Personal Development: Carpe Diem


Karen Northshield has a deeper look at a much-used phrase: Carpe Diem – seize the day.

The saying “carpe diem” is omnipresent these days. It is the name given to candy bars, night clubs and it pops up just about everywhere in advertisements, almost as a sale-phrase. But it’s about time we reevaluate its meaning. Originally “carpe diem” is a quote from the book of Odes, by the Roman poet Horace and originates from Latin: “Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.” Translated into English it reads: “Seize the day, trusting as little as possible to the future.” But what exactly does this mean?

Just as a coin has two sides, an equation or in this case an expression also comes with two parts. You cannot apply one and dismiss the other. Both are equally present at the same time. The former part of the Latin phrase speaks of today and the latter of the future. The former “seize the day” is perhaps more readily accessible and easier to apply than the latter.

In today’s world, we generally associate the expression “carpe diem” with enjoying pleasures of the moment without concern for the future. In certain contexts the interpretation is taken to a higher level, in enjoying life to the fullest, as if there were no tomorrow. However, in order to get the most out of the expression, we need a complete understanding of both parts of the equation and of their application in life. If we only focus on one part, we run the risk of misapplying it in life.

So going back to the second part of the equation “trusting as little as possible to the future”, what does this mean? One plausible interpretation is to do everything you can do today to make tomorrow better. It’s not about ignoring the future, but realizing that unless you give your input, everything is not just going to work itself out later on. Here’s how.

Although at times we may be preoccupied with the present, it is impossible and unrealistic not to think about tomorrow. Our daily actions inevitably have consequences for the future. True, when we are able to enjoy the moment, we want it to last (forever), which is a very legitimate thought. And this is where we have the first part of the principle “carpe diem” resonating the most. But as we all know, moments are fleeting and life is not made up of only fun and games. So how do we continue to enjoy the moment as it turns into the next and especially when the next moment may not be as enjoyable?

Where this expression runs the risk of being misapplied is when we forget the second part of it (“trust as little as possible to the future”) by for example taking the first part
(carpe diem) to the extreme. One example would be partying so much to the point
that it becomes toxic or a risk for your health. If you go from one extreme, you could end
up in another.


Imagine you attended a party where you consume a few glasses. You want to enjoy the moment and not be preoccupied with the afterwards. One consumption leads to another as you are enjoying the atmosphere. Imagine now you get behind the wheel of a car and end up having an accident. The accident leads you to the hospital, severely injured. Are you enjoying life to the max now? Odds say at this point you are not enjoying the moment nor will you be for some time. So if you actually go out and live like there is no tomorrow, this self- fulfilled prophecy might actually come true.

It is also unrealistic to party all the time. In life we must also work. In life we are also confronted with sicknesses, losses, stress, anxiety – the list goes on. So how does this old adage apply in all circumstances of our lives? How do we enjoy the moments that are at odds against us? Or are we only meant to enjoy the good moments and deal with the bad?

For me the full expression of carpe diem answers the question: what is your motivation to wake up in the morning”? Or flipping the coin over, when things are not going your way, what is that one thing that you are willing to fight for? Plainly said, why live for tomorrow? This could be your reason for being, your purpose in life or any ambition of yours.

When you are able to define your purpose and your motivation in life, you answer the question “why live for tomorrow?” and you shed light onto the second part of the equation.The moment you are confronted with pain, discomfort, conflicts, problems, etc. you give purpose to your fight and keep your goal in sight. You may not appreciate or enjoy the moments of suffering but having a goal will keep you focused. It does not necessarily make the road easy but it will allow you to put the poorer moments of life into perspective. With your goal in mind, you are better equipped to deal with life as it presents itself to you, accordingly at that very moment.

Putting the second part of this Latin aphorism into perspective, we are reminded not to forget the future (tomorrow). Here’s where both parts of the equation meet: tomorrow should actually be our concern, but not to the point that we are burdened by our anxieties for the future, to not be able to enjoy the present. The aphorism reminds us to live for today while keeping an eye on tomorrow. For me this interpretation of the timeless expression renders justice to the full meaning of the expression.

Mohammed Ali once said: “Don’t count the days. Make the days count”. In other words, don’t wait for the perfect moment, because it may never arrive. Make the moment, each moment, perfect as best you can. In other words, it should be our daily concern to make today better than yesterday and tomorrow even better than today.