CC4 – Life Lessons Learned From the Film Inception

The following was delivered at a private gathering on Sat June 1, 2013.

The theme was a white party, hence my dressing like a douche.

CC4 – How to Say It – Life Lessons Learned From the Film Inception

You’re waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away.

You don’t know where this train will take you.  You know where you hope it will go, but you don’t know for sure.

Yet it doesn’t matter.  Now tell me why?

These haunting words come from Christopher Nolan’s 2010 masterpiece, Inception.

Now some Nolan fans might question whether Inception of all his works deserves to be called his masterpiece: it’s not as meticulous as Memento, as passionate as The Prestige, or as badass as Batman.

[audience feedback: don’t hedge here, equivocating on Inception’s status undercuts entire speech before it even gets started]

What makes Inception peerless is that it’s a movie of ideas.  Ideas about ideas, and how they are transmitted, structured, and judged for success.

by the way: anyone who hasn’t seen Inception before, there’s gonna be spoilers here.  Suck it up, you uncultured bitches

The first idea is introduced at the start of the film, when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Cobb asks:

what is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An idea.

And Cobb knows that, like a parasite, ideas are best spread not indiscriminately en masse, but deliberately in small groups.  In fact, he spends the rest of the movie planting a single idea into one man’s head.

And you know this.

If you have a cold, you’re less likely to pass it onto the dozens of people you brush past on the way to work than to the one client you shake hands with for a business lunch.

Similarly, you’ll remember the ideas from that one-on-one business meeting infinitely better than some impersonal broadcast blasted out over the PA system.

Thus we have our first idea about ideas: that intimacy enables transmission.

The same applies to Toastmasters.

Have you ever noticed that attendance at a single club rarely exceeds 30 members?  Beyond that threshold, you lose the intimacy conducive to transmission of ideas.

By the way, I’d like to note that this is the only Roastmasters speech you’ll ever hear that uses the words “intimacy” and “transmission” without involving sex, drugs, or masturbation

Getting back to Inception, Cobb later explains that transmission alone isn’t enough: there is also retention which in turn depends on the idea’s structure.

Specifically, a negative idea – dismantling your business, rejecting your father’s legacy – must be coupled with a positive one – striking out on your own path.  This tension between negative and positive results in catharsis – literally purging, from Greek – like an emotional enema.

you can all thank Bob later for scheduling dinner before the speeches

In business, you see this in every TV ad:

  • cute kid walks in trailing mud
  • mother looks on with concern at the mess
  • never fear: magic spray to the rescue!
  • domestic bliss restored – ahhhhh

That ahhhhh is the sound of catharsis.

In 30 seconds you’ve gone through the entire dramatic arc of exposition (hand starts low), tension (rising), climax (peak), denouement (drop).

Even in Toastmasters, how do you structure an evaluation?

First praise (hand starts high), then critique (dips), then praise (up high again).

Just as intimacy enables transmission, catharsis enables retention.

Still, no idea is guaranteed success.  And that brings us to the last and most powerful idea in Inception.


You’re waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away.

You don’t know where this train will take you.  You know where you hope it will go, but you don’t know for sure.

Yet it doesn’t matter.  Now tell me why?

The first time around, Cobb’s wife answers:

because we’ll be together

Later, Cobb confides that all that matters to him is getting back to his children.  And ultimately, what happens?  He spins his totem on the table then runs off to meet them as the screen fades to black, leaving us unsure whether he actually escaped to reality.

Yet it doesn’t matter.  Now tell me why?

Because Cobb has met his internal criteria for success – being with his children – and our external criteria – that he be on the correct level of reality – is irrelevant.

Because in life, you cannot live by other people’s standards.  Attempting to do so is a fast track to depression.

Look around you at South Korea.  Externally, it’s the so-called economic miracle on the Han, but internally it is beset with the highest levels of unhappiness and teenage suicide in the world.

But when you judge success by own internal criteria, you are instantly set free.  And that is the most powerful idea of all, not just for Inception but for life.

Now I hope this speech has inspired you to watch Inception with a greater appreciation.  And I hope this speech has given you some new ideas about ideas and about living.

I hope, but I can’t be sure.

Yet … it doesn’t matter.

Now tell me … why?

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One Response to CC4 – Life Lessons Learned From the Film Inception

  1. susan chung says:

    I am glad that I watched the movie ,Inception ,with you. Otherwise, I would have a hard time to understand it.

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