Carpe Diem? Not Really.

Robin Williams, in the character of English teacher John Keating, popularized the phrase, “carpe diem,” in the 1989 movie, The Dead Poets Society, when he said, “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Popular culture took it from there.

The dead poet whom Keating likely had in mind was the Roman poet, Horace, who admonishes, “seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future” (Odes 1:11).

Don’t you love context?

I’m not sure how much trust we should place in the future–a lot, a little, or none at all.  Of this, however, I am more certain: the present moment will not last.  It’s gone already.  We cannot “seize” it if by that we mean anything like “to take hold of” or “to take possession of.”

The day–or moment–we attempt to seize as though it were ours for the taking is impermanent and without substance, in a state of continuous collapse yielding to the next nano-moment.

This astonishing benefit attends such wave-like flux: the potential to take a new action in the next moment, free from any limitations, real or imagined, to which we, through habit of thought and action, tend to invest undue weight.

Or, change is possible.

No, change is all there is.  Ever.  In markets.  In customers.  In products and services.  In science and technology.  In knowledge.  In ourselves.

This can be a liberating awareness.

Applied to the development of knowledge, skills, and abilities in the workplace, such thinking can help to diminish the perceived permanence of the past while simultaneously enabling new action in the next moment.

Thus, when coaching others we can realistically ask for a demonstration of new knowledge, skills, and attitudes in the near term: the next report, the next customer interaction, the next phone call, the next presentation, the next hammer strike, etc.

Most workplace tasks require an amalgamation and satisfactory execution of many individual skills, each of which is learned and practiced.   We can improve our coaching effectiveness by precisely pin-pointing and sequencing job skills.  Such chunking (small bits) and sequencing (first things first) facilitates learning, skill acquisition, rapid demonstration and refinement, and shaping.

As a coach, we instruct, show, ask for a demonstration, and then observe.  Based on our observation, we can immediately recognize and praise the new or improved performance and, if necessary, provide additional feedback and practice opportunities.  This can create deeply engaging and effective interactions, and it’s the only way we can hope to know that the information we communicated was received, properly understood, and sufficient to enable the desired performance.

While the moment of performance is fast and fleeting, the force of habit is old and often powerful, obtaining its greatest power from our own ignorance of the next new moment, the one that not only welcomes change, but is change itself.  We may need many “next new moments” to practice new skills and progress from skill acquisition to mastery.

Seize the day?  Not really.  More like “be present in the moment, aware.”

As author and motivational speaker Harvey Mackay recently wrote, “Although no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new end.”

Learn. Do. Teach. Lead.

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2 Responses to Carpe Diem? Not Really.

  1. Andrew Lyons says:

    “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” ~Winston Churchill.

    This quote reflects your thoughts very well I think.

    To improve is to change. To change is to be in the present moment. To progress towards mastery of a skill, perfection, we must change often. In other words, be in the present moment as often as possible.

    However, simply being present isn’t enough is it? The very next moment could be one of infinite number. The one it is will be determined by our choices and actions in this moment, right now. Therefore, breaking old habits and the progression from skill acquisition to mastery requires not only many “next new moments”, but the selection of the “correct” new moments based on the desired outcomes.

    Insert Latin [here] for “seize the right day.”

  2. Erik says:

    Andrew: Yes, you are quite right. To be present and aware are starting points. In my experience, both are enriched by practice. Practicing “presence” and “awareness” is exactly that, practice. Necessary? Sufficient? Perhaps. You suggest the selection of “correct” next moments. Knowing which of all possibilities is “correct” (or best or desired or needed or most useful) is the challenge, isn’t it? Some suggest paradoxically that “to not know” represents a letting loose of our often common desire to direct or control the future from a perceived sense of knowing. Not knowing, however, is not the same as “doing nothing” or “doing anything.” Not knowing may be just the opposite: we are fluidly and fully available to take an action most fitting the situation. Thanks for your thoughts!

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