It was Cali Williams Yost across at Work+Life Fit who inspired me to go see Up in the Air recently. Even so, I hadn’t expected there to have been quite so much rich material for my New Work Pioneer thinking as I found.
I hope you’ve seen the film – if not, you must! Meantime, what I’d like to do is give the headlines of the story, share some of the key themes that emerged for me, and leave you with a few pertinent coaching questions to mull over.
It’s the tale of the suave and charismatic Ryan Bingham. Impeccably played by George Clooney – but let me not mess up my post by drooling over him too much! His character is a stereotypical road-runner, who works 24/7, firing people for a living and delivering motivational seminars advocating his own commitment-free lifestyle.
“Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises. The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.”
But he is about to be grounded. Having taken the advice of a young MBA, his company is re-designing his job to enable Termination Engineers (another strategic HR initiative, perhaps?) to sack people remotely. This, just at a time when he has begun a romantic alliance with Alex Goran, a high-achieving woman who crosses the map just as regularly as he does. Together, they compare travel schedules and polish their badges of success: frequent flyer mile counts; collections of premiere credit cards; priority customer service entitlements.
As they spend more time together, including at his sister’s wedding, Goran clearly pierces Bingham’s once invincible shield. We see him, captured by a burst of spontaneity, fly to Chicago. His intention is to surprise Alex, but he ends up being the surprised one. For there he finds her, complete with husband and children, and struggles to comprehend that her picture of their relationship has not been his.
The scenario provokes a call to action in him, but the film ends without us knowing how he’s going to respond.
Food for thought
Work as an escape
At the beginning of the film Bingham’s lifestyle is portrayed as one to which we all might aspire. He’s sleek, he’s polished, he wants materially for nothing. Who wouldn’t be him?
It’s only as the film unravels that we get a glimpse of the challenges that exist in his personal life, that his full-on identification with work allows him to avoid.
Work as a relationship over which we have some control
Bingham is arrogantly single. The most intimate we see him being initially is when he’s feigning concern for the people he’s firing. We might even covet his calmness.
But the sterility of his life unfolds with the film. He talks of feeling at home in the recycled air, artificial lighting, digital juice dispensers and cheap sushi that define his nomadic existence. Somehow we understand that he feels safer in accepting these impersonal, even toxic, forms of nourishment, than he would risking a real, human connection.
Work gives him a sense of competence and mastery that perhaps relationships don’t. And I wondered how true that might be of us?
The importance of external validation
Bingham’s sense of his importance is, at least to begin with, driven by stuff outside of him, the most significant being his goal of attaining 10 million frequent flyer miles. And I wondered how many of us use arbitrary measures beyond ourselves, both to drive us and to give us some sense of our worth? Job grades, cubicle sizes, our peers and others’ evaluation of us.
By the end of the film, we see him achieve his ambition, but already doubt its value. Indeed, he’s calling the airline, to arrange for points to be transferred, allowing his sister and her new husband the round the world honeymoon trip of which they can only dream.
The challenge of accepting the call to action
As I said, at the end of the film, Ryan is clearly left pondering the question of what he’s going to do with his life. The jury is clearly out. Meantime, the film revisits people whose lives Bingham earlier wrecked by making them redundant. It’s clear that they have used their crisis as a turning point, and have transformed their attitudes to both work and life.
How many of us too hear the deep down question, “Is this it?” but choose not to listen or to take some kind of half-hearted action?
- What call to action is your working life currently presenting? How are you planning to respond to it?
- Have you ever glamorized work for yourself in any way? If so, how and for what purpose?
- Has work ever been a hiding place for you? If so how? Who and what were you hiding from?
- How would you define your relationship with work? Is work a substitute for, competitor of, or healthy and necessary companion to other vital relationships in your life?
- What and who outside of yourself give you a sense of meaning and identity? How happy are your that this is so?
As you will have guessed, I loved this film and hope it gets an Oscar. How about you? What did you take from it, and how did you relate it to your own work and life style?