[Caveat emptor: I write this to share gratitude, but I also recognize that I am very fortunate in so many ways; many people are struggling.]
Like many people, I am a creature of routine and habit. I have the same lunch every day (plain oatmeal with blueberries). I try to go to bed by 10 pm and wake up by 6 am every day. I play golf every Saturday morning. I made it a goal of mine to drive my kids to school many days (when I’m not traveling). Pretty much, I LOVE creating habits and sticking to them! Yes, I’m also pretty boring at parties…
But for me, there is no tradition that is more important than the one I share with my family every Christmas Eve. The night before we gorge ourselves on consumer capitalism by a tree, we sit together and enjoy 2 hours and 10 minutes of black and white, melodramatic goodness that is the classic film It’s A Wonderful Life. If you haven’t seen It’s A Wonderful Life (you should definitely watch it), it’s a cherished holiday classic about George Bailey, a young man who starts his life with so much ambition but ends up feeling like he missed out (fear of missing out or “FOMO” was even a thing even back then!). At the nadir of a crisis in his family business, he wonders whether the world might be better without him. And finally, Clarence, an angel without wings, convinces him otherwise.
I’m likely the most annoyingly-energetic and positive person you’ll ever meet. I’m always smiling and saying cliche expressions like “awesome” and “who’s fired up.” I’m the “SaaS nerd who creates music video parodies,” for goodness sake.
But I’m also human. I’m very privileged and grateful for everything I have, but life is hard sometimes. My parents are getting older, and their health issues are hard to witness. My kids are growing up way too fast. I somehow feel lonelier every year. And I still don’t think I’ve achieved enough in my life.
Every year by December 24th, the weight of the year has worn me down emotionally, sometimes so much that I feel like I can’t breathe. It’s A Wonderful Life is my annual therapy to pick me back up and inhale life into the New Year.
When people watch IAWL (as true fans call it), they often summarize it as being:
- “About the importance of friends and family”
- “About what really matters”
- “About rediscovering your beliefs”
- (or after 2008) “About the perils of mortgage crises”
That’s all true. But for me, George Bailey, the protagonist, teaches me something else each year.
“You Are Not Enough,” Says Twitter
The primary source of most of my work-related joy and work-related existential angst comes from the same app we all know – Twitter. I get entertained by random people that I’ll never meet, I learn about interesting topics I’ve never thought about, and I generally feel more connected.
At the same time, Twitter gives me a daily dose of what I haven’t yet accomplished:
- “Meet the latest [40 under 40, 30 under 30, 20 under 20, 10 under 10]”
- “See the newest billionaires in your neighborhood”
- “[Company X] goes public for a hundred trillion dollars”
- “Elon Musk is now worth more than all the stars in the universe” (or thereabouts)
And so on.
Indeed, I saw an article from SaaStr that said in 2021, 46 new “unicorn” tech companies were anointed every month. That’s a pretty good reality check for most of us.
And none of this mentions the other social networks, where you get to hear about all of the great things your friends and family are achieving OUTSIDE of work!
Like I often do, it’s easy to look at all of this and think, “how can I ever measure up? Why does anything that I do matter at all?”
It sometimes feels like life is a daily reminder that I am “not enough.”
Do you ever feel like that?
Enter George Bailey
While there are so many iconic scenes in IAWL (the high school dance with George and Mary, “Buffalo Gals,” the “honeymoon suite,” every Potter line, and so on), there is one that always sticks with me:
George Bailey: I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that. I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…
George starts out as the ultimate dreamer’s dreamer. He is all ambition. In 2021, he’d be “hustling.” He’d be “crushing it.” And yes, he’d be on the “20 under 20” list.
The tragedy of the movie is that George’s aspirations are constantly deferred. Bedford Falls is like Bruce Springsteen’s proverbial “town full of losers,” and all George wants to do is “pull out of there to win,” but he feels locked up. Whether it’s due to a family death or a bank run, his dreams are always on hold. While he may have been “Born to Run,” he is forced to watch his friends advance while he is “stuck,” frozen in place.
Meaning Isn’t Someone Else’s To Define
This brings me to my favorite scene, where George tells his dad how excited he is to leave for college. Many of us are familiar with that eager energy to get out of the house, anxious to get going with our lives.
After hearing George’s frenetic verve, his dad asks him if he could ever return to run the family business.
George Bailey: Oh, now Pop, I couldn’t. I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office… Oh, I’m sorry Pop, I didn’t mean that, but this business of nickels and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe… I’d go crazy. I want to do something big and something important.
Pa Bailey: You know, George, I feel that in a small way we are doing something important. Satisfying a fundamental urge. It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace, and we’re helping him get those things in our shabby little office.
This is the moment of the movie that always gets me. His dad advocates for finding purpose in even the dimmest and “shabbiest” of places. Peter (Pa) Bailey believed that impact wasn’t just about wealth or fame. He defined his own way of measuring his life. But George doesn’t see it – initially.
In the end, after some angelic intervention, George realizes that the Bailey Building and Loan, the “broken down” business, has had a profound effect on hundreds of families in Bedford Falls. Maybe his father hadn’t achieved fame or wealth, but he lived a fulfilling life. It couldn’t be measured in the length of bridges or the height of skyscrapers, but it did impact the people around him. Life can still have meaning and wonder, even if one never makes any Forbes or Fortune lists. George just needed Clarence, his guardian, to remind him of this.
Just like I need George Bailey to remind me of this every year.