Lessons from Edge of Tomorrow.
When it came out, I had the pleasure of seeing “Edge of Tomorrow” at the Cinema. Let me start by recommending that you go and watch this movie before you read this essay, as there may be a spoiler or two further down the page.
It was definitely worth the entrance fee, I came in expecting a run-of-the-mill Hollywood action movie and what I found was a highly intelligent and humorous movie, starring Tom Cruise being cast in a different role to his usual action hero persona. This is the kind of movie that you think about for several days after you’ve watched it. While it’s absolutely packed with action scenes, they integrate well into the movie and are not shot in that incredibly annoying “jittery” camera style of many movies of late.
Let me give you the low-down of what’s it’s about from IMDB:
“An officer finds himself caught in a time loop in a war with an alien race. His skills increase as he faces the same brutal combat scenarios, and his union with a Special Forces warrior gets him closer and closer to defeating the enemy.”
Sounds interesting right? Something along the lines of Groundhog Day mixed with Saving Private Ryan, with the exception that to reset the day the main character has to die.
What I really enjoyed about this movie is that it is predominantly about failure, I’ve written a lot about failure on this website, and I think it’s a great thing. Failure can inspire, teach, and bring things into perspective. Some of my greatest moments were failures, and I am a better human being because I have failed over, and over, again.
So, lets begin.
Lesson 1: We must learn to embrace failure.
How by failing again and again and again we can actually learn to embrace failure for what it really is – a great opportunity to learn, and a chance to take a long hard look at the way we do things.
As Bill Cage (Tom Cruise) continues to fail, he learns that there is no point being afraid to fail. As soon as he embraced failure, then he suddenly started to improve and the war against the aliens suddenly appeared winnable.
We’re all fighting some type of alien, whether it’s trying to make our business startups successful, raising a child properly or simply losing the spare tyre around our midsection. Often the war against these aliens appear unwinnable, there is too much to do, too much conflicting information (if there is any, of course) and simply not enough time.
Mr. Cage in Edge of Tomorrow didn’t get an option as to whether he could start or stop fighting. He just had to repeat it over and over again, failing miserably the entire time, to learn the best way of going about fighting his war.
We can do the same.
Instead of worrying about if and when we are going to fail if we start, it is simply best to just start and see where that takes us. This requires viewing life as an experiment, where are failure is just another sample of data to draw conclusions from. It requires switching the mindset from “I’ve gone bankrupt and the world will hate me – what shall I do?” to “I have learnt that I’m not suited to running a tech startup. I better look into doing something else, or learn the skills I need”.
While we can learn valuable lessons from failure, it is not the smartest way to learn. It seems the right time to modestly, as always, quote myself:
Confucius teaches us that there are three ways to learn to be wise. Firstly, we can reflect on what it is to be wise and we will find ourselves slowly becoming wise. Secondly, we can learn to be wise by imitating someone who is already wise. Thirdly, we can learn by experience. This is also commonly referred to as learning from our mistakes.
In my opinion, these are ranked by order of intelligence. The smartest way to learn is reflection, then by imitation, and then, by failure. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive, and you often cannot avoid doing all three, sometimes simultaneously!
Lesson 2: Nobody has any idea what the hell is going to happen next.
Call me skeptical, but as a rule of thumb I never believe the timelines that are provided to me. I normally add a 50% to 100% multiplier to have a more realistic estimate. Why is that? Are most people serial liars who constantly bullshit about timelines? Absolutely not, I am sure that they genuinely believe that things will be ready on time, and then life gets in the ways and the unexpected happens and before you know it an extra couple of months has gone past.
This is just one example of how bad human beings are at judging what will happen in the future. In fact, we all know that we’re not particularly great at it, but that doesn’t stop governments giving estimates of oil prices for 2023, when they don’t even know what the price per barrel will be tomorrow morning.
One conclusion that we could draw from this is that we should have a defeatist attitude, and absolutely ignore the future, as we have not idea what is going to happen.
What’s the point in planning if there are going to dozens of curveballs thrown at you from every conceivable angle?
Even in Edge of Tomorrow, with the advantage of living a particular moment hundreds and hundreds of time over, there was still no way that Tom Cruise’s character could know what would happen next. If he couldn’t do it, what hope do we have with the disadvantage of living in a linear time frame?
I’m fairly mathematical, and so I like to see it as a case of statistics. Planning can often be completely useless, but you move the odds in your favour in you do plan. The old saying “Fail to plan, plan to fail” still stands strong.
Planning also has one big advantage, in that even if the future situation turns out to be completely different to what you expected, it will still normally have aspects that you can relate to, and so your plan may still be useful after all.
In my opinion, planning is essential, but worrying about future events is not.
Worrying about future events, when you think about, it particular unintelligent. If you worry about it now, and then also worry about it when it actually happens, you will have worried about twice as much as you should. Of course, we should be thinking about the future, but we must accept that we don’t know what will happen.
From my own observations, things rarely turn out the way we think they will. Hardly ever are things as bad, or as good, as we think they will be. Then, very, very occasionally, things are far worse or far better than we ever expected – and that’s how life generally flows, long calm periods, interrupted by large waves.
This leads us to the conclusion that we should probably have a plan B, C and D. You should plan for things going really well, really badly, and also somewhere in between.
While we don’t have the same advantage of knowing exactly what will happen tomorrow, as the main character in this movie, , we can have a pretty good idea. I wrote about meditating on the next day each evening in my essay about Stoic Exercises.
So take this home with you: Don’t believe anyone who says they know exactly what will happen, don’t worry too much about the future but make sure you have a plan (or three).
Lesson 3: Daily habits are key.
In reality, we actually face the almost exact same situation as the main character. While we do not get to relive the same day or week, daily life is sufficiently repetitive that many lessons learn in one day can be applied to most. So when we wake up each morning, we have a fresh start, just like in Edge of Tomorrow.
This film is also about developing daily habits, it’s about thinking that each new day is a fresh start, which in itself is a great habit to work on. What happened in the past is now gone, there is nothing you can do about it, what is going to happen in the future is still unknown, so we might as well focus on the now. There are many philosophies that have this focus on the now as one of their core tenets.
We live our lives in this very minute, on what is going on right now. This doesn’t mean living a hedonistic lifestyle purely because we don’t know when we will die, but rather concentrating on taking action this very minute, not waiting for the supposed right time. The things that you do day in day out define the person who you are, and the person who you will become.
Lesson 4: Every action has a consequence.
In Edge of Tomorrow, the main character has the rare chance to be able to accurately assess how different actions contribute towards different outcomes. While we cannot keep going back in time and trying different actions to see what suits us best, we are lucky enough to have been gifted with a powerful enough brain to be able to play out scenarios in our heads. We all do this everyday of our lives, yet we don’t seem to be able to appreciate how amazing this really is. It’s an incredible skill, and we should all develop it as much as possible.
Now, think about this: your life in this very moment is the sum of all your actions put together. Perhaps that’s quite a depressing thought, or perhaps that makes you feel quite proud or happy. Whichever the case, we can all benefit from improving the current actions and choices we make for our future benefit. This is where that amazing skill of playing things out in our head comes into play.
It’s actually much easier than in Edge of Tomorrow. We don’t have to to blow out our brains and relive the entire thing again every time we want to test something out. Simple take twenty minutes a day to concentrate on the choices you think you may have to make that day, and attempt to understand how they will affect the future.
Of course this isn’t easy. Rule number 2 (Nobody Has Any Idea What the Hell is Going to Happen Next) also applies to us, but that doesn’t stop using seeing what may potentially happen in the future, and that’s often just as useful. It’s actually incredible how little time it takes – between five to twenty minutes per day – to slowly become extremely proficient at second guessing the outcome of your actions.
My advice on this is to make sure you write what you think will happen down so you can look back on it and see how far off you were. Worst case it will bring you some comic relief in a few year’s time.
So while we cannot relive our lives each time we fail, in some ways we can get pretty close and that’s incredible in itself. You will never know what is going to happen, but whatever happens and however it happens, you should welcome it exactly as it is.
Have an awesome day.