5 Iconic Lessons on Business from Movies

One of the things I most love about movies is how they can teach you stuff — not just about its own story, but about yourself. The best kind of movies are the ones that end with a reflection, and as the credits roll, you feel like you know more than you did before the movie began.

Blade Runner (which I wrote about briefly here) is a sci-fi thriller, but it expanded my comprehension of life. Jurassic Park is an adventure blockbuster, but it’s a lesson on suspense and it made me appreciate being born on the right era. Star Wars can be quite silly sometimes, but at it’s best, it made me question good and evil — and if that definition is even valid.

Having said that, the business world being so intricately complex, it’s no surprise movies dabble in it’s many twists and turns looking for interesting stories to tell. Here are some of the best lessons I took from movies about business and how I would apply them in the real world.

If you like learning about movies though, I recommend this list I wrote for Datahand: 7 Clever Details You Never Noticed In Your Favorite Movies. It goes from Elsa’s cape in Frozen to the meaning of the golden watch from Pulp Fiction.

The Godfather

The Godfather, by Francis Ford Coppola.
“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”

This particular phrase may sound dark and menacing — it is the Godfather Trilogy after all — but there’s an important business lesson to be taken from it: you shouldn’t fear competition, neither antagonize your competitors.

Competition leads to innovation of your own company and/or product, and by observing your competitors, you can often learn from both their hits and misses, applying that knowledge into your own business. And finally, competition often reveals both your greatest strengths and weaknesses — making it easier for you to identify and work with them.

Thank You for Smoking

Thank You For Smoking, by Jason Reitman.
“That’s where I come in. I get paid to talk. I don’t have an MD or law degree. I have a bachelor’s in kicking ass and taking names. You know that guy who can pick up any girl? I’m him, on crack.”

“Thank You For Smoking” is a comedy-drama that tells the story of a man, Nick Naylor, who is paid to promote cigarettes — and he’s really good at it. For obvious reasons, he’s despised by a large number of people who make him question the integrity of his work and the moral dilemma that comes with it.

The lesson here, I believe, is that you can sell anything with charisma and a good sales pitch.

Nick never lies about the consequences of cigarette usage, instead, he focuses on what he believes are the advantages. With charm, he makes people believe in his product, despite it’s obvious flaws — and if that’s not a good lesson on sales pitching, I don’t know what is.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should sell something that you know will harm people… but metaphors can only go so far. I think you got the point.

The Social Network

The Social Network, by David Fincher.
“I’m talking about taking the entire social experience of college and putting it online.”

The movie about the invention of Facebook took many creative liberties from reality in order to create a compelling and entertaining movie (and all the better for it), but the lessons we can learn from it are still grounded in reality.

Mark (as the movie depicts him) was an awkward young man who wanted to join a Final’s Club. He saw that with high esteem, and thought it would lead him to a better life where he could do things he wouldn’t normally do.

But then he had an epiphany — the idea of making a virtual sort of club you had to be invited to join. He realized other people, like himself, would also love to be part of something exclusive, and that become his business idea.

Often, our own needs and desires reflects the needs of those around us, and if you’re able to create a solution that works for yourself, maybe that solution is in itself a great business idea.

Wall Street

Wall Street, by Olive Stone.
The thing with money is, it makes you do things you don’t want to do.

As someone looking at it from below, it feels very easy for me to look at crazy stories like the ones depicted on The Wolf of Wall Street and say “I would never do any of those things!” And I like to think even at my most selfish and empowered fantasy, I would keep my integrity intact… at least, that’s what I like to think.

Starting any business with the sole purpose of getting rich can get you into serious trouble. You should never let money reign over you. That’s when you start losing grasp of reality and everything starts to feel material, leading you to believe you can purchase immaterial things — like happiness.

The Big Short

The Big Short, by Adam McKay.
You know what I hate about banking? It reduces people to numbers. Here’s a number — every 1% unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die, did you know that?

Arguably the best movie from 2015, The Big Short managed to discuss an incredibly complex subject matter with just the right amount of funny and serious, giving an almost satirical inside look at Wall Street during the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and I say “almost”, because unfortunately, it’s all too real.

When dealing with something that affects a whole country, you see people as numbers, as a large mass divided by percentages, never as individuals. And that can be terrifying to think about. It’s easy to say “just %1 this” and “just 3% that”, because that hides the individual lives affected by those numbers.

If we dig deeper, the whole notion of measuring people and their needs by data is tricky. After all, people aren’t binary. People aren’t single colored lines on a chart, and one life can’t be represented by a single digit. But unfortunately, that’s what you’ll be looking at if you own a large business — you see data, and you make decisions based on it.

This is the point where you need to have more heart than brains.

Diego Silveira is a writer at Datahand. He writes about movies and games on Medium. He finds it weird to talk about himself in third-person.