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Is Life Truly "Up in the Air"?: TravelinEdMan's take on George Clooney's masterful role.
Wednesday, March 03, 2010
Have you seen the movie "Up in the Air" which came our around Christmas Eve? If so, what do you think? I saw it on opening night when everyone else was going to Avatar or Sherlock Holmes. They missed out on what I think was one of the best movies of all time. A summary of the movie in Wikipedia is available.

On February 20, 2010, Lisa Neal Gualtieri from eLearn Magazine posted to the eLearn Magazine blog review of it. She argued that it is George Clooney's best performance. She also commented that much of what is covered in there relates to training problems. She commented on training performance issues, mentoring, training delivery formats (FTF or videoconferencing), and coping with the difference between academically taught theory and real world practices. Lisa is spot on in so many ways. Yes, this movie has much to tell corporate training folks. However, the connections I made were more related to one's life path. With some gentle nudging from Lisa, I commented on her blog post tonight (thanks Lisa!). Much of my response is below (though I expanded on it a bit here and reworked some parts).

This movie is filled with life questions that we all face. Some that we rarely, if ever, are willing to admit to. My son, Alex, and I discussed them on the way home after watching the movie. It has been 2 months since I saw the movie so remembering these issues may be difficult for me. Below are some that we discussed as well as some new ones I just thought of.

Themes or Paths in "Up in the Air":
1. "Major Career Goal(s)." He had a chance to hit the bigtime as a keynote speaker but at the last minute gave it up for love. It was his life dream and chance for a new career outside of firing people. That was, in fact, the pinnacle moment of the movie. We all have such life choices we face at some pt in our lives (some more often than others). Do we go for fame and money or love? Are career goals more important than family, personal, and emotional ones? What will you decide? What if you make the wrong decision? I mean to work and work and work for something and then to give it up for something or someone seemingly special that truly is not there. Totally blindsided by love or something new. Could something more worse ever happen to anyone? Can it? But if so, what would result to that person and his or her inner soul? What would happen to the passion and striving for something more meaningful or different in one's life? Would career types of goals forever vanish? Would the marrow really be sucked out of one's life? Where does Ryan Bingham go from here? Back on a plane I guess. Picking up another backpack of experiences. Oh that backback of his..that backpack we each carry around with us. Multicolored. Sturdy. Handy. Portable. Inclusive. Unbrakeable. Compact. Touching. It holds our identity. And our identity holds it...yes it holds it together at times by a final twisting little piece of string. Hang on "Ryan"...hang on.

2. "Family Connections." What about the reconnection with family? Being from Wisconsin originally, the VFW posts, beer pubs, wintry roads, former high schools, and little hotels in faraway places had me thinking. I remember those days ice fishing with my father on Lake Mendota in Madison as well as Lake Pewaukee nearer to home in Milwaukee and those much further to the north (and colder). I remember the dirty snow. I remember the endless beer and brandy poured out. I remember the accents (no, not Fargo-like, but close). And I remember moving away and now not wanting to live there again. It is just too cold. But will we all someday return home to celebrate who we are and find our identity in our family? What will draw us back? Will it be something accidental or purposeful? Is it destiny to return? And what happens to those who never do...who never come to grips with the fact that their current occupation is not or can never be the whole of who they are?

3. "On the Run" which some might call the theme of "Flight." Then there is the theme of leaving and being always on the run or on the go. We are flying here or there and just where "there" really is does not matter. What matters is the departure...getting on that plane. What are we departing from? Where are we arriving at? A new life for a day or 2 or a week? Some space? What happens to one's soul when there is no permanancy or place to call home except for 15 or so days of the year? Can home be up in the air? Can it be in plane? Can flying provide a sense of home? Can home be in the airport ala that movie Tom Hanks was in a few years back (The Terminal, 2004)? Can it be going through endless security checks? Just where is home for those road warriors? Is there a need for home that we all feel? Or are a select few excluded from it?

4. "Commitment." St. Louis one day. Omaha, Detroit, Las Vegas, Chicago, or Miami the next. What are people who travel so much running from? Commitment? Death? Stability? A sedentary lifestyle? Or are they trying to remain young or keep their future options open by not commiting to anything or anyone? Alternatively, might they be commiting to the world at large and trying to provide service to people spanning the far reaches of the globe instead of just those in a particular company, organization, region, community, neighborhood, or city.

5. "Love" and "Spontaneity." Love is certainly a theme. What happens when one shuts out love or emotion for years or decades and then finds it, only to have it quickly and without much warning shut on him or her? What happens next time? And can love just spring up spontaneously when on the road when one is avoiding commitments? In some ways, that word--"spontaneity"--is a theme as well. Much is preset in "Up in the Air" but so much more is happening on the "fly" or in a highly spontaneous and uncontrollable fashion. Do these two words--"love" and "spontaneity"--dance with each other throughout one's life? Do each serve in their own way to make one more creative and complete? Do they coalesce at some point to help one find his or her true volition...or, in this case, to potentially take a huge detour from it. As noted above, the paths we seek for years can come to halt when we meet what we think is our destiny in the form of a future soulmate or ideal project or new initiative. What new projects arise each month or week or day that take us away from our focus, goals, and life quests to make a difference in the world...or our slice of it anyway?

6. "Apprenticeship." Apprenticeship is a theme. One is coached and mentored by those with more experience and insights on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Such timely apprenticeship can take place face-to-face or via an assortment of technologies today (phone, text messaging, MSN, Skype, videoconferencing, etc.). Apprenticeship is all around us. A solid mentor can pull one through some rough times and send one on an accelerating trajectory. Sometimes, however, it is quite confusing to know just who is doing the mentoring and who is being mentored. The newbie at work just might have some creative insights into solutions to problems that have been perplexing management or a team leader for years. We each learn from the "green" people around us as well as those who are black and blue from all the bruising battles they have been in. Personally, I learn most lessons from people decades older and younger than me. Ryan Bingham is learning from a rich array of people around him in this movie. The more he mentors and apprentices others, the more they mentor him.

7. "Life Purpose." What is life is a theme. What is our purpose. In the movie, George Clooney (Ryan Bingham) thought it was to get up and go and never put down roots. At some point, he questions it. He thinks about that grand life choice. Seeing someone younger than him go through the emotions of a relationship definitely has him thinking. Life purpose is the big question eating away at each of us each day of our lives, and it happens whether we know it or not. This movie is one of many that put such inner life questions on display and they tug at the soul of the audience. That tugging is what raises films like this above most others.

8. "Reaching More Modest, Mid-Term, and Momentary Goals." Then there is the goal of having flown nearly 10 million miles and counting down to the ultimate day and flight. And when it happens, you are too distracted to really remember it or to focus on it. We are humans. As such, we are goal driven creatures. Goals sometimes dictate who we are and what we do...too often in fact. But after having flown so many miles each year, Ryan Bingham reaches his goal, and in a strange way, he does not care. The potential relationship and commitment overrides it. Love here once again has trumped those little goals that consume us all endlessly each day, each month, each year, without end. Teeny, tiny, little goals and narrow focuses get us through all those flights to Omaha and Las Vegas (though a few shows at night might help as well). But when one finds someone or something to finally commit to, those more modest, smaller, or mid-term goals are quickly forgotten or flow to the background of one's life. They are momentary goals and that is really all that they are. Why do we spend so many hours fretting about them? Well, perhaps we do this to give us the expression, "such is life."

9. "Change." Change is a theme. Change is a constant in the lives of everyone in the movie. Change, like the grim reaper, will creep up on you. You get fired. Move to a new address or city. Find a new job. Head to a new location. Get a different boss. Find a new lover. Learn to like a new song or dance move. Fly a different airline. Use a different rental car service. Some people cope with change better than others. Some cannot take change of any shape or form. How can such people be helped? Does firing them via videoconferencing soften the blow of losing a job? Does having a patented or preset answer to each question that may come up along the way really help someone cope such change? And what happens when several such predicaments or life stressors come in succession or waves? Do you want to simply ignore or, worse, strike out, at those with their forms, formats, and canned talk?

10. "Control." Parallel to change is the tenth theme of control. You think you control your life. But it is really the company, the economy, the pilot, the agent, the flight attendant, the neighbor, the sister, the niece, the co-worker, etc. They all have a piece of you and your life. So what do you really, ultimately control? Can you really control anything? Do you control any aspect of your life when you shut out most or all others from it? That is one way to view this film anyway. In actuality, I believe in some personal sense of control in one's life path--i.e., you can fly American (which I rarely do) or Delta/NW. Well let's hope for more personal control than that. What do you think? Do you control each step you take...each decision you seemingly make...each accomplishment you might list? Yes, personal control is a theme here all right.

These are 10 or 12 themes that I see in Up in the Air. I am sure that you will have your own themes or issues; this movie is full of them. As someone who gives 80-100 or more talks per year all over the globe, I can relate to much of it. However, I do not have any goal to reach 10 million miles anytime soon.

And for me? I go up in the air in 4 days to Oklahoma City and 4 days later to Atlanta and then Auburn, Alabama the following day. During the past few weeks, I have been to Fargo, Minneapolis, Frankfort (Kentucky), Indianapolis, Houston, Austin, etc. You can find those talks posted as color PDF documents at my site in the achived talks section. You can also find some video snippets I did for STARLINK in Dallas on their recent program on the Web 2.0 in Higher Education (which they filmed in Bloomington back in early January). They will produce another show later on this month related to motivation with technology (wherein I will make an appearance or 2 or 3 perhaps) using footage from the January filming.

For now, TravelinEdMan, is enjoying this 2 week reprieve from flying. How about you? Up in the air are you? See ya there then...see you there. And do bring along your backpack and show me a few things that you have in it. I am forever curious. I will bring my famed fishbag to show you...bought in 1994 during the AERA Conference in New Orleans, there are just a few threads holding it together.
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  posted by Curt Bonk @ 4:26 PM  
  • At 6:26 PM, Blogger Lisa Gualtieri said…

    I loved your in-depth analysis, and am honored to have inspired your blog post, if not your ideas.

  • At 6:30 PM, Blogger Lisa Gualtieri said…

    p.s. I have seen many movies after reading the book, and have also not seen movies when I really liked the book and thought the movie might ruin it. I'm reading the book now and like the movie much better. I haven't decided if it is the book itself or the order of activities.

  • At 7:35 PM, Blogger Curt Bonk said…

    I think most people read the book before the movie, Lisa, since hot selling books often lead to movies. Guess, then, that there will not be a movie called "The World is Open" anytime soon. Smile. How about, "The World is Wide Open"??? Someday I hope to see George Clooney in that. Smile. Thanks for inspiring me tonight. I should have been working on something else. As always. Perhaps I was "up in the air" about that too. Thanks again for the push-push...nudge-nudge.

  • At 1:09 AM, Blogger Mark said…

    A lot of stuff here - and in the movie to chew over. I agree that I do not think there is a single day that I do not ask myself what it is that I am trying to achieve - and I really don't know the answer for sure.
    My lens is somewhat different to yours in that I have no where near the amount of travel - but as a long term expatriate living away from 'home' more than 15 years, there are some similar issues.
    In fact being married to a person from another country means that one at least is always away from home - we share no common home or culture.

    I sometimes wonder about that aspect for my 3 year old daughter with a Brit father and Russian mother - bilingual and born in the American hospital Dubai. She has lived all her life in the UAE but will never be a citizen. She spends time in Russia and UK but neither will ever be home. She has in her class of 16 at nursery, 11 nationalities!
    A true global citizen and many positive things but what of roots and culture and so on?
    Thanks for a great post.

  • At 7:15 AM, Blogger Curt Bonk said…

    Ah, that are two more views I could have included Mark--the ex-pat perspective (which you currently have) and the point of view of the child of an ex-pat (both her viewpoint now as well as 20 or 30 years from now) on what home really means. I think your daughter will be enriched by this experience...I really do. I may have to do an article addendum. Smile. But yes, travelers, ex-pats, military personnel and their spouses, sons, and daughters, and so on can likely all relate to this movie in one or more ways. This is especially true with the stark cultural differences between placed like the UK or North America and the Middle East. Thanks for the comment Mr. Mark.

  • At 3:41 PM, Blogger Unknown said…

    I passed on watching the movie (for Avator and Sherlock Holmes no less!) but after reading your post, will make sure I go check it out.

    Thanks for the taking the time to write - such a long article! ;)

    Ultimate Lifestyle Project - The World is Flat

  • At 6:56 PM, Blogger Curt Bonk said…

    Yes, Lara, someone in your line of work ("lifestyle consultant") might really enjoy such movies. Thanks for stopping by my blog and reading. Good movie but so was Sherlock Holmes.

  • At 11:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 6:05 PM, Blogger MW (My Wish) said…

    Great questions you've raised, Curt. Even though I have a phd in career development and counselling, I can't help thinking how naive I was when I entered the field-thinking that life can be planned and paths can be followed and I could be the change agent for people. I have a different attitude now compared to when I was younger. Yes, career and life goals can be changed unpredictably, and it really depends on where we are at in our stages of life and of course life experiences. There are no rules to follow and the theories of career development...only bring out the fundamentals which are to do what we want and what make us happy. And only we know what is right for ourselves. But to figure that out takes time and patience. Patience is what I wish for myself in life.

  • At 9:29 PM, Blogger Curt Bonk said…

    Great points there Lori. We all are growing. We all are learning and pondering new paths. Do we move to Omaha for a boyfriend or girlfriend? Do we take off on a boat late at night during a conference and enjoy our new "temporary" friends? Do we take pictures at each stop with a fake portrait to pretend you have friends with you who care or that your friends or family have been placed that they have not? Do we take a backpack or a suitcase? Is life so simple? Is it so hard?

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Name: Curt Bonk
Home: Bloomington, Indiana, United States
About Me: I am a former accountant and CPA and a former educational psychologist. I am now Professor of IST at Indiana University and also adjunct in the School of Informatics. I founded and later sold SurveyShare. As president of CourseShare, LLC, I run around the world training instructors to teach online and give motivational talks about emerging learning technologies. I also write and edit books related to e-learning and blended learning. See bio and vita.

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