It’s a Wonderful Life: More Workplace Advice from a Christmas Classic

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Can two years in a row be considered a tradition?

Last year, I wrote Lessons in HR from Miracle on 34th Street. In keeping with the holiday season, this year, I’m focusing on workplace lessons from that Frank Capra Christmas Classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.

For those of you who weren’t around in the 80’s, when the film was shown over and over on countless television stations due it’s being in copyright limbo (read the history here), it’s the story of a man named George Bailey. George is a young man who dreams of travelling the world, but instead is stuck running his family’s Building and Loan in the small upstate New York town of Bedford Falls. When an unfortunate turn of events results in the near ruin of his business one Christmas Eve, he contemplates suicide. Clarence, an angel who has not yet earned his wings, comes to earth and shows George what the world would be like had he never been born. George comes to realize the numerous ways he has positively affected those around him. In the end, the many friends he has made over the years come together to bail him out.

The first lesson you can glean from It’s a Wonderful Life is that you don’t always get to follow your dreams. Numerous times, George tried to leave Bedford Falls, but circumstances (the death of his father, the Great Depression) interrupted his plans. Growing up, we are often told that we should follow our dreams. Whether it’s to be an NFL quarterback, an Astronaut or a Nobel Prize winning scientist, we are sold the message that we can be anything if we just put our minds to it.

Truth is, we can’t. Maybe we aren’t talented enough. Maybe we weren’t at the right place at the right time. Perhaps, like George Bailey, life interrupts. Me, I once dreamt of writing the Great American Novel, or at least the Great American SF Novel. But unless you get lucky enough to hit the bestseller list, or sell the movie rights, being a novelist isn’t going to pay the bills. So I took the jobs that came along, and one thing led to another. If someone told me 20 years ago that I’d be working HR, I would have asked, “What’s HR?” But here I am, and I’m all the better for it.

The second lesson from George is that life is duty. George doesn’t run the Bailey Business & Loan out of a passion for banking. He does so out of a sense of duty, to his family, his community, his customers. There’s a lot of talk these days about having fun at work. As I’ve said before, if work was fun, they wouldn’t pay you for it. George knows this all too well. So do the rest of us. We have people depending on us – our kids, our spouses, our coworkers, those we serve. We’ve made a commitment to our employers to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. We can’t just walk out on all that.

But before you get as downtrodden as George contemplating jumping off the bridge into the frigid river, there is a silver lining to these lessons. For most of the film, George is discontent because he never got to follow his dreams. His life was full of have-tos instead of want-tos. But once he embraced this, he discovered that he has gotten much more out of life than seeing the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China could ever give him. He was doing good for his community. He was respected. He was loved. His life of sacrifice wasn’t a tragedy, but a life many of us would envy. It is the fulfillment of these little dreams, not the big ones, that bring true happiness and fulfillment.

Now that you’ve gotten out the Kleenex and wiped your eyes, time to bring up the final, and most important, lesson. Lean in close, you don’t want to miss it:


George’s woes begin because his uncle Billy, who works at the B&L, misplaces $8,000 in cash. $8,000! That’s over $100,000 in today’s money. Not only does he lose it, he loses it by accidentally handing it to Mr. Potter, the unscrupulous bank owner bent on ruining George.

Uncle Billy is a drunk. He lives with a menagerie of animals, and he’s none to bright. There’s a reason he wasn’t put in charge of the B&L after George’s father died. The board knew he was incompetent. Yet George keeps him on out of loyalty, because he’s family. I’ve seen it a thousand times. I even had one guy who told me, “My father’s was part owner in the company, I can do whatever I want. No one will fire me.” The B&L wasn’t led to extinction because of George’s poor management, but because he was too nice to put his uncle out to pasture with a nice pension. This one mistake was almost the death of George.

So if you want to be happy at work, take joy in the simple pleasures of a job well done. And whatever you do, don’t answer calls from that second cousin who’s hungry for an interview.

Is that a bell I hear ringing?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

(And Chanukah and Kwanzaa too!)

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