Success vs. Significance in the Movies

I am surprised by how often the theme of success vs. significance shows up in movies, that is, that significance is more important than success, or that relationships are more important than career.

The basic storyline usually involves a main character who becomes so focused on success that they eventually alienate those around them, usually a significant other.

A few movies quickly come to mind (please add others in the comments below), including Family Man, Liar, Liar, The Devil Wears Prada, and even the holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, which we wrote about last year.

“The Devil Wears Prada” is interesting from a leadership standpoint. It’s a movie about a young aspiring journalist, Andrea (Anne Hathaway), who takes on a job at a fashion magazine as an assistant to the editor. The editor, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) is a demanding, hard-nosed leader. She personifies success-at-any-cost. As the culture of Runway magazine begins to shape her and becomes more and more wrapped up in her job, her personal life begins to fall apart.

Upon hitting a low point at work, Andrea talks to a co-worker, Nigel (Stanley Tucci), who tells her …

Let me know when your whole life goes up in smoke. Means it’s time for a promotion.

Ultimately, Andrea, like the main characters of similar movies, chooses the path of significance over success-at-any-cost.

In the classic movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey (James Stewart), spends all of his adult life searching for success (starting with getting out of Bedford Falls) but never finds it. When he reaches the lowest point of his life, he encounters an angel named Clarence who gives him a glimpse of what life in Bedford Falls (and beyond) would’ve looked like had he not been born. In the process, George discovers that he had indeed lived a life of significance, even though it didn’t go the way he wanted it to.

The last time we watched the movie, Joleen noticed a sign on wall in Uncle Billy’s office just below a picture of Peter Bailey (George’s father) that read …

All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.

Significance is more important than success-at-any-cost.

At the end of the movie, George receives a book with a note from Clarence that says,

Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends.

Again, significance is the the goal. Relationships matter.

Of course, like many things, it’s not really either/or. You can, and should, seek to be successful, to make the most of the life God has given you. But you may need to adjust your understanding of success. The point is, don’t let success and personal ambition destroy you or the people close to you. Relationships matter; they determine your significance. Success, especially success-at-any-cost, has little value if it alienates you from others.

When push comes to shove, choose significance over success, because, in reality, that’s what real success is.

Can you think of other movies that have a similar theme promoting significance over success?

“Lars and the Real Girl”

Recently, we watched Lars and the Real Girl, starring Ryan Gosling as Lars. It’s an interesting — and sorta strange — but good movie with a powerful example of community.

Lars is an extreme introvert who mostly keeps to himself. But one day he invites Bianca (a friend he says he met on the internet) to visit him. Problem is, Bianca is not a real person; she is a life-size doll that Lars treats as if she were alive. At the doctor’s insistence, Lars’ brother Gus and his wife Karen reluctantly agree to treat Bianca as a real person in the hopes that it will help Lars break out of his delusion.

Of course, the movie chronicles Lars’ emotional journey. But the thing that struck — and inspired — me was the response of the community. Even though Lars lived mostly in solitude and didn’t mix well with others, people from his church and workplace supported him during this delusional period in is life.

In the midst of it, Lars hits a low point and tells his brother’s wife, Karin, that she doesn’t care about him. Kain reacts, saying …

That is just not true! […] Every person in this town bends over backward to make Bianca feel at home. Why do you think she has so many places to go and so much to do? Huh? Huh? Because of you! Because — all these people — love you! We push her wheelchair. We drive her to work. We drive her home. We wash her. We dress her. We get her up, and put her to bed. We carry her. […] None of this is easy — for any of us — but we do it. Oh! We do it for you! So don’t you dare tell me how we don’t care.

Later, when Lars believes that Bianca is dying, three older women from a “sewing circle” come and sit with him while Gus and Karin get away for an evening. Here’s part of their conversation …

Hazel: Well that’s how life is, Lars.
Mrs. Gruner: Everything at once.
Sally: We brought casseroles.
Lars: Thank you. [Lars looks around the sewing circle. The three ladies are knitting and doing needlepoint] Um, is there something I should be doing right now?
Mrs. Gruner: No, dear. You eat.
Sally: We came over to sit.
Hazel: That’s what people do when tragedy strikes.
Sally: They come over, and sit.

And finally, Lars believes that Bianca’s illness has ended in death. At the funeral, which was attended by people in Lars’ life, the pastor says …

Lars asked us not to wear black today. He did so to remind us that this is no ordinary funeral. We are here to celebrate Bianca’s extraordinary life. From her wheelchair, Bianca reached out and touched us all, in ways we could never have imagined. She was a teacher. She was a lesson in courage. And Bianca loved us all. Especially Lars. Especially him.

Well, it’s hard to imagine anyone having the kind of delusion that Lars did. And unfortunately, it’s also hard to imagine a community responding with as much love and maturity as Lars’ community did.

But I’d like to believe that that kind of community (specifically in the context of the church) is possible!

“It’s a Wonderful Life!”

On the day after Christmas, Joleen and I watched the 1946 movie, It’s a Wonderful Life!, starring James Stewart and Donna Reed. (Who hasn’t seen it?)

For years, we watched the movie every year (during the Christmas season) but took a break from it for a couple years, until this year. It’s a great movie about legacy and influence.

The movie tells the story of George Bailey, a world explorer wannabe, who spends his life trying to escape the small, struggling town of Bedford Falls. But as various circumstances arise, he never gets the chance to leave.

His family’s business, a building and loan company, struggles to stay in business because of Harry Potter’s (Lionel Barrymore) near monopoly on the town. Toward the end of the movie, George’s uncle Billy loses $8,000 of the company’s money, putting them at risk of losing the business and going to prison.

At that point, George has had enough and decides that everyone, including his family, would be better off if he were dead. But as George is preparing to jump into an icy river, an angel named Clarence dives into the river first, knowing George jump in to save him.

During their conversation afterward, George says he wishes he’d never been born. Clarence gets the bright idea to show George what life would have looked like for others had he not been born. The whole experience eventually leads George to the realization that he did, in fact, have a wonderful life.

Most people want their lives to matter, to have influence. George Bailey thought success meant building cities, traveling the world, and making money. But, as he eventually discovered, success is not just about doing great big things. Success is about making a difference in the lives of the people around you.

“The Great Debaters”

Ever since the movie, The Great Debaters, was released, we’ve wanted to see it. We finally got a chance to watch it on DVD this past week. And we’re glad we did.

“The Great Debaters” is about a debate team from Wiley College, an historically African-American United Methodist college, located in Marshall, Texas. The college was founded eight years after the end of the Civil War (1873). The movie is set in 1935.

Wiley College debated larger African-American schools and, when possible, white colleges and universities, and ultimately won the national championship. It’s an inspirational story from a painful time in American history.

For more on the movie, check out the movie review from See also Denzel Washington’s video message to United Methodists. Denzel Washington plays Melvin B. Tolson, a professor and coach of the debate team. See also this list of news stories at

Let us know if you’ve seen the movie and what you thought about it. If you rent the DVD, be sure to check out the bonus feature that tells the true story behind the movie; it includes interviews of people connected to the story.

We thought the courage and determination shown by the characters (and the real-life people behind the story) was very inspiring!

Marshall University

On our way home from Asbury, we stopped in Huntington, WV for a couple days. While there, we checked out some of the memorials related to the plane crash that killed most of the players on 1970 Marshall University football team.

Ever since we saw the movie, We are Marshall, we’ve noticed the exit signs for Marshall University on I-64 near Huntington, WV. So, on our final trip from Asbury, we finally got to stop.

Last November, we watched the movie, which is based on events surrounding the plane crash, and particularly, the rebuilding of the team in the months that followed. We enjoyed the movie and I wrote about it in this post (one of the more popular topics from search engine traffic, especially when the movie was still fairly new).

The story is a great example of leading during times of immense adversity. Coach Jack Lengyel, who was hired to rebuild the program, did a magnificent job!

For more on the 1970 tragedy, see Marshall University’s memorial page.

What we did …

  • We ate lunch at the Marshall Hall of Fame Cafe.
  • We visited the memorial at Marshall University.
  • We traveled to the Spring Hill Cemetery to see the memorial and the burial places of six of the players whose bodies were unidentifiable (as seen in the movie).
  • We saw the memorial at the football stadium.
  • And, finally, we visited the site of the plane crash on a hillside near the Tri-State Airport.

It was an interesting experience, especially after having watched the movie. Now, I want to see the movie again!

“The Martian Child”

This week, we watched the movie, The Martian Child (starring John Cusack and Bobby Coleman as Dennis, aka the Martian Child).

We saw a preview of “The Martian Child” a while back, and thought we’d like to see it. What we didn’t know at the time is that it is an adoption-related movie.

The movie opens with David (Cusack), a science fiction writer who’s recently lost his wife, considering the adoption of Dennis, a 6-year-old boy who thinks he’s from Mars. Dennis spends his time at the foster home in a large box because he fears sunlight. He wears a belt of batteries taped together because he fears he will float away due to earth’s weak gravity.

David eventually decides to take Dennis on a trial basis, at first. Once, David asked Dennis, “Why did they send you here? You know, the Martians?” Dennis replied, “To join a family and to learn human beingness.” Another time, Dennis is doing a Martian dance all by himself. David notices and then joins him. After their dance, Dennis says, “Nice talk.” In the movie, Dennis only eats Lucky Charms cereal — I’ve been craving Lucky Charms ever since! 🙂

The movie tells the story of David and Dennis’ journey, in the words of the movie’s tagline, “The story of a man becoming a father … and a boy becoming a son.” The movie is based on a true story. The original novel, The Martian Child, was written by David Gerrold, who wrote about his own story of adopting his son, who believed he was from Mars.

It’s a good movie.

We’re keeping a list of adoption-related movies. Previously, we wrote about Meet the Robinsons.

Also, please let us know (by posting a comment here) if you’ve seen “The Martian Child,” and what you thought about it (or even if you think you might watch it). Also, feel free to suggest other adoption-related movies.


Today marks our 14th our wedding anniversary. Over the course of the past 14 years, God has led us on quite an adventure!

We’ve spent about a third of our marriage in a doctoral program (that we’re trying to finish up!). That’s on top of beginning our marriage while we were completing a Master’s program. In all, we’ve spent nearly half of our marriage in school. We suppose it was fitting that we began our program at Asbury during the week of our 10th anniversary!

During the past 14 years, we’ve served 10 different churches between us. Because we’ve served in multiple church settings, we’ve served as many as 6 at the same time between us (currently 5). Also, we have lived in 6 different houses in 4 different towns since we’ve been married.

It’s been a great journey, so far, and we’re certain the adventure will continue. In the coming weeks, in fact, we’ll travel to Korea to become parents, which will be an adventure in itself!

As part of our anniversary celebration yesterday, we watched the movie, The Bucket List, which focuses on the adventures of two men, Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) and Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman). Edward is a corporate billionaire and Carter is a working class auto mechanic. Once strangers, their paths cross when they share a hospital room together where both men discover they have a terminal illness. Rather than giving up on life, however, they create a “bucket list,” an adventurous list of things they want to do before they “kick the bucket.”

It’s a good reminder for us to be intentional about living life to the fullest and making the most of our days so that we do not allow them to slip away unnoticed. That’s an especially good reminder as we move toward bringing Ethan into our home.

All in all, we’re incredibly grateful to God for his presence in our lives, and we look forward to all that God will do in and through our family in the years to come!

“August Rush”

Yesterday, we went to see the movie, August Rush (official movie site). The movie caught our attention a few weeks ago the moment we saw the first preview/commercial on TV. We knew immediately that this is a movie we wanted to see as soon as possible. August Rush just opened in theaters this past Wednesday. “An incredible journey moving at the speed of sound.” (movie tagline)

And we were not disappointed. In fact, we were blown away. August Rush is a very moving movie. It’s no wonder that the movie won a Truly Moving Picture Award.

The movie tells the story of an 11-year-old boy, Evan Talyor, whose name is changed to August Rush (Freddie Highmore) by the Wizard (Robin Williams), who Evan meets on the streets of New York. The boy lives in an orphanage, but believes that he will be reunited with his birth parents one day. He believes the music that he hears in everything will somehow connect him to his parents — Lyla Novacek (Keri Russell) and Louis Connelly (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) — from whom he was separated at birth.

We really look forward to this movie coming out on DVD in a few/several months. We may come back later and post some quotes from the movie after it’s released on DVD (subtitles on DVDs make it easy to transcribe some of the dialogue).

“We are Marshall”

We’ve been wanting to watch We are Marshall for a long time but it’s been hard to find a copy of the DVD on the shelf at one of the local video rentals stores. We finally watched it, and it was worth the wait.

We are Marshall is a true story about the rebuilding of Marshall University’s college football team following the plane crash in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia on 11.14.1970 that killed all 75 passengers (including the school’s 37-member team and coaches as well as a number of other community members).

At first it appeared the school would not try to rebuild the football program immediately. However, students, including Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), one the team’s players that wasn’t on the plane due to an injury, convinced school officials to rebuild the program, in a moving scene where students gathered on campus and shouted, “We are Marshall!”

Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) was the coach that was hired to rebuild the football program at Marshall. Lengyel was portrayed as a bit eccentric but was clearly the right person for the job.

In a major turning point, Jack convinced university president, Don Dedmon (David Strathairn), to get the NCAA’s approval to field freshman players. Jack asked President Dedmon, “Now, are you married?” After Dedmon said he was, in fact, married, Jack said, “I am willing to bet that you didn’t propose over the phone” and “I know … she didn’t say yes in a letter. Huh?” Jack went on to say …

You can do it. You’re an outlaw. Pioneer. Gunslinger. This is a whole new game, Doc. […] There’s a first time for everything, Don. And if we’re gonna survive, this has to be one of those times. And you’re the only man that can do it.

Later, in a scene between Jack and assistant coach, Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), the former team’s only remaining coach who had switched out with someone else just prior to the crash. Jack tries to change Red’s mind about quitting the team.

Just before the plane crash, Red had earlier recalled Coach Tolley’s final words to his team that had just lost on the field. He said, “Winning is everything.” In a scene that took place in a church, where Jack found Red, Jack says, “He was right, you know.” Red asks, “Who was right?” Jack says …

Your boy Tolley. Winning is everything and nothing else matters. I mean, I’ve said that so many times myself I’ve lost count. You know? And it doesn’t matter what sport, and it doesn’t matter what country and coach who’se worth a darn in this business believes those words. Fact. And then I came here. For the first time in my life, […] maybe for the first time in the history of sports, suddenly, it’s just not true anymore. At least not here, not now. No. You see, Red, it doesn’t matter if we win or if we lose. It’s not even about how we play the game. What matters is that we play the game. That we take the field, that we suit up on Saturdays, and we keep this program alive. We play the game, Red, and I’m telling you, one day, not today, not tomorrow, not this season, probably not next season either, but one day, you and I are gonna wake up and suddenly we’re gonna be like every other team in every other sport where winning is everything and nothing else matters. And when that days comes, well, that’s when we’ll honor them.

And he was right. At the end of the movie, viewers are told that Jack Lengyel resigned as head coach in 1974 with a record of 9 and 33. In fact, Marshall lost more games in the 70s than any other program in the nation. But yet, football remained. In 1984, the Herd had their first winning record in 20 years. They followed it with 8 conference titles, 5 straight bowl wins, and 2 national championships. The Young Thundering Herd proves that sometimes you just gotta play the game!

Just before the team’s first home game after the crash, Jack started a tradition at Marshall, taking the team to the cemetery where team members who died in the crash were buried just before the game. Here’s what Jack says to his team …

This is where we have been. This is how we got here. This is who we are today. I wanna talk about our opponent this afternoon. They’re bigger, faster, stronger, more experienced, and on paper, they’re just better. And they know it, too. But I wanna tell you something that they don’t know. They don’t know your heart. I do. I’ve seen it. You have show it to me. You have shown this coaching staff, your teammates. You have shown yourselves just exactly who you are in here (pounding his chest with fist). Now, when you take that field today, you’ve gotta lay your heart on the line, men. From the souls of your feet, with every ounce of blood you’ve got in your body, lay it on the line until the final whistle blows. And if you do that, if you do that, we cannot lose. We may be behind on the scoreboard at the end of the game, but if you play like that, we cannot be defeated.

It’s great comeback story!

The DVD also has a great 40-minute special feature that alone is worth the rental fee. The spot features legendary coaches, including Jack Lengyel, Bobby Bowden, Pat Summit, Lute Olson, George Horton, and John Wooden in their own words. It’s a leadership seminar! In the coming days, I’ll (Randy) post some quotes and reflections on the words of these great coaches.

“The Ultimate Gift”

Don’t just live a life, leave a legacy!

Awhile back, we watched The Ultimate Gift (official movie/movement website). We watched it again while visiting family in Tennessee earlier this week. It’s a great movie with the tag line, “A life experience becomes a gift.” The movie is based on Jim Stovall’s book, The Ultimate Gift.

The movie begins with the death of Red Stevens (James Garner), a wealthy businessman. One of his family members, Jason Stevens, expects (as does the rest of the family) a big inheritance. Instead, his grandfather recorded several video vignettes during his final days, which become a crash course on life for Jason. Red states …

So I want to give you a gift—a series of gifts leading up to, well, I wanna call it “the ultimate gift.” Now, you fail in any way, it’s over. You get nothing.

During one of his recorded speeches, Red says …

Our lives should be lived not avoiding problems but welcoming them as challenges that will strengthen us so that we can be victorious in the future.

That’s a great statement!

If you watch The Ultimate Gift on DVD, be sure to watch the beginning of the credits at the end of the movie for a recap of the “gifts,” which include:

The gifts of …

  • Work
  • Money
  • Friends
  • Learning
  • Problems (You don’t begin to live until you lose everything, Red.)
  • Family
  • Laughter
  • Dreams
  • Giving
  • Gratitude
  • A day
  • Love

The music in this movie, composed by Mark McKenzie is good. Our favorite is “Something Changed” by Sara Groves. The song is about life transformation. The chorus says …

And I cannot make it. And I cannot fake it. And I can’t afford it. But it’s mine.

The song, which appears on Sara’s 2005 Add to the Beauty CD, proclaims that life change is God’s work — you can’t make it, fake it, or earn it, it’s a gift from God to all who will receive it.

Since the movie we’ve become very interested in Sara’s music! We especially love her latest single (from her upcoming CD, “Tell Me What You Know” called “When the Saints,” an inspirational song for people who want to change the world).

One of the movie’s sponsors, Once Upon a Family, has put together a kit to help families put the message of the movie into practice. As we prepare for parenthood, we’re thinking about things like legacy and developing strong character in children. This movie certainly comes at the right time for us!

The movie reminded us of Leonard Sweet’s book, SoulSalsa, especially the chapter called, “Bounce Your Last Check.” You can read extensive portions of the book at Google Books (scroll down to page 52 to read a portion of this chapter). In the book, which you’ll find in our list of recommend books for leaders, Sweet says, “Soul artists receive good things gratefully and give it all away in the end.”

We strongly recommend “The Ultimate Gift.” Even more importantly, this is a movie that needs to be more than simply watched and enjoyed, it needs to be internalized and put into practice.

May God help us all to leave a legacy!