Work & Purpose

4 Down-to-Earth Career Lessons From ‘The Martian’

What the film teaches us about dealing with work challenges

“At some point everything will go south.”

So says astronaut Mark Watney, the lead character in the blockbuster movie, The Martian. Without revealing too many details here, suffice it to say that Watney (played by Matt Damon) knows adversity all too well. During the film, he is presumed dead on Mars and is then abandoned by his crew following a violent storm there. Cut off from contact with NASA, and left with meager food supplies, Watney struggles to survive until help can arrive.

Besides being an engrossing film, The Martian is a story about how creativity, teamwork and dogged determination can help us triumph against overwhelming odds — at work and in our personal lives.

After seeing the film, I wanted to pass on what I think are its four key lessons that can help you deal with work challenges and frustrations:

1. Break big tasks into manageable pieces. Watney faces a multitude of life-threatening challenges, but rather than allowing the problems to overwhelm him, he systematically divides them into smaller tasks and then works through them step-by-step-by-step.

Rather than allowing problems to overwhelm him, he divides them into smaller tasks and works through them step-by-step-by-step.

For example, after inventorying his dwindling food supply, he realizes he must find a way to grow food. Mars, of course, isn’t exactly a farmer’s paradise.

Yet despite the lack of water and soil, Watney deploys his expertise as a botanist to concoct water and a fertile growing environment. He then carefully computes how many potatoes he can eat each day to survive, adjusting his calculations as circumstances change. “Do the math” becomes his mantra.

The takeaway: Emulate Watney’s divide-and-conquer approach to problem-solving. Whether you’re juggling an endless to-do list at work or hunting for a job, it’ll be less daunting if you break large problems into smaller action items and then tackle them one by one.

So if you’re looking for work, for instance, instead of just thinking “I need a job,” write down the specific steps involved and parcel them out. Week One: revise resumé. Week Two: Edit LinkedIn profile. Week Three: Draft a cover letter

As Watney concludes at the film’s end: “You solve one problem. And then you solve another. And then another. Solve enough and you stay alive.”

2. Cultivate positivity. Faced with a litany of unimaginable hardships, nobody would fault Watney if he fell into a hopeless depression. But rather than give up, our hero displays an inspiring mix of logical thinking, plucky determination and irreverent humor. Watney is a natural optimist and keeps his spirits up by listening to disco music, exchanging witty e-mails with NASA and taking time to admire the natural beauty on Mars.

Admittedly, his relentless cheerfulness is a bit grating at times (even when staring death in the face, he does so with a smile). Yet, it’s impossible to argue with the underlying message that a positive mindset is an invaluable asset.

In fact, research in the field of applied positive psychology confirms that a positive mindset is critical to success in many areas of life – including work. In a 2012 Harvard Business Review article, positivity expert Shawn Achor wrote: “Research shows that when people work with a positive mind-set, performance on nearly every level—productivity, creativity, engagement—improves.”

The takeaway: Fortunately, even the worst skeptics among of us can improve our positivity muscles with a little effort. Even the smallest changes to your daily routine — exercising regularly, cultivating an attitude of gratitude and limiting your exposure to negativity — can significantly enhance your overall outlook on life and your performance on the job.

3. Embrace diversity in the workplace. The crew aboard The Martian’s spaceship includes two impressive women; one is the commander and the other is the resident computer genius. The NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratories staffs, in the movie, come from a wide variety of backgrounds (Asians, Indians, African-Americans…) and ages.

In short, this movie highlights how a diversity of sensibilities and life experiences can help foster optimal outcomes.

At one pivotal juncture, the unknown young astrophysicist Rich Purnell, an African-American who fits every nerd stereotype imaginable, comes up with a brilliant solution to help bring Watney home. At another, a Chinese male-female duo team up with NASA to secure the needed technology for the mission.

Sadly, we don’t often see this level of workplace diversity in real life, especially regarding women and STEM careers. But perhaps art will eventually inspire life. As Jessica Chastain, who plays the strong and steely Commander Lewis, recently told The Hollywood Reporter, “I’m hoping with Interstellar and Gravity and now The Martian that young girls are gonna watch this film, and they’re gonna want to go to Mars… And we’ll open up a whole new career path for girls who didn’t think it was a possibility.” I hope Chastain is right.

The takeaway: We can all do more to promote diversity in our workplaces. Small actions can have big impact: Go to lunch with your younger (or older) colleagues. Speak up when you see discrimination. Plan social events that appeal to a diverse audience. And when faced with a difficult challenge, reach out to new and diverse sources. You might be amazed who will ultimately provide a why-didn’t-we-think-of-that-before solution.

4. Pursue meaningful work. The belief that he is doing important work for a cause larger than himself helps Watney find joy and meaning in an otherwise bleak situation.

He exudes great pride in being the first person to do any number of things on Mars. “Everywhere I go, I’m the first,” he exclaims. “The first guy to spend more than 31 sols on Mars. The first guy to grow crops on Mars. First, first, first!” In a particularly heartwarming moment, Watney blurts out: “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So, technically, I colonized Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!”

Ultimately this “it’s bigger than me” perspective helps Watney come to terms with the very real possibility that he might not make it back home alive. Towards the end of the film, he drafts a note to his parents saying (in essence), “If I die, I’m dying for something big and beautiful. I can live with that.”

The takeaway: Watney’s note is a poignant reminder that we all need to figure out what we find most meaningful. Once we do, we can find ways to infuse more meaning into work (even if that requires finding a new job). While no job is perfect and every workplace has challenges, when you believe in the value of your mission, the problems will feel far less overwhelming.

Go see this movie – I think you’ll be inspired.

Nancy Collamer
By Nancy Collamer
Nancy Collamer, M.S., is a semi-retirement coach, speaker and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. You can now download her free workbook called 25 Ways to Help You Identify Your Ideal Second Act on her website at MyLifestyleCareer.com (and you'll also receive her free bi-monthly newsletter).

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