the cleopatra effect

[Originally posted October, 2006.]

One of the main reasons I never really pursued corporate blog consulting as a career, even though I’ve had some definite opportunities in this department, is because of what I call “The Cleopatra Effect”.

I remember when I was a kid watching this old black & white movie about Cleopatra.

I can’t remember the name of the movie, but one scene always stuck with me:

Cleopatra is walking through the palace, when she’s suddenly stopped by the sound of pretty music, being played off in the distance.

She follows the sound of the music through the palace, till eventually she finds one of her courtiers in the garden, playing the harp.

“What pretty music,” she says to the courtier. “You play beautifully.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” says the courtier, obviously flattered.

“I would love to play music like that,” says Cleopatra. “Do you think you could teach me?”

The courtier, now that he’s feeling flattered, tries to win even more of her favor.

“Well, yes,” he gushes. “I’m sure a Queen as talented as you in so many things, would be talented at this as well.”

“Oh, good,” says Cleopatra, obviously delighted. “Here’s the deal. You teach me to play the harp. If I cannot play as well as you within one month, I will have you flogged. If I cannot play as well as you within three months, I will have you executed.”

The courtier’s face turns white. Cleopatra gives the courtier an evil smirk and then turns and walks off.

Make of this what you will.


  1. Thought provoking.

  2. One of the things I admire about Hugh is that he’s singleminded in what he wants to do. It’s really difficult to say not to other opportunities when you’re a starting entrepreneur.

    Thanks Hugh!

  3. I think I know exactly what you mean (if you do). That’s why I like you!

    (from a corporate bobo who´s well aware that he doesn´t want to end up like a hamster but can´t find the moment to call it quits).

  5. It’s so easy to become “owned”, enslaved by the pay, benefits, percs, even “title” – thus enslaved.

    One must alway be prepared to fire one’s client or employer – hard to do when food & rent payments also rule.

    Never sell your soul, and only rent your body month-to-month.

  6. You can see that one coming.

  7. The courtier didn’t answer Cleopatra’s question. She asked about whether he was able to teach her, not about how talented she was overall.

    Call me nitpicky, but as they say, the devil is in the details. I’m thinking of all those stories where some hapless mortal, in the midst of his greed or hubris, ends up making a deal with a genie, a devil, or some other not entirely benevolent entity.

    This also reminds me of some of those Greek philosophers who had something to say about people who imagine themselves to have knowledge or abilities they don’t really have.

    Speaking of Greeks, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) gave an interesting talk about the burden of talent and genius:
    She argues that attributing one’s talent to an outside entity may be a saner way to look at one’s own creativity.

    I think this is kinda deep and archetypal stuff that I’m not ready to delve into at this stage (maybe never). But I do believe that the whole question of “where does creativity really come from?” could provide some insight into why so many creative or talented people feel so unnatural about getting paid for abilities that, deep down, they can’t entirely claim as their own.

    So yeah, Hugh. Maybe you turned down all those corporate gigs because “the devil made you do it”. Or…maybe it was your angel/daemon/muse/conscience/instinct/better judgment.

Speak Your Mind


Comment through Twitter

Are you ready to work with us?

Get More Info


Hugh MacLeod is a genius.  Genius.

Seth Godin
Best Selling Author

His work acknowledges the absurdity of workaday life, while also encouraging employees to respond with passion, creativity, and non-conformity...   MacLeod’s work is undeniably an improvement over the office schlock of yore. At its best, it’s more honest, and more cognizant of the entrepreneurial psyche, while still retaining some idealism.

The New Republic
Lydia Depillis

Last year my State of the College address was 76 slides loaded with data. This year it was 14 cartoons that were substantially more memorable.

Len Schlesinger
Former President, Babson College

"There are only two daily newsletters that I look forward to opening and reading every time they show up to my inbox: Seth Godin's and gapingvoid."

Tony Hsieh
CEO, Zappos

In moments of indecision I glance at the wall [to Hugh's work] for guidance.

Brian Clark
  • Seth Godin
  • The New Republic
  • Len Schlesinger
  • Tony Hsieh
  • Brian Clark