5 Life Lessons From Robin Williams Characters

“Words and ideas can change the world.”

Reid Gan
Reid Gan
Mar 17 · 9 min read
Photo by Reno Laithienne on Unsplash

Robin Williams was one of those actors that never let me down. And it wasn’t his unbelievable acting skills that got me. Don’t get me wrong, I think he was a fantastic actor, and he is famously known for diving deep into a character’s inner motives. But he wasn’t like some of the method actors today, and he certainly had his share of mediocre films.

But his most well-known films, I believe, are beloved for a reason.

Robin Williams embedded a little piece of himself into his best performances. It was when he played roles that fell more in line with who he really was that he resonated most.

I never met him, but I didn’t have to. I could just see the little twinkle in his eye when he was delivering a monologue that he really bought into. He had a real knack for reaching out of the television, putting both hands on your chest, and making you believe in both him and yourself. You got to know Robin through his acting, and that was more than enough.

As such, it’s only right that we take a look at some of Robin Williams’ characters’ best pieces of advice, because I think they were coming from him, too.

1. Aladdin: The Genie

“To be my own master. Such a thing would be greater than all the magic and all the treasures in all the world!”

We’re, of course, going to take this metaphorically. And perhaps it was meant as such and went over my head as a kid. But when you’re a 10-year-old boy, you’re only watching Aladdin because you like tigers and coincidentally also find out that you like… well, Jasmin.

In the movie, the Genie is a magical creature that can be summoned by rubbing a special lamp, which is effectively his home. He is a slave to the lamp, bound to grant wishes to any who rubs its outer surface. The only way to be released from this spell is for someone to use one of their wishes to grant him freedom.

But as the Genie, Robin Williams is genius. This role let him be himself: brilliant, supportive, quirky, sarcastic, sometimes a jerk, and absolutely hilarious.

How To Apply This:

Here, Robin highlights the importance of being your own master, or responsible for your own actions, thoughts, ideas, and value. Though quite literally enslaved to servitude as the Genie, he illuminates the importance of not being a people-pleaser if it’s inhibiting your own productivity and growth.

Do your job, but in the end, you have to cherish your own personal freedom.

Remember that while serving others can be astoundingly fulfilling, the ultimate win is being in charge of yourself and responsible for your own happiness.

Putting others first can often leave you feeling empty inside, but once you truly know, love, and master yourself, you can begin to share yourself with others.

2. Jack: Jack Powell

“Because in the end, none of us have very long on this earth. Life is fleeting. And if you’re ever distressed, cast your eyes to the summer sky when the stars are strung across the velvety night. And when a shooting star streaks through the blackness, turning night into day… make a wish and think of me. Make your life spectacular. I know I did. I made it, Mom. I’m a grown-up.”

This quote was an obvious choice, as it comes at the movie’s pinnacle. Jack is a boy whose body ages much faster than the normal rate, and he delivers this at the end of his high school graduation speech.

The movie follows his life as he struggles to fit in due to his strange condition, and slowly, he learns he has a lot more to teach those around him. He’s comparing himself to a shooting star, after spending much of his story wishing simply to be a “regular star.”

This is only more fitting knowing that we lost Robin Williams too soon in real life, too.

How To Apply This:

In this piece of advice, Robin Williams brings our attention to the shortness of life, and how no matter who you are, you always feel that there’s not enough time. He’s pointing out that despite your circumstance, making the most of your life is the focus, as challenging as it may be.

Jack serves as a symbol for how life feels at times, as if it is flying past us at an abnormal rate. It often seems like everyone else has more hours in the day than we do, or that we’re aging faster than others. This is essentially the “grass is always greener” concept.

Remind yourself that, for the most part, you probably fall somewhere in the middle. If you can think of a thousand people that are younger than you in a given field, there are also probably close to a thousand that are older. If you can think of 10 people better than you at something, there are also probably 10 people that are worse.

Something isn’t more likely to be true simply because it’s negative. That’s your anxiety talking. You have exactly as much time as everyone else, and any task out there simply takes commitment and effort.

Jack had a disease that literally hampered his ability to lead a normal life, and yet he still became a grown up.

3. Patch Adams: Hunter “Patch” Adams

“What’s wrong with death, sir? What are we so mortally afraid of? Why can’t we treat death with a certain amount of humanity and dignity, and decency, and God forbid, maybe even humor.”

Ah, of course. The humor.

The fact of the matter is: Robin Williams was severely depressed. That’s why he’s no longer with us.

But he was one of the funniest humans to ever walk the planet. He made innumerable people smile. This is yet another character where I believe Robin was basically playing himself.

Hunter “Patch” Adams is a character who is taken aback by the way patients are treated in medical facilities. He felt they lacked compassion, treating diseases instead of treating people — they were treating humans like numbers.

Patch embarks on his own journey to open a hospital for people without insurance, and he uses unusual methods to keep their spirits up. He’s not even surprised when he sees some promising results.

How To Apply This:

This speech outlines the importance of treating people like people. No matter the situation, people are always people, and Robin is pointing out that they deserve respect, class, dignity, humanity, and decency — always.

Robin is perhaps even ironically foreshadowing. Death is not something to be afraid of or shy away from. Of course it’s painful, but it’s also natural.

Death is actually an important part of life — respect it, but do not fear it. If something is legitimately unavoidable, it doesn’t deserve your fear. Fearing the inevitable is a waste of time, energy, and emotion.

In Relentless by Tim Grover, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant’s personal trainer, Grover discusses how fear is not a good enough motivator to achieve much of anything. It will trigger fight or flight reactions, but nothing sustainable or worth being developed. Anger, on the other hand, he maintains is a little closer and more valuable, though it can transition into an uncontrollable tool and render itself useless as well.

But on top of all of that, Robin reminds us to laugh. Laughter is one of the best natural remedies that we have as humans, and it provides an array of psychological and physiological benefits. Laughing is now linked to chemical reactions in the body that reduce stress and even increase pain tolerance.

So treat people with dignity and humanity, do not fear death, harness your anger, and remember to laugh. If you continue working on those things, you just may be a force to be reckoned with.

4. Dead Poets Society: Professor John Keating

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering; these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

We’re going to use two quotes from Dead Poets Society, mainly because they’re wonderful and I’m making up the rules as I go, but also because they’re related. But to be fair, you could probably use 10 Robin Williams quotes from this movie and never run out of sound advice.

In another fantastic “going against the traditional” film, Robin Williams plays an unorthodox professor at an all-boys school known for its ancient methodologies and extremely hoity-toity standards.

With various different teaching styles and unique approaches, Professor John Keating reaches his students in a way that teachers dream about, inspiring them to pursue their goals and “seize the day.”

As you’ve probably noticed, Robin’s best roles come when he’s able to directly impact a broad audience, or upset the norms with a special style. He served as a symbol for standing out while everyone else seems stuck blending in.

How To Apply This:

Here, Robin Williams, as Professor Keating, is stressing the importance of the fine arts and their role in both culture and the self.

But this almost walks hand in hand with the Patch Adams sentiment. Yes, life is important to preserve, but vital to enjoy.

You’re most likely not reading this from your middle or high school classroom or study hall, but this advice is certainly applicable throughout our adult lives. Take this piece of advice as: don’t forget to appreciate creative art. Either absorb it or produce it yourself regularly.

We get so wrapped up in the numbers, don’t we? We’re constantly measuring things, comparing them to one another — we measure and compare ourselves as well. That’s why we start to feel like things.

Your brain needs to develop its creative side to fully experience what life has to offer. It’s near impossible to feel fulfilled without satisfying the creative within you.

And if everyone takes a minute to “stop and smell the roses” just a little bit more frequently, the world will start to change for the better.

5. Good Will Hunting: Sean Maguire

“You don’t know about real loss, because that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself.”

In what is, without a doubt, my favorite film of all time, Robin Williams plays a therapist trying to get through to a self-isolated, cocky, genius orphan named Will (played by Matt Damon).

This speech comes in around the middle of the film, where he’s trying to get Will to open up, but has been relentlessly shut down and dismissed time and time again. The entire monologue is pure gold, and he also says things like:

“…you’re a genius, Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine. You ripped my f*ckin’ life apart. You’re an orphan, right? Do you think I’d know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you?”

Just brilliant, really. This is the epitome of Robin Williams playing himself, I think. I remember him most prevalently as Sean Maguire — the messy, rough-around-the-edges, unorthodox intellectual who’s tough if you push him, but is simultaneously a romantic.

But this quote is astounding because, while it’s imperative to love yourself, you have to be fully willing to open up to someone else to ever really experience a true connection.

How To Apply This:

I think most of the time, many of us can be a lot like Will when it comes to intense relationships. We sometimes balk and divert our energy back to ourselves or to trying to convey how cool or smart we are. Or maybe we just shut down.

But then we often find ourselves frustrated with our isolation, even though it was our own doing. Humans are very typically self-sabotaging, and it takes a substantial amount of deliberate practice to avoid this.

Here, Robin Williams is yet again forcing us to open up in an unconventional manner.

If you actually don’t like where you are, you have to change your behavior. If you like being isolated, lonely, depressed, sad, unproductive, or in whatever place it is that you feel “stuck,” then fine, don’t change anything.

But if you want to make progress and possibly become more fulfilled, whether it’s in a relationship, a career, or any other scenario, you’re just going to have to alter your way of thinking, as well as your actions.

Robin Williams is reminding us that in order to achieve any kind of greatness, we sometimes must completely pour ourselves into someone or something else. Playing it safe because it’s familiar, or remaining reserved because we’re afraid — these things will ultimately limit our accomplishments.

A Rambling Gan

A Rambling Gan

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