What “Catch Me If You Can” taught me about poverty & purpose

Mitch Kurylowicz
8 min readJul 5, 2021

When I was eleven years old, I was fascinated by heists. I also liked movies, so my two interests fit neatly together.

My absolute favourite heist movie from that time in my life was one called “Catch Me If You Can”. The same way that Ben Affleck and Vin Diesel in “Boiler Room” could rhyme off a scene from “Wall Street” without missing a beat, I knew pretty much every line in that Spielberg masterclass. If you haven’t seen it, you should. Acting as a fake doctor, lawyer, and pilot, Leonardo DiCaprio cons his way around the world.

I was so enamoured by Leo’s character, that I even styled my hair like him for about five years after first seeing it. Some may argue that I still have a bit of the slick.

One of my favourite scenes in the movie is close to the beginning. Leo’s Dad, Christopher Walken, wins a lifetime achievement award at his New York Rotary Club.

It’s all very ’50s. In a smokey room, Walken, his hair slicked back, wearing a grey suit, white pocket square and dark tie, stands at the podium.

Leaning forward he begins to speak with his uniquely recognizable voice:

“Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse wouldn’t quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out.

Gentlemen, as of this moment, I am that second mouse.”

Leo’s eyes are locked on to his father’s. He is hanging on to every word, as he claps in awe.

If you had cut over to my eleven-year-old, fresh faced, spikey-haired, polo-shirt wearing self, you would have seen me grinning just like Leo.

In plain English, Walken’s anecdote means that “if I work hard enough, I will make a good life for myself”. Or, hard work = success.

All of us can be inspired by a story like this. I certainly have been.

Everywhere we look, we see the second mouse.

The top scorer. The gold medalist. The bestseller. The billionaire. The President. The second mouse is the star and hogs all of the limelight.

Even the first mouse is well understood. On the bench. The bronze medalist. The thousandaire. The staffer. These people are still pretty great, but they have not quite made it to the top of their trade.

Of course, this is all relative. The bench player is the star compared to the B-team prospect. And so on.

These are states that we all can wrap our heads around. On any given day and any given situation, one mouse drowns and the other one emerges as the hero of their own story with a little gold medal wrapped around their furry neck.

Which mouse are you?

I have had an enormous amount of privilege in my life. Particularly, I have had the privilege to know how privileged I really am.

When I was 9 years old, I travelled to the middle of the bush in Kenya for the first time. I saw people without shoes, without full stomachs, without schools to attend, without rooves over the heads.

Surprisingly, the one thing that was almost universal amongst people I met was hope. People had dreams, and the hard work to match.

People have hope, all over the world.

I have since been to many corners of the planet in some of the most desperately impoverished places in the world, through various philanthropic and development projects that I have been involved in.

I learned that the hope of a brighter future is not reserved for the well-off. But the opportunity to exercise your hope is a much more expensive item.

In other words, not everyone starts in the bucket of cream.

I, a spoiled, white, Canadian, with supportive parents, have the luxury of trying to churn cream into butter. I am able to pursue purpose, whatever I choose that to mean for myself.

My friends in Kenya, and in most other places in the world, can only pursue survival. This puts them at a distinct disadvantage that even the worst failure of my peers could not relate to.

With that in mind, I would like to propose an amendment to Christopher Walken’s famous speech. The idea of rewriting Spielberg seems wrong, but here goes nothing:

“Two little mice fell in two different buckets. The first mouse fell into a bucket of cream. The second mouse, who had four broken limbs, fell into a bucket of quicksand that was twice as tall as the first mouse’s bucket of cream. The first mouse struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out. The second mouse struggled even harder but drowned.

Gentlemen, as of this moment, I am that first mouse.”

Less inspirational, more realistic.

The ignorance and indifference of the first mouse is a lot more evident. So too is the stark handicap of the second mouse.

How do you ensure that you start in the bucket of cream?

You cannot. It’s the luck of the draw.

The luck of where you are born, and the kind of financial situation you are born into, determines your starting point.

Just how lucky must you be?

To answer this question we have to determine the ingredients of cream, or at least the ingredients distinctly not in quicksand.

In my experience working with people who find themselves in a pursuit of survival, I have found that all of them lack at least one of three critical elements:

Health. Safety. Access to Opportunity.

Think about these components in your own life. If you are sick enough, the only thing you can think about is getting better. If you feel unsafe, the only thing you can think about is finding a way out of that feeling. If you lose your job, the only thing you can think about is finding a new one.

If these situations become perpetual, then you are in a pursuit of survival. If you can change them, then you are in a pursuit of purpose.

If you live in a dengue fever ridden area in rural India, under militant rule in Somalia, or down the Amazon river in Ecuador away from civilization out of necessity rather than choice, you are pursing survival.

Having seen all three of these situations in real life, I know that without health, safety and access to opportunity, personal growth is severely hindered. It’s quicksand.

Even with two out of three of these ingredients, purpose beyond survival is out of reach. We need all three.

How many people have sufficient health, safety and access to opportunity to access the meritocracy of their choosing? Let’s take a look at the numbers.

Income makes a big difference. While the numbers are getting better, 1 in 10 of us still live on less than $1.90/day. Nearly 7 in 10 of us live on less than $10/day. Nearly 9 in 10 of us live on less than $30/day. 85% of us make less than $11,000/year before tax.

Median income is somewhere north of $2,000/year or under $6/day.

I am not a data scientist, but no matter if you live in the United States or Chad, $6/day does not buy you the kind of free time you need to consider purpose. So, there’s 50% off the top. All quicksand.

There are other specific health related statistics like the fact that at least half of the world’s population do not have full coverage of essential health services or that 1 in 3 do not have access to clean drinking water. These are mostly covered in the income discussion, as it is unusual in the developing world for access to opportunity to be the only indicator that one falls short on.

It’s also worth noting that some 40% of people do not have internet access, which in today’s age is a vital driver of opportunity.

The World Bank tells us that some 66% of students of secondary school age are enrolled. 66% is likely high as the data is incredibly patchy and many countries don’t report. I am also willing to venture that the 28% of enrolled students in Burundi are not receiving the same quality of education compared to that of the 95% in France.

With all of that in mind, while I will not postulate on the exact margin between the pursuits of purpose and survival, your chances of starting in the quicksand are high.

Very high.

Through the Covid-19 pandemic, the purpose pursuers have experienced a kind of pursuit of survival that many of us could have never fathomed.

We were afraid for our health, felt in danger around most people, and faced depleted opportunities for almost everything. This was, and is, an event entirely out of our control.

Now that we have emerged, in large part, from what appears to be the worst of the virus, we should have newfound empathy for those who live in the quicksand for other reasons and do not have a metaphorical vaccine on the horizon.

Let me be clear. The cream that I tread through to attempt to make butter is already very thick. I am white, male, straight, Canadian, educated, have free access to healthcare, am fully able-bodied, and have well-off parents.

I didn’t start with a ladder out of my bucket, but it was pretty darn close.

There are folks that start in the cream who have it way harder than I do. Their cream is thinner. But if they tread hard enough, they can far surpass my starting point. Those who start in the quicksand cannot do that without intervention from someone in the cream.

Is there any truth to the original mouse story?

Of course. But only for the few.

The moral of the story here is that you, the reader, are able to pursue purpose.

You have just spent some 10 minutes of your life reading an article about something that will not get you food, water, healing, shelter or a job.

You are, almost certainly, in the bucket of cream.

You have been given the rare chance to be lucky enough to struggle for purpose rather than survival.

There is so much in your life that you can control that most can only dream of.

So, in our inevitable moments of blame directed at other people for our challenges, let’s try to be reminded of the control that we have in our lives to do what we want.

Everything outside of situations of extreme lack of health, safety and access to opportunity are within our control.

Even if you cannot be grateful, which I would encourage you to be, try to be introspective about the power you have to live the life that you want.