With the passing of Gene Wilder, it is beholden upon me to mention this iconic line from 1971's "Willy Wonka". In the scene, Willy Wonka is leading the tour through his chocolate factory, when he introduces the (remaining) families to the concept of lick-able wallpaper. He is proudly proclaiming how the “strawberries taste like strawberries” and the “snozzberries taste like snozzberries” when a pugnacious Veruca Salt exclaims “Snozzberry? Who ever heard of a snozzberry?”
A non-plussed Wonka grabs her indignant face, squeezes her cheeks, and locking his eyes with hers, delivers the line: “we are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
In this iconic movie moment, we are reminded that we have a responsibility to make music and dream bigger than our grasp. That it is our responsibility to make the world as beautiful as we want it to be. That we must make it that way, through song or sound; word or deed. We are reminded that we also have to be the “dreamers of dreams”. That our dreams should always exceed our grasp. That if we aim for the moon, we may fail, but we will land among the stars. And that’s not a bad place to be.
But what else is evident in this moment is Willy Wonka embodies what Veruca Salt will never know--and any great leader should: we must dream beyond our grasp. We must shed what we know to be true in order to make possible that which we wish to be true.
For example, Tesla recently constructed an electric car that goes as fast as a Ferrari, making it the fastest production car in the world. Fifteen years ago, the electric car was nearly dead ("Death of the Electric Car") as battery life, design/aesthetics, automotive conspiracies and practical infrastructure issues made it seem like an impossible reality. But now Tesla has produced an all-electric dream machine with both range and speed at the touch of a button. They made the impossible a reality.
What about something as silly and ridiculous as inventing fruits that don't exist, just like the snozzberry? Well, there was no such thing as blue raspberry, but that didn’t stop them from inventing it. In fact, the blue raspberry came to be out of marketing necessity. In the 1960s, the “Otter pops” were gaining in popularity, but many of the familiar flavors were variations of red: strawberry, raspberry, cherry, watermelon, etc., making them virtually indistinguishable, and the most popular red food dye was suspected of being a carcinogen—yet a known-to-be-safe blue food coloring sat completely unused. Then in came an inventive marketing rep, and “raspberry” went from red to blue, as did the tongues of millions of children every year. What we wished to be true happened because we stopped “knowing” that raspberries are red.
But as we look back on this iconic movie line and its underlying power, we must abandon yet again what we know to be true: that Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka was the first man to speak these words. These words are from a man named Arthur William Edgar O'Shaughnessy in his poem “Ode” from 1874’s Music and Moonlight. O’Shaughnessy was a herpetologist who died prematurely from “a chill” at 36 years old. There is nothing that would allow you to look at him and see a dreamer of dreams, but his power with words was described as second to only Tennyson’s at the time. And while the first two lines of this Ode have been set to song and quoted widely throughout the last century, the last two lines remain virtually unknown: “For each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth.”
These parting words of “Ode” ensnare the elusive thought that no matter what day it is, we are constantly at the end of one age, or at the beginning of another. We are at the tragic end of that which we know to be true, or we are the beginning of a future filled with possibility and hope. That the way we look at the world shapes the way we think about it. That the dreamers of dreams will set our future alight with possibility and the music makers will take up instruments to play the song.
And so, to the music makers and the dreamers of dreams, I ask this question—the only real question: what color would a snozzberry be?