“There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”
— Brutus (“Julius Caesar,” by William Shakespeare, Act 4, scene 3, lines 218-224)

This famous quotation often is cited to encourage the use of initiative, or as inspiration for seizing the moment. I’m amused because most people are not aware of the literary or historical context of the words.

In writing the play, Shakespeare used Plutarch’s “Lives of Caesar.” Brutus and Cassius are waging civil war with Octavian and Marcus Antonius following the assassination of Julius Caesar.

Cassius counsels caution, that their legions are in an excellent defensive position and there they should remain. Brutus argues for action, saying “the enemy increaseth every day” and “we, at the height, are ready to decline” (lines 216–217).

Brutus prevails. They boldly set out and are routed, soundly defeated.

So, a phrase we often use to urge initiative actually was written about an occurrence that ended in defeat. Of course, there is no guarantee that if Cassius’s advice had been taken the outcome would have been different.

My point is to take nothing for granted. Do your own homework, and always try to limit your downside. Flowery words are nice. But I’ll put my faith in diligent preparation and competent execution.

This is a classic from the NSC Blog archive, originally posted August 26, 2008.