Connections are absolutely everywhere. And I mean everywhere. And there are few things I love more than finding them. It’s like a joyous Easter egg hunt, only instead of finding plastic eggs full of jelly beans (mmm – jelly beans), I’m finding new thoughts and ideas and concepts that expand my mind. And that’s a lot cooler than sugary treats that rot my teeth—though, admittedly, all of that isn’t quite as fun to eat. But it’s candy for the brain, and that pretty great.
I think one of the most impressive elements of connection is that it shows up in really unexpected places. Several months ago I was in Des Moines, taking a much-needed mental time-out from the demands of graduate school, and I saw The Lego Movie. There’s really no emotional link between me and Legos; the trailer simply looked funny and I had heard pretty positive things about it.
My mind was blown the entire time. Is it a fun-filled adventure with quick wit and impossibly creative and imaginative animation? Totally. But if I wanted a mental time-out from SA-type thoughts and information, this was not the movie to see—and I was not at all disappointed by that. I have since watched the movie at least a dozen times and each time there are more connections to draw from it about what it is I like to think I do as a SAPro. In the passing months I’ve seen countless other movies, but I keep coming back to The Lego Movie as being one of the most connection-laden. Because of that, I hopped on the Internet bandwagon and put together this listicle of 10 SA lessons I learned from (and were reinforced by) The Lego Movie—these apply to me, my practice, and the students I have and am currently working with. And you can bet they apply a lot of other places, too, because life is funny that way. If you haven’t seen it, this might not make sense, and there are some spoilers, so be warned. If you want to see it, it’s currently available in RedBox.
1. Hegemony is a threat because it’s unseen, and therefore unchallenged. During his interrogation, our hero Emmett explains to Bad Cop how much he loves his city. “But President Business is such a good guy. And Octan makes good stuff! Music, dairy products, coffee, TV shows, surveillance systems, all history books, voting machines—wait a minute.”
Like generic Lego people in generic Lego City living under the rule of President Business, we can’t see the systems we’re a part of, living in, and contributing to, without some serious work toward self-awareness. Part of the challenge is continuing to gain this awareness for myself, to push against the systems I see to disrupt them, and the other part is helping guide students to a similar state of awareness so they can push back, too.
2. The best way to help others, to contribute, or to influence change is to be yourself. Morgan Freeman summed it up best when his character, Vetruvius, tells our hero Emmett, “Don’t worry about what the others are doing. You must embrace what is special about you.”
Morgan Freeman said it, so it has to be true. Also, I think about this a lot in terms of the students I’ve seen lately who are very concerned and interested in what classes “most” people are taking. “What do most people take for this requirement?” “Does everybody else take this class in their 3rd semester?” so on and so forth. Why does it matter? Wouldn’t you be much happier and much more fulfilled and motivated to learn by pursuing a topic of interest to you? It’s not anybody’s job to be anybody else. And this collective “most” or “everybody” isn’t some single-minded Borg-like being. It’s made up of individuals who are all very unique and full of particular strengths and interests. But I think this is a real challenge for many of us to consider who we are as individuals—what does make us special? How do we figure that out? And then what do we do with that information?
3. The best we can do is to work with what we have. Master Builder Wyld Style, eager to prove Emmett’s lack of ability says, “Emmett, using the pieces around you, create something simple. Like an awesome racecar.”
When challenged to use the pieces around him to create a racecar, Emmett first asks for the instructions, because that’s all he knows, and that’s how he puts his world together—literally (get it? It’s a Lego joke about meaning-making!). But he’s not at a place yet where he’s able to develop his own plans. It makes me wonder how often I have expectations of students that go unfulfilled, simply because they’re not at a place yet where they can meet those expectations. Often times I become frustrated because I feel plans, programs, and interventions are built around and for the students with interests and talents I wish they had, as opposed to those they actually have. I need to focus on who students are, and not who I want them to be.
4. We all have the ability to make an impact. Lucy, one of the leaders of the revolution, broadcasts a message to the entire Lego universe and all of its citizens and says, “This is Emmett and he was just like all of you—a face in the crowd, following the same instructions as you. He was so good at fitting in, no one ever saw him. And I owe you an apology, because I used to look down on people like that. I used to think they were followers with no ideas or vision. Because it turns out, Emmett had great ideas, and even though they seemed weird and kind of pointless, they actually came closer than anybody else to saving the universe.”
It’s a nice reminder that there’s no magic recipe, no set of qualities, no particular history, that produces change agents. In fact, it’s because of the diversity of those things that people are able to change the world. I’ve worked with a lot of students that feel like they can’t do things because of a wide variety of personal circumstances, or that they somehow don’t belong in college. I think it’s because they’ve been told that, and often, both directly and indirectly, and probably without always realizing it. I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I can challenge that way of thinking, and that’s one of the greatest things about what SA is and why it’s so important.
5. Someone is always learning from us, and we are always learning from others. Ok, I don’t have a cool quote for this one, but consider the relationship between Finn and his father. What are they learning from one another? The father seeks order and control and is territorial about his Legos, and Finn is free-thinking and creative and deviates from the instructions, which clearly upsets his father. His father is inadvertently teaching Finn that original thoughts and creativity aren’t valuable, and Finn’s creative persistence is teaching his father that those are things to be embraced.
The idea of constantly learning is something that’s frequently on my mind, especially as a new professional. Yes, there are obvious moments of learning when it comes to actual training sessions and wrapping my head around policies and procedures here at my new institution, but there’s a lot of stuff that’s far more covert that I’ve been learning from the people around me–how to support each other, how to engage with other professionals on campus, general opinions of the culture here. I’m absorbing it all. And then what am I putting out to be absorbed? There’s only so much of that I can control. I have no real ability to influence someone’s interpretation of me, but I do have control over the messages I intend to send. Every moment is a learning moment.
6. Everything is awesome when you’re part of a team. When rallying the Master Builders, Emmett says, “You’re all so talented and imaginative, but you can’t work together as a team. I’m just a construction worker, but when I had a plan and we were all working together, we could build a skyscraper. Now, you’re master builders, just imagine what could happen if you did that. You could save the universe.”
Ok, maybe academic advisers aren’t in the universe-saving business, but I must say this concept is particularly appealing as a new professional. SA is not an individual sport, and I’ve seen some things in my experience that treat it like it is. But then everybody is at a disservice—SAPros, students, and the overall institution. Yes, being a new professional is frustrating at times, and I long for the day I feel competent navigating the day-to-day of my job without asking 15,673 questions every hour. But that’s on me, and it’s all an exercise in self-patience, because I recognize that there is zero pressure from fellow staff members to “hurry up and learn your job already.” I am surrounded by a staff that’s constantly supportive, and committed to helping me learn. They reassure me, they show me, they learn with me, and are genuinely excited to have me (and everything that comes with me) on the staff. That’s how I know I’m exactly where I need to be.
7. We are all the most important person in the universe. In a heartfelt, world-saving speech, Emmett turns to President Business and says, “You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe. And you are capable of amazing things, because you are The Special. And so am I. And so is everyone. The prophecy is made up, but it’s also true. It’s about all of us. Right now, it’s about you. And you still can change everything.”
The long and short of it is, we all matter. And everybody needs to be reminded of that from time to time. If students and colleagues can walk away from spending time with me with only one thing, I want it to be that they feel like they matter to me, and the time we spend together is valuable (ok, so two things).
8. It’s ok to deviate from the instructions—that’s how we innovate. During the revolution, Lucy reaches out to the citizens and says, “We have to finish what [Emmett] started by making whatever weird thing pops into our heads. All of you have the ability inside you to be a groundbreaker. And I mean literally. Break the ground! Peel up the pieces, tear apart your walls! Build things only you can build.”
Being an academic/career adviser, I like to think about this, because I like to talk to students about what they can/will contribute to the world. They are each a unique cluster of thoughts and talents and are so individual – they are living, breathing fingerprints, and I like to challenge them to think about where they’ll leave their mark. And there’s fear with some students I’ve seen that none of the more prominent and most visible professions are things that appeal to them much, so I reassure them that it’s perfectly ok for that to be the case. Frankly, with the world moving as fast as it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if the careers many of these students settle into don’t actually exist yet – they’re going to be a whole new generation of innovators; they just need a partner in that process to let them know there’s not a standard box they need to fit into. Make your own box.
9. People who think differently than you are no less valuable than you are. Things are getting tense between President Business and Emmett, and President Business tells him, “Hey, not so special anymore, huh? Well, guess what? No one ever told me I was special. I never got a trophy just for showing up! I’m not some special little snowflake, no! But as unspecial as I am, you are a thousand billion times more unspecial than me!”
I grinned/winced at the “special little snowflake” part, because I often hear that in reference to millennials (which I am), and not in an overly positive way. Though this quote is a bit contrary to the idea here, I think it’s still pretty powerful. Are there degrees of specialness? No. Are there degrees of importance and degrees of how much someone matters? No. I think this is important to remember when faced with differences. Emmett and the Master Builders clearly think very differently than President Business, who chooses to think of them as inferior to him because of this. Often I am met with students as well as fellow professionals whose personal beliefs on topics I am highly sensitive to outright enrage me, and I am inclined to feel hatred toward them because of it. It takes constant and conscious effort on my part to disrupt that thought process so that I can acknowledge that they have a different point of view that makes sense to them based on their life experiences (which I don’t share, of course, because I am not them), but that doesn’t make them a terrible person, or someone who is somehow less than me, or someone whose entire identity should be judged based on a belief that I find offensive. It takes a lot of work, and I have to be vigilant. But it is worth it, because everybody has something to offer, and deserves to be treated as such.
10. In order to meet your potential, you probably need to change the way you think/see the world around you and your place in it. Just before Emmett is sent back into Lego world through the cardboard tube that is the Magic Portal, he glimpses the previously referenced cat poster that says “Believe!” It is in this moment he is able to understand and unlock his potential as a Master Builder. When he reenters the realm he can see everything around him and understand how it works together.
This kind of change is hard and it takes a long time, and it’s a process that’s never actually finished, so I completely understand how people can get pretty burned out on it all. As a SAPro, it’s important to me to engage in situations where I am challenged to see myself and the world around me differently. It’s much easier to do that in graduate school because there was so much emphasis on it through our classwork and discussions. But I’m without that now, and I need to figure out how to provide that on my own. It’s hard. I do what I can – I put intentional effort into joining groups and committees that have me working with and talking to people from other parts of campus, I work with a huge variety of students and work to learn about them and their stories, I read articles online that I know will challenge a viewpoint that I hold… so I make effort, but I know it’s something that I could become lazy about after some time, and I don’t want that to happen.And while I’m doing all of this for me, I also need to think about doing this with the students I see, too. I want to help them unlock their potential and see their worlds differently so that they may better understand themselves. That’s a lot of moving pieces to work with at the same time. It’s complicated, and sometimes scary and intimidating, but it’s pretty incredible, too.
Bonus: Brilliance and beauty can be born from chaos if we let go of the control we try to have and the order we try to force on things that we don’t have power over anyway. Emmett and President Business have this great exchange toward the end of the movie – Emmett: “Look at all the things that people built. You might see a mess…” President Business: “Exactly, a bunch of weird dorky stuff that ruined my perfectly good stuff.” Emmett: “Ok, what I see are people inspired by each other, and by you. People taking what you made and making something new out of it.”
It’s important to let go of control, and this is something I frequently come back to. It’s really hard to let go of something I’ve worked hard on and see what someone else does with it. Often times, it doesn’t feel good. That thing, whatever it is or was, becomes an extension of who I am, and when someone else comes in and builds on it or makes something new, it’s extremely difficult to not feel like it’s a commentary on my own identity. But if I can provide some kind of foundation or a springboard for other people and ideas and get to be somehow part of a transformational experience for someone, isn’t that far more significant? I think so. And, more to the point, does someone taking something I’ve done and changing it to meet some other end actually damage the core of who I am? No, it doesn’t. And I know that; I just need to actively remind myself, and keep doing so until I don’t feel the tension of territorialism in my stomach when it happens. If I create something, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum–it’s susceptible to various elements of change all the time, and that’s ok. I cannot control that process, and I could be stifling something fantastic if I try.
Woo – long post (brevity isn’t my thing). Thanks for hanging in there. I could find a couple dozen other connections, but I’ll stop and save them for a book someday or something. For now, go forth, unlock your potential and find your inner SA Master Builder. You are The Special, and so am I, and so is everybody.