Cut through the candy floss to carpe diem

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The Independent Online
I AM not one for Latin. But despite my appalling performance in the third form, the words carpe diem - or seize the day - create in me a profound resonance.

As a trainer working with managers, business advisors, pilots and bankers, I notice that very often people are simply living out scripts given them by their parents, or completing a trajectory started when they joined the firm at the age of 18 (suddenly they're 38, with two kids, a Rover and the rest of their lives mapped out, or so it seems).

What is the significance of carpe diem? The focus of the American pop- psychology movement is on the development of the self, but although I have several problems when I read or listen to the materials of some motivation and success speakers, if you can only cut through the candy floss there are some lessons to be learned.

Three key lines taken from the works of Stephen Covey are: take responsibility and control (be pro-active); start with the end in mind (if you know your endpoint, you can work towards achieving it); and prioritise (do the really important things first). These are a really powerful message for businesses. Carpe diem is about doing and achieving things; don't let the people who say that things cannot be done stop those who are doing them. Too often we reach a state of paralysis. Sometimes we need to `go for it'.

The opposite of carpe diem is `I can't'. This is unadulterated victim language; it's easier to cop out of doing a thing than trying and maybe failing. And as long as we learn from it, failure goes hand in hand with success.

The old world of management was characterised by hierarchy, and task- specific expertise. A rear-view mirror approach applied to management: watch your backside, and try not to make any mistakes. But nothing is guaranteed any more. The new working world is unpredictable and ambiguous.

The winners are opportunistic and willing to take risks. Tom Watson, founder of IBM, was asked by a young employee `How can I improve my success rate?' He replied `Double your failure rate'. Thomas Edison made 11,000 failed experiments to design the filament light bulb, while Colonel Sanders (of Kentucky Fried Chicken) visited more than 1,000 restaurants before finding a royalty for his recipe. And Sylvester Stallone got his first role after 292 film tests. Success is 15 per cent about skills and knowledge, and the rest about attitude: carpe diem.

Robert Craven is a director of the Directors' Centre and a visiting fellow at Warwick Business School.