Last month, around the time the series finale of Lost aired on ABC, someone posted on a business networking site an analysis of that entire multi-year story line as a parable about leadership and management succession. That got me thinking about which other pop culture products convey messages - even actionable lessons, perhaps - about career management.
This is the time of year when people publish lists of best books for the beach. Incongruously perhaps, business and career books often find a place on such lists.
But I'm a diehard urbanite who tends to escape summer's heat by ducking into an air-conditioned theater. So here's an alternative to the ubiquitous summer reading list: my favorite career management movies.
1. The Bad Sleep Well (Japanese, subtitled). Akira Kurosawa's tale of corporate intrigue and personal tragedy from the early postwar years is not only the best career-related film, but probably the best film of any kind I have seen in my life. The write-up for the film series where I found this little-known gem ended with the promotional blurb, "'Better than Shakespeare' - Francis Ford Coppola." I figured that statement had to be hype. But it isn't.
2. The Conversation. After the preceding entry, it's fitting that a Coppola film fills the #2 spot. In this one, too, the twist-filled plot follows a quirky but engaging protagonist's doomed efforts to preserve his integrity amid corporate treachery. Coppola's meditation on Watergate, it was made between the Godfather and Apocalypse Now sagas. It's also Gene Hackman's consummate performance.
3. The Passenger. Yet another obscure film from a famous director, Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger fuses career reinvention with personal reinvention and ultimately, redemption. A successful but world-weary TV journalist practices a bizarre form of identity theft by switching places with a hotel neighbor who'd succumbed to a heart attack in his room. He unwittingly lands as a gun-runner supplying weapons to the same African rebels he'd failed to comprehend (let alone adequately report on) during his former life. Soon after making his quantum leap, Jack Nicholson tells a flirting tourist he's unsure what he is... then elaborates by delivering the unforgettable line, "I used to be somebody else. But I traded myself in."
4. Devil's Advocate. I detailed the career (and life) lessons from this great film in a column last September: Being Keanu Reeves.
5. Glengarry Glen Ross. The one entry in my list that's often associated with Wall Street (even before the recent crisis). Its characters are to testosterone and lies what the Deepwater Horizon is to oil. That some viewers nevertheless manage to empathize with the desperate salesmen testifies to the genius of both author David Mamet and the all-star (and all-male) cast.
6. Death of a Salesman. The signature American literary work of the 20th century, the original Arthur Miller play spawned at least four powerful screen versions, which starred Frederic March (1951), Lee J. Cobb (1966), Dustin Hoffman (1985) and Brian Dennehy (2000).
7. Disclosure. Although its main subplot involving reverse sexual harassment seemed contrived, I found other twists within this corporate power struggle instructive. Repeated life-saving interventions by off-screen characters - especially Michael Douglas's colleague from Malaysia - send the message that it's wise to treat people nicely, because you never know who'll be in position to help you down the line.
8. The Hustler. Two vital career lessons here. One, manage your money - be prepared to walk away from the game at times, either to take profits or stem losses. And two, never give up hope - no matter how low you sink, it's possible to climb back.
Those are my personal favorites for career lessons. Undoubtedly, many films I haven't seen and many I have are equally worthy of a "best career movies" list. Both Rocky (to which I devoted a recent column) and the Pursuit of Happyness - whose author and real-life protagonist Christopher Gardner I met during my second week working at eFinancialCareers - powerfully convey the "never give up hope" theme.
Then there's The Silence of the Lambs. It didn't make my list because I perceived the following career lesson as peripheral to the film: You can't always choose your first mentor, so be open-minded and learn what you can from the one who's handed to you.