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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

This Popular Movie Moment Is Setting You Up for Disappointment in Your Career

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When Ren first insists on teaching Willard to dance in Footloose, the guy can’t hear a beat to save his life. But three minutes later, he’s a pro, showing off his moves while his mentor perches on a tractor and looks on proudly.

To state the obvious, movies are fiction—even those that are based on or inspired by true stories tend to fictionalize for dramatic effect. And you should know that they’re not generally the best models for how things actually work offscreen.

Just as the majority of romantic comedies don’t get relationships quite right, most films don’t get careers or accomplishments right. The list of ways that’s true could fill a much longer article than this one, but let’s focus here on the montage. (I was inspired to write about this after reading posts by Austin Kleon and David Wong.)

Yep, the montage. You know the one I’m talking about. The part of the movie where the underdog protagonist decides to give it their all—it being preparing for whatever competition or moment will later serve as the climax of the movie. The screen then flashes through snippets of practice scenes, starting with a struggle but quickly fast forwarding through stages of improvement toward excellence, while an uplifting soundtrack ties it all together.

Here’s the problem: That montage is terribly misleading. It creates the illusion that mastery can be achieved faster, that success comes more easily, and that the whole process happens more smoothly than is actually the case.

The montage is a convenient tool that helps move a plot along, but in many cases even the full period of time it’s condensing wouldn’t be enough to pull off what countless movies suggest is possible. A month or two of rigorous training most likely isn’t going to be enough to make you great. You can’t catch up to, let alone triumph over, those who’ve been dedicated for far longer, no matter how much or how genuinely you want something.

Regardless, the montage skims over and glamorizes the hardest, messiest work, packaging it into an arc with a clear upward trajectory toward winning or proving yourself. In the context of the full movie, getting good is a blip, and it flies by. In real life, you can’t predict how long the struggle will last, and you’re sure to fail frequently before you succeed.

Let’s look at one such sequence that’s accompanied by one of my all-time favorite Disney songs. At the start of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” Mulan and her fellow soldiers are, well, pathetic. The first two and a half minutes depict all sorts of flubs and fails—from trips and falls to missed bow-and-arrow shots to accidental explosions. But one early morning, Mulan, her brow furrowed in fierce determination, manages to climb up a tall pole with weights strapped to her wrists. From that moment on, the motley crew suddenly resembles a formidable army and Mulan, instead of trailing behind the men, is a star.

Sure, the viewer might learn that one small win can beget another and start a streak. But the drastic turning point does little to reveal what finally clicked for Mulan, let alone for her peers. We don’t see her wrestling with different approaches or persevering through a rough patch of mixed results. It’s all bad until it’s all good. The montage obscures the incremental lessons and improvements and the ups and downs of a real path to success.

Even if you know, logically, that you shouldn’t set your expectations based on how it happens in the movies, it’s hard to shake the internalized notion that things shouldn’t be this hard for this long.

But they are. I don’t say that to discourage you. On the contrary, it’s meant to help you craft a more realistic plan that doesn’t include an inevitable letdown. In other words, if you expect to will yourself to a meteoric rise, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment.

So don’t. Instead of counting on one turn of events to boost you straight to the top, focus your plan on sustained, and sustainable, work that’ll add up in the long term. Be patient—because your dreams won’t come true in a magical three-minute montage, but change will come with time and effort. And if a soundtrack helps in getting you there, by all means, crank it up.

(BRB, going to create a montage playlist I can listen to on repeat.)