Seize the Day: The Modern Meaning of ‘Carpe Diem’ and the Art of Writing

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Editor's Note:

Roman Krznaric has been named by the Observer as one of Britain’s leading popular philosophers. His writings have been widely influential amongst political and ecological campaigners, education reformers, social entrepreneurs, and designers. Here, Roman discusses how ‘carpe diem’ plays a role in modern life, and how he uses the “seize the day” philosophy to further his writing career.

Occasionally – just occasionally – a writer can pinpoint the exact moment when the idea for a book was born. For my latest book, Carpe Diem: Seizing the Day in a Distracted World, that moment was an epiphany on the stairs.

I was going up to my attic study in Oxford (England not Mississippi) clutching a biography of the British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who in the 1930s had walked from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul. I was excited to dive into his spirited, daring, free-wheeling life.

But half-way up the stairs, I was stopped still by a cascade of questions that unexpectedly filled my mind. Why was I so keen to read about his passionate, carpe diem life, rather than live such a life for myself? Was my own life as a writer and philosopher too full of such vicarious, second-hand experiences? If carpe diem – seizing the day – is so good for us, why don’t we get on and do it more? In fact, what does it really mean?

Those questions sent me off on a three-year quest to uncover the lost history of carpe diem, a phrase first uttered by the Roman poet Horace over 2000 years ago.

Along the way, I encountered the greatest enemy of the modern writer’s life: digital distraction. Sitting down at my desk each morning, I found myself regularly wasting up to an hour checking my emails and social media feeds before actually getting down to real work. At one point I calculated that I had spent around 21,500 minutes not writing my book.

Checking my tweets and notifications was, of course, a procrastination strategy to help me avoid doing the really difficult stuff: thinking and writing.

Luckily a solution was at hand in the subject matter of the book itself. It’s all very well to talk about seizing the day, but how do we actually overcome procrastination and other barriers to put Horace’s ideal into practice? I discovered an antidote, neatly packaged in four words: Act Now, Think Later.

The old Enlightenment tradition of thought encourages us to make life decisions using the opposite method: to think and plan and reason and contemplate before taking the plunge into action. But a contrasting experiential tradition of the art of living suggests that we learn best through forging our identities in the white heat of experience. As Leonardo da Vinci put it, ‘experience is my mistress’. We discover who we are, and how to live, by acting first and thinking afterwards – by experimenting and taking risks. Sometimes thinking more about something doesn’t help. You’ve got to ‘Just Do It’.

I decided to put this ideal into practice when I realised just how much digital procrastination was stifling my creativity and robbing me of the precious hours I had before I needed to pick up my kids from school at 3pm. I knew what I had to do: Write Now, Think Later. So at 9am each day I turned to that great writer’s friend, the app Freedom, which switches of all access to the internet, and set it for four hours of offline liberation. It helped: I seized the keyboard and managed to finish writing my book.

Of course, the irony hasn’t escaped me that I decided to explore the idea of carpe diem – a subject that more than most should inspire us to action – by sitting in my study and writing about it.

Nevertheless, the journey I embarked on certainly changed me. No, I didn’t do a parachute jump or move with my family to Timbuktu. But I did find myself doing things I’ve never done before, from attending an acting workshop to kayaking with sharks in Scotland. I’ve taken my kids on crazy camping adventures and frolicked with them in the rain. And after years of procrastinating, I finally found the courage to establish the world’s first Empathy Museum.

I probably do still spend too much time reading biographies of people like Patrick Leigh Fermor. But with Horace’s wise maxim in my mind, I see new possibilities opening before me.