Six Business Lessons from ‘Star Wars’

A few years ago, Harvard professor Cass Sunstein (along with Richard Thaler) wrote one of the most influential business books of the decade. It’s called Nudge, and it explored the world of hidden human biases, and how we can use them to make (hopefully) better decisions.

Now Sunstein has turned his attention to a much more important topic: Jedi knights.

Yes, he’s written a book called The World According to Star Wars — an examination of the sci-fi juggernaut from almost every angle: psychological, economic, political, etc.

It’s an unexpected career turn, but it actually makes sense. As Sunstein points out, Star Wars is probably the biggest entertainment phenomenon in the last century, and it has lots to say about the Big Themes of freedom, ethics, family, power and money.

Plus, Sunstein is an absurdly versatile writer. He’s penned books and essays about the constitution, viral marketing, animal rights, South African music and Bob Dylan. He was also Obama’s “Regulatory Czar” during his first term (he met his wife Samantha Power, ambassador to the UN, working on the Obama campaign).

I learned many lessons from Cass’s highly entertaining and enlightening book. As a sample, below are six pieces of business wisdom that Star Wars has taught us.

(Full disclosure: I’m related to Cass — he’s my first cousin once removed. But I’d find his book interesting even if he were from a species native to Naboo).

Improvise like a jazz musician at the cantina

As Yoda says, “Impossible to see, the future is.” Without perfect foreknowledge, improvisation and flexible thinking are absolutely crucial in business.

As Cass says, “The best designers are improvisers. They have ideas, and they shoot off sparks, but they may have nothing that counts as a grand plan.”

Cass recounts a note that George Lucas sent to the writers of the TV show Lost. The note said, “Don’t tell anyone, but when Star Wars first started, I didn’t know where it was going either. The trick is to pretend you knew all along.”

Mix, match and borrow

When George Lucas first conceived of Star Wars, he thought of it as a “Western movie set in outer space.” This is what my friend, the investor and writer James Altucher, calls “idea sex.” The best new ideas are often mash-ups that combine two good (if familiar) older ideas.

Another example: Star Wars is Kurosawa with robots. Lucas has said that the characters of R2D2 and C3PO were inspired by the two bickering peasants who wander the desert in Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s movie The Hidden Fortress.

Rarely do ideas spontaneously generate out of a vacuum. Shakespeare borrowed (heavily borrowed) Romeo and Juliet’s plot from Italian novels and poems, which borrowed in turn from Ovid. Leonard Bernstein transplanted the Romeo and Julietstory to 1950s New York. Lin-Manuel Miranda took Bernstein’s idea of mixing traditional Broadway format with cutting-edge music and came up with Hamilton. And so on.

Get in their faces

There’s no substitute for physical proximity. Show up in person. When looking for a job, make sure you’re close to the decision-makers.

Consider that in 1975, Harrison Ford was an unsuccessful actor. He’d had a small part in George Lucas’s previous film, American Graffiti, but Lucas wasn’t planning on casting any American Graffiti actors in Star Wars.

When acting work was unsteady, Harrison made extra money doing carpentry. So he took a job as a carpenter on the Star Wars set. Lucas spotted him, was reminded of his existence — and gruff charm — and ended up casting him as Han Solo.

Use the force

Well, at least a human, scientifically explainable version of the force.

Cass talks about how great athletes appear to have super-human perception. Think of no-look passes in basketball. Or how expert squash players know where the ball is going before their opponent even hits it.

The explanation is pattern recognition. “That might well be the essential skill of the Jedi,” writes Sunstein. “If you feel the Force you can see patterns where other people see merely a blur.”

(Of course, be wary of seeing false patterns, a huge human weakness. We are prone to see the Virgin Mary’s face in a waffle).

Overconfidence is a curse

One of the many cognitive biases humans suffer is overconfidence, especially if you’re a big corporation. Think of how Darth Vader believed the resistance had no chance against the empire.

Except when it isn’t

Sometimes you need to be delusionally optimistic, especially if you’re the underdog. Think back to Han Solo, as he steered the Millennium Falcon into a dense thicket of asteroids.

C3PO told him, “Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1!.”

“Never tell me the odds,” snapped Han Solo.

Want to learn how to focus?

Download my free guide — How to Focus: The 4 Best Secrets to Unitasking

I devoted a month to becoming the most focused person in the world. (Never quite made it; Buddhist monks can still out-meditate me with one frontal lobe tied behind their backs). But I did pick up some secrets. Here are four.

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