Mars, Resilience, and Resourcefulness

What do you do with what you have?


One of the cool parts about having a 13-year old homeschooled son is that I get to ride along for some of his lessons.  He is currently taking a class that revolves around watching a broad set of historically and ethically relevant films and reflecting on them.

Last night, the assignment for this class was to watch The Martian.  If you have not read this most entertaining book or watched the visually and emotionally stunning motion picture, you might be missing out on a really great science fiction narrative rooted in a very real approximation of real world scientific constraints.  But, that may be beside the point.

As I mentioned to my daughter this morning on the ride to school (she, one of our three non-homeschoolers), the lessons from The Martian are not only good lessons for a person who might one day be trapped on Mars.  They are very much real life lessons applicable in junior high or in the boardroom of the largest organizations.  They are lessons in resilience and resourcefulness…and they resonate.

Here are a few aspects that stand out from The Martian that just might save your life or career right here on earth.

First, things are going to go wrong. It’s how you respond to crisis that matters.  The main character in The Martian is a guy named Mark Watney (played well by Matt Damon in the film).  He is famously stranded on Mars after a confluence of events that make your head spin.  But, once faced with the reality of his situation, he takes stock of his situation–which is exceptionally dire–and gets busy figuring things out.  He, faced with a painfully narrow chance of surviving in a harsh environment, famously says “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this…”

We are all faced with times where we have to “manage the shit out of” bad situations. They can be immediate crises with clients or customers, or they can be the slow train wreck of a deleteriously competitive market.  Mark Watney’s example of reacting to reality is instructive.  Take stock, let the emotions work themselves out, then get to work.

Second, your resources are going to be limited, but often not as limited as you think. For me, the most amazing aspect of The Martian (and one that is far better fleshed out in the book) is its overt display of resourcefulness.  Watney is forced to confront his resource constraints in terms of power, water, air, food, warmth, physical strength, ability to communicate with the rest of the world.  He then goes about tackling, one by one, the constraints he has, and he uncovers new ways of solving his own problems. Without going into detail, I’ll simply say that Watney’s ongoing calculations of his resources form a centerpiece of the book, and his continual pressing against those constraints is instructive.

You and I are going to have to face constraints.  We can only make so many sales calls, close so many deals, and coach so many people in our organizations.  We can only spend so much capital.  It’s a fact of life.  But, many creative managers out there get more productivity out of their sales forces, work forces, and capital because they try. They don’t have to be Watney-esque, they just have to ask the question of whether constraints assumed are constraints for real.

Third, it helps to have moments to reflect…and a sense of humor.  This one seems easy, but it’s actually one of the best lessons for high stress professionals anywhere.  Watney is the king of the one liner in both the book and the movie; and he is the king of the reflective vignette that frames his awful circumstances in positive light.  In one instance, the character reflects on the fact that no matter what he does on Mars, he is the first person ever to do it.  And, that’s kind of cool.

Professionals anywhere tend to know the value of a moment of humor in a terrible circumstance. Gallows humor isn’t that hard.  What is hard is stopping for a moment and positively framing challenging circumstances.  Then, you get back to work.

Fourth–and I’ll stop at four–The entire book is a treatise on the need for resilience in problem solving.  If you aren’t failing, you probably aren’t working on hard enough problems, or you aren’t working them fast enough.  The Martian is a book about failure.  There are failures of systems, people, organizations, tools, and even imagination.  The book and film are so outstanding because of their display of resilient problem solving in the face of failure.  You get blown up by your improvised water generator, and you light that mother right back up.

Resilience is something that we are, unfortunately, breeding out of our culture. That is, perhaps, a topic for another blog sometime.  But, the fact remains that as our levels of professional, political, and social understanding narrow, we feel the buffets of perspective shocks far more than we used to. As professionals, we need to be resilient because the world changes.  We may not face life and death circumstances for our bodies, but our ideas may live and die constantly. Have the courage to keep going.  Have the courage and grace to allow your organization to keep going.

The Martian is about Mars.  And, it’s chock full of life lessons for us right here on Earth.

May we learn them.