Zappos as your big baby?

Tony: Sure. Back in 1996 after graduating college, my roommate and I started a company called LinkExchange. We specialized in online advertising and grew that company to about 100 employees. We ended up selling the company to Microsoft two and half years later for $265 million. But what a lot of people don’t know is the real reason we ended up selling — it just wasn’t fun anymore.

The company culture went completely down hill. When it was just five or ten of us, it was a typical dot-com. We worked around the clock and slept under our desks. We had no idea what day of the week it was, but it was fun. We started hiring friends which worked pretty well until we got to about 20 people and ran out of friends. Then we had to hire people based on resumes and interviews. We were fresh out of college and had never done it before. I did a decent job in terms of hiring people with the right skills and experience, but we didn’t know about company culture — so not everyone we hired was good for us.

By the time we got to 100 people, I dreaded getting out of bed and going to my own company. That’s really what led us to sell. We got lucky with timing because it was the first dot-com boom. So I started investing in companies. But after a year, I was tired of sitting on the sidelines. I missed being part of building something. Of all the investments, Zappos was the most fun and promising so I ended up joining the company and becoming its CEO.

Cliff: On that note, let’s talk about the famous Zappos 10 Core Values.

Tony: When we’re hiring, we don’t say, “This person has 9 out of 10, we’ll let them pass.” We really need all 10. The core values are:

1. Deliver WOW Through Service
2. Embrace and Drive Change
3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
5. Pursue Growth and Learning
6. Build Open and Honest Relationships with Communication
7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
8. Do More with Less
9. Be Passionate and Determined
10. Be Humble

Cliff: Were those principles the inspiration for your book Delivering Happiness?

Tony: Originally, it was about spreading the idea of “happiness” as a business model to other companies. That includes making customers, employees and business partners happy. Along the way, we decided to go on a book tour. It felt like planning 80 weddings over 4 months. We actually got the bus from the bass player of the Dave Matthews Band.

Cliff: What evolved from the tour?

Tony: Delivering Happiness was written as a business book but people took away something more. That surprised us. We had moms e-mailing us, saying they were now the CEOs of their families and thinking like value-driven corporations. We heard from charities that said they were going to focus more on their culture. We even heard the book was going to be required reading at certain colleges.

Cliff: That had to be rewarding. What happened next?

Tony: The tour led us to start a company called Delivering Happiness. This whole idea of inspiring and being inspired fostered a movement with happiness beyond the business level.

Cliff: So what’s the biggest challenge in getting that happiness message adopted within a large organization like Zappos, since everyone has a unique definition of success … or happiness?

Tony: If you want to go with one, simple principle, just be true to yourself. One of the things we really encourage at Zappos is to bring your true personality to the office.

Cliff: (smiling) One of my favorite quotes on that theme is by Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself, everyone else is taken.” Where’s your biggest passion these days?

Tony: I’m still CEO of Zappos ad we’re moving to downtown Las Vegas. We’ll integrate the Zappos campus and city together.

Cliff: So you’re spearheading a renaissance. Is there a city you might use as a model?

Tony: I think it’s got it’s own personality (neighborhoodie) and community feel. There’s an area (Fremont East) with eight or nine bars and cafes where owners hang out in each other’s bars. There are tech companies and start-ups there too. I’d like to see a growing art scene and more live music. Ultimately, everything you need to live, work, and play would be within walking distance. On my wall at home there are about 70 post-it notes. They’re passion projects for downtown. These ideas aren’t coming from me. They stem from anyone with a passion about their community.

Cliff: You’ve now evolved from a technology CEO and bestselling author to a community builder. It’s great to see an entrepreneur cross bridges. Did you ever imagine you’d change a city the way you changed a business model?

Tony: Not at all. We were originally thinking Apple, Nike, and Google all have great campuses, but they’re very insular. They don’t really integrate with the community or contribute to the environment. We want to take more of an NYU approach; almost a seamless transition between the city and campus.

Cliff: Great stuff. Who were your mentors?

Tony: There wasn’t a single mentor or book. There’s something to learn from almost anyone. Here at Zappos, we have a large library with something to learn from countless books.

Cliff: Yours library is like a museum. Thanks for including my book The 4 Essentials of Entrepreneurial Thinking. From all you’ve learned, what are your biggest fears?

Tony: Based on past experience, I want to make sure the Zappos culture not only scales, but gets stronger. That’s why this campus move to downtown is exciting. It will take our culture to a whole new level. Every bar or bookstore will become an extended conference room. Employees are already gravitating downtown. On any given night, every bar feels like Cheers.

Cliff: Walking through the Zappos halls, I hear cowbells, pride, and passion. Your co-workers speak of you as a friend. That culture is rare and stems from how much you give back. Can you speak about the charitable aspect of Zappos?

Tony: It’s funny because it all goes back to what people are passionate about. When we were smaller, we could only afford to give to one local or national charity. We basically sent a survey out and asked employees what they would suggest.

Cliff: So you engage employees to make decisions, even about charities?

Tony: Right. Now that we’ve grown, we can do more and still leave it up to the employees.

Cliff: Do you think boredom is what drives you to constantly improve?

Tony: I don’t think that’s unique to me. Everyone wants to grow and flourish. Everyone may not instinctively know how because they’ve been stuck in a boring job for ten years. But I think once you push people slightly outside their comfort zone, they realize there’s more potential in them than they may have realized.

Cliff: On that thought-provoking note, thanks for your time today Tony. It’s been an inspiring interview. Good luck with the new Zappos campus … and keep delivering happiness!

Part 2 of this interview provides Tony’s Top Tips on Social Media. Part 2 with Tony & Cliff.

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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?”

RIP Steve Jobs