Andreia Domingues

@AndreiaDomz

My readings would make a LEGO movie —the lessons that turned into pile-able bricks

I watched The Lego Movie one year ago. At the time I remember being wildly surprised by its originality but I didn’t finish it. This year, after reading many books, I was reminded of some of the insights the movie gave me, and decided to watch it again.

I have always felt attracted by Philosophy, Sociology and other Human Sciences as sort of X-ray devices, that help to see through the society infrastructures and sometimes even through and individual’s heart to see what is really going on — even (and mostly importantly) when nobody is aware.

In a way, it seemed to me that life was like a game in which the one that understood its rules would get the upper hand — even if that meant not winning something any more material than understanding that s/he was part of game, regardless of the capacity to perform in it.

I can never forget the explanatory video made by the 8-bit philosophy when I was getting a deeper understanding about the book The Stranger from Camus. The video precisely explains the key ideas of the existential philosophy by making exactly the parallel of life to a game. Although the person could not fix the absurdity of the game of life, s/he seemed to me somehow better of by knowing that it was absurd.

Donkey Kong & The Myth of Sisyphus — 8-Bit Philosophy

I think the Lego Movie uses the bricks to make an important X-ray to the dynamics, beliefs, behaviors that shape modern society. Some of the themes that are brought up made me think about many of the books I am reading, from best-selling authors of our days. Next time you watch it see if you can identify them for yourself.

1. People crave following rules

The Lego movie starts with a (Lego) construction worker following a checklist to happiness early in the morning before heading to work. If those rules are followed he should fit in, be liked, and be happy (in that order).

Well, I have been reading many books, and I came to realize that some of the most successful involve the world rule in the name — check the bestselling the “5-second rule” where the empathetic author and narrator Mel Robbins (by the way one of the best narrators ever IMO) goes over how she discovered that 5 seconds where all it took to activate her pre-frontal cortex and regain control over her life, or the also best-selling “10X rule” , where the author and narrator Grant Cardone, explains how increasing his volume of action tenfold, led him to achieve success in life.

People crave control, and giving them a set of rules they can follow in order to achieve success, to have better relationships, to be happier seems to address that craving, and propel many of these books to stardom.

Emmet — the Lego construction worker — was no different and relied in a manual of instructions to go through the day, since he woke up until he slept.

Opening scene in The Lego Movie, where the main character goes through a set of Instruction Manuals

2. Not “Everything is Awesome”

The main song that echoes throughout the movie has the refrain “Everything is Awesome” and is sung by workers when they are performing their somewhat mechanical and instruction-led construction tasks, echoing the positive speel so in-vogue for the last years.

In fact, the effort to see things in a more positive light, to foster positive thoughts expecting that they trigger better actions is everywhere, from t-shirt prints, to mugs and across pretty much all the startup culture.

Unikitty, one of its most interesting characters oscillates between bouts of happiness and bouts of anger — when all the positivity was not enough to face her world being dismantled.

Angry Unikitty in The Lego Movie

What makes this character so interesting is that she lets go of the somewhat overbearing “Everything is Awesome” motto. In fact, although there are advantages in trying to see life in a more positive light, it is important to grief as well, and allow oneself to be sad.

The philosopher Alain de Botton has a Sunday Sermon in the School of Life, on the Wisdom of Pessimism, that goes against the trend to (force ourselves to) see everything in a positive light, in which he quotes Nietszche’s famous words:

“To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished.”

and also:

“If you refuse to let your suffering lie upon you even for an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible distress way ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that [you harbor in your heart]… the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable little people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or, as in your case, shall remain small together.”

3. An authentic sense of specialness, that goes beyond labels by others, can go a great way

Millennials are often accused of being entitled and feeling like a special snowflake — whose thoughts and feelings should be carefully handled, lest they would break.

In the movie the all-too-common and not-so-special Emmet comes across the “piece of resistance”, a piece that should only be found by a very special human being, and that granted him automatically that status, despite him feeling not special.

Throughout the movie Emmet feels like an impostor, someone that was really not that special, but an “accident” made others think he was. He is the anti-hero that ends up saving the day.

There is a funny scene in which Vitruvius the guru, delivers a speech about the specialness of Wyldstyle, wrongly believing she was the one in the profecy, and when he realized he was wrong in his attribution, promptly delivered the same exact speech to Emmet, making it show in his cookie-cutter approach, that specialness attributed by others can be that meaningless.

I think the point here is the enabling aspect that feeling special (in a sense more unique than special) gives you to do special things — if you can overcome the impostor syndrome — that goes beyond and is independent of the label of special by others.

4. Makers will make — and many times amazing things

The Maker movement is contemporary subculture that encourages people to use their creativity to build things. In the movie, not only the main character is a construction worker, but there are also human “Master Builders”, which is actually a real position at Lego — as I would discover in a A LEGO Brikumentary, a movie about the Lego company — that build quite complex structures using the bricks.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to participate in a 3-day workshop organised by a local Fablab that had many disciplines appealing to makers: 3D printing, biohacking, robotics (in this case playing with Arduino) and textile hacking that are appealing to makers. I chose the robotics/Arduino class but walked around to see the outputs from the other classes.

I was so surprised to see the things that people are able to make when allowed to play with their creativity, and their capacity to rescue the inner child that is left to play alone when growing old, paying homage to the almost too-often-quoted expression by Picasso that “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up”.

It is one of the most inspiring movements, uniting generations in making things that sometimes are just magical.

5. Heros like hip-hop and going it all alone — hubris is sung out loud

The batman character in the Lego Movie — and here I am also referencing to the sequel Batman Lego Movie — is a self-assured, lone hero, that sings his own praises to himself and loves heavy music.

Well, at the time I had just read/listened to the book The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz about his journeys of success and failure in the tech world. Each chapter begins with a reference to a hip-hop-song and the narrator on Audible has that tone of voice/attitude that reminded me of the one of Batman in The Lego Batman movie.

This is a completely subjective (and some may say unfair) comparison, but test it for yourself, watch the movie and play a snippet of the book on Audible and see if you get the same vibe that I did.

6. Great villains are vulnerable too

Brené Brown became famous when hear TED talk about the power of vulnerability went viral. In her books she explains the importance of being vulnerable as a tool to reconnect with ourselves amidst a culture of “never enough”. Well, in both movies batman is forced to work with others and recognize his own fragility in order to beat the bad guys.

But perhaps one of the most heartwarming scenes is between Batman and Joker, when Batman tells Joker that he doesn’t mean anything to him, and Joker almost cries. It is very special that the authors were able to dismantled one of the most terrifying villains — yes, the grin by Jack Nicholson’s Joker gives me the creeps — and show the underlying (quite human) feelings that give rise to his villainy. Brené Brown talks about the image of a small man manipulating a big mask, and that is exactly what this movie depicts. A small and vulnerable man manipulating this big image of a terrible villain. I am pretty sure that before this no one had the capacity to look at Joker through this other lens.

“Let me tell you something J bird: (…) There is no us. Batman and Joker are not a thing. I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone. You mean nothing to me. No one does” The LEGO Batman Movie

Another one, is the dialogue between Batman and the butler Alfred, when Alfred tells him that the thing Batman is most afraid is not monsters, but being part of a family again. A very though hero is once again dismantled into someone that is tough to fight the most terrific monsters but not his feelings of inadequacy.

7. Women are sharing the spotlight

This is one of the most evident — in both movies — there is always a female hero, that comes to the rescue of the opposite sex. The female hero is somewhat a stereotype herself, softer, more compassionate and gregarious and concerned about the group, but is put on equal footing to address the problems that were faced by the previous (male) heroes.

8. Gurus should be taken with a pinch of salt

Perhaps one of the most hilarious characters is Vitruvius, the guru/sorcerer, the whispers prophecies about what has to happen (while sometimes disclosing ignorance about the most basic things). The New Yorker best-seller lists are full of gurus and some even gifted to know what will happen in a 20 year time horizon, literally.

Read Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, and you will believe that you have gotten a taste of the future.

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed that book, and enjoy the creative capacity to speculate about the future, but this hilarious character in the movie alerts us to the fact that we should have our own observation, research and testing mechanisms (mostly in what is called a post-truth era) and don’t rely on someone just because they are called gurus, after all history is full of Malthusian and other prophecies that didn’t materialize.

9. The Superstar of the future loves Stats and Compassion

In the Lego Batman movie, agent Barbara Gordon “cleaned the streets of the sister city Gotham City, Blüdhaven, using Statistics and…Compassion” and highlights a four point program to address the issues that remain unsolved despite of Batman’s decade-long efforts .

Well, deep learning and the capacity to interact with the data provided by intelligent machines is a clear trend, and rivers of ink have been written in that respect.

In the documentary InnSaei, about the role and importance of intuition in our lives, I have watched Daniel Shapiro, professor at Harvard, claiming the importance of developing another set of skills, namely understanding what other people are feeling in order effectively to act and interact in the world. So compassion seems to be entering the temples previously devoted to rational thinking.

The need for Ninjutsu is not that clear for me, but perhaps it can be related to the flurry of jobs that require you to be a “Ninja” at something.

10. Mastery allows for going beyond the rules

The most important lesson for me, was how the Lego Master Builders where master builders because they didn’t need to follow any rules. In fact, when I watched The LEGO Brickumentary, I was somewhat surprised that they have the actual job of masterbuilder, and that many of the masterbuilders or award winning Lego designers — are awarded their capacity to build things literally out-of-the box.

One of the artists that builds with Lego talked about the time when he discovered that he didn’t need to follow the instructions, and became aware of the endless possibilities that come when not building by the book.

In fact mastery, often involves the possibility to be creative. When you are very good at something, when you have mastered it, your brain seems to have the resources freed to be more creative.

Conclusion

Instead of riding piles of books, you should be watching LEGO movies 😎 . Just kidding. But the truth is that I did see many of the key lessons I have extracted from the books I am reading in these movies.

Well, rest assured, I am not going to rush to change my name to Wyldstyle (although I love when characters keep asking the character if that is a name of a DJ) but seeing all these behaviors and characteristics displayed in brick size, gave me some perspective, objectivity and awareness to some of the things that in other types of movies (perhaps because they have people portraying people and not cute cubic shaped toys portraying people) don’t come across as clearly.

Furthermore, the movie helped me retain concepts that otherwise would be too disperse or seem to unrelated, because their characters helped to bring it together.

When I think about Batman singing hardcore songs and praising his own efforts, I will always remember the narrator of The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, when I see Joker breaking into tears I will always think about Brené Brown’s concept of vulnerability and emotional exposure, and when I think of people that are creating new things, I will always think about the Master Builders. What’s more, when I see people behaving like special snowflakes, I wish they are doing so not because some Vitruvius told them they were, but because they discovered their uniqueness beyond labeling.

All these, I consider pile-able conceptual bricks, that where glued together by watching these movies. Give it a shot and tell me what do you see.

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