‘People spend their whole lives building castles in the air, but then nothing ever comes of it. I wonder why that is… It takes courage. You know, everybody’s afraid to live.’
Tony, You Can’t Take It With You
You Can’t Take It With You is in many ways a typical Frank Capra movie. It combines social satire with madcap comedy. It’s charming, silly, sentimental and thought provoking. A young Jimmy Stewart plays Tony who works as a Vice President at his father’s bank. Tony falls in love with his stenographer, Alice (played by Jean Arthur), and, in a touching scene on a park bench, Tony recalls for Alice the dreams of his youth.
‘I remember in college another guy and I had an idea – we wanted to find out what made the grass grow green... Because there’s a tiny little engine in the green of the grass and on the green of the trees that has the mysterious gift of being able to take energy from the rays of the sun and store it up... Well, we thought if we could find the secret of all those millions of little engines in this green stuff, we could make big ones and then we could take all the power we could ever need right from the sun’s rays, you see?...We worked on it, worked on it day and night. We got so excited we forgot to sleep.’
I was quite taken aback to hear a character in a popular black and white comedy from 1938 speculate on the possibilities for solar power. But also saddened. Because the scene succinctly captures the melancholy of missed opportunity and wasted talent; the haunting reproach of deferred dreams. Tony explains to Alice what happened to their plans to develop a technique for producing renewable energy.
‘We left school. Now he’s selling automobiles and I’m in some strange thing called banking… He’s married, his wife just had a baby. Didn’t think it was fair to gamble with the future.’
I’m sure we all recognise Tony’s meditation on paradise postponed. Sometimes hopes, dreams and aspirations are interrupted by events. ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’ But Alice goes further. She cites her grandfather’s theory that most of us live in a state of timidity.
‘He says most people nowadays are run by fear: fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, fear of their health. They’re scared to save money and they’re scared to spend it.’
I suspect fear does set a limit on our aspirations. Fear and responsibility. Most of us are paranoid about how we’re perceived, why we’re not doing better, what we could stand to lose.
I once chatted to a London cabbie about his exposure to violence out on the streets late at night. He said the most dangerous people were the ones who had nothing to lose. I’m sure he was right. But people with nothing to lose don’t just represent danger. Their lack of fear and responsibility, their willingness to take risks, also equip them for opportunity.
Of course, this takes us back to young people. They generally have less to lose and more to gain; they have more years ahead of them than behind them; they have more invested in the future than the past. They are less afraid.
I wonder do we, in business and society, make sufficient use of youthful optimism, open mindedness and imagination? Could we do more to record the ideas that have not quite found their time; to rescue the concepts that are not properly thought through; to realise the schemes that are not fully funded? Could we set our young people the toughest tasks, not as training exercises, but as a means of opening up new hopes and horizons? Should our think tanks and innovation centres be staffed disproportionately by youth, in order to be proper laboratories of the future? If we fail to realise this potential, are we not gambling with all our tomorrows?
This is not to say that every youthful speculation is useful. I can’t claim to have spent my adolescence meditating on something as significant as solar energy. My entrepreneurial schemes were a little more modest. I had an idea for a restaurant that faithfully recreated on land the aeroplane dining experience. (Meal on a tray, back of seat movies, a kip after dinner…) I had a plan for a brand that was entirely focused on ‘sleep, the final frontier.’ (‘Everything you need for a good night’s sleep from A to ZZZZ.’) I had a book idea that combined Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness with Wittgenstein’s writing style. I had a concept for edible combs…
I guess that, whatever the worth of our ideas, we would all do well to ensure youthful dreams don’t become middle-aged regrets. Unfulfilled, unachieved, unrealised. Because in one respect dreams are just like material assets: you can’t take them with you.
‘I’m dreaming dreams,
I’m scheming schemes
I’m building castles high.
They’re born anew,
Their days are few,
Just like a sweet butterfly.
I’m forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air.
They fly so high,
Nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams they fade and die.
Fortune’s always hiding.
I’ve looked everywhere.
I’m forever blowing bubbles
Pretty bubbles in the air.’
‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’,
John Kellette/Jaan Kenbrovin