Career Inspiration on Film

(or Jerry Maguire’s Pursuit of Happyness in Prada)

I am rarely surprised when students discuss what has inspired their particular career interests.  It is often some sort of personal connection: an Aunt is in marketing, a family friend is a film maker, a parent is a lawyer, etc.  Beyond that, the inspiration might have come from a class or a summer experience or an externship.  And then, every once in a while I will hear, “I saw it on TV.”

With television and movies so ingrained in our culture, it seems only natural that a career inspiration might come from these sources.  We saw an interest in Forensic Science after shows like CSI and Bones became popular, and I would not be surprised if applications to culinary or fashion institutes increased along with the popularity of Top Chef or Project Runway.

So what can we do when faced with a student who may only have idealistic or glorified ideas about a possible career?  The same thing we do for everything else: encourage them to explore on their own, make personal contacts, get out into the trenches.  Love Law and Order?  Meet with a Judge.  Want to work at a place like Seattle Grace?  Shadow a Doctor. Think you are the next Top Chef?  Spend a night in a restaurant kitchen.

Aside from TV, what movies have influenced how we view certain careers?  A few years ago one of my colleagues proposed the idea of sponsoring a movie series, with all of the films having some sort of career-related theme.  While the film series itself never got off the ground, it was fun to banter around possible movies to include.

Below are a few of my thoughts – some good movies that have a career spin to them, and why. They are in no particular order, and most are exaggerated or glorified or downright silly. But all of them I have enjoyed for one reason or another.

The Pursuit of Happyness
There is something special about a movie when even though you know the ending, you find yourself rooting for the main character anyway.  The Pursuit of Happyness is the ultimate never-give-up story of persistence and hard work.  It examines breaking into a career in business finance, and yet has the feel of a sports movie and all that goes with it: the walk-on player who has to work harder and better than everyone else around him, and even then he may not get in the game. Look at the formula around movies like Rudy or Invincible, and you’ll find the same thing. Another similarity? They are all true stories.

Office Space
Office space is one of those movies that I stumble upon now and then, and I often find that I cannot turn the channel.  The endless TPS Reports, frustration about fax machines and layoff-rumors are oddly mesmerizing. Think “running the numbers” and everything else about this movie is too over-the-top? Think again. There are jobs out there where the bureaucracy and unnecessary memo’s take over, and there actually are colleagues who talk sing-songy about happy Monday’s.  It’s exaggerated to be sure, but it’s a classic look at the dead-end job.

Working Girl
If you can get over the 80′s hair, typewriters and love story involved, this is a movie about a smart woman who does what she can to make a name for herself.  She struggles against stereotype, a deceptive supervisor and friends who are content to maintain a status quo.  You might not take the same steps to climb the career ladder, but you can’t judge her either.  She has business savvy and she took advantage when the door opened.  In the end it’s a bit of a Cinderella story, the good girl wins: she gets the job and the guy.  And it made for some classic movie moments.  Even today, I will look at an expensive price tag and mutter to myself “Six-thousand dollars and it’s not even leather?”

Good Will Hunting
I did not include Good Will Hunting for the story line, about a brilliant young man from the south side of Boston who takes a janitorial job at MIT.  And I don’t think it’s a great portrayal of what it might be like to be a college professor or a construction worker.  I do think it shows an interesting side to psychiatry, with the supporting role played by Robin Williams. His is not a glorified job, nor is it lucrative, and his Academy Award for depicting someone with his own problems trying to help others was well deserved. Of course, I can’t mention this movie without my favorite moment: Ben Affleck in his ill-fitting suit masquerading as his friend during the interview process.

Jerry Maguire
There comes a time in many careers when we sit back and ask: What’s it all for? The hard work. The drama. The endless stress. Jerry Maguire shows a snapshot of how cutthroat a career as a sports agent can be (and I dare say the portrayal may not be that off-base?)  But more than that, it’s a glimpse into the mind of someone who has a sudden realization for the need of work-life balance, a sudden change of heart.  With that change comes its own level of hard work, drama and stress, but in the end being at peace with your chosen profession is all worth it.

The Devil Wears Prada
It’s a perfect example of a movie where the chemistry of the characters is what makes it worthwhile. With every size 0 waist that walks into the scene, we are hit over the head with the stereotypes that the fashion industry both embraces and admonishes.  And yet, The Devil Wears Prada does show some truth for a recent college graduate: Fashion is a tough multi-billion dollar industry, young writers do struggle to get jobs, and living in New York does have its ups and downs. Don’t watch it hoping to learn anything important, but it’s a good choice for a little light-hearted fun.

I chose not to include movies that portrayed careers in criminal justice, politics, or law.  There are so many out that that it’s hard to pick just one.  I also did not include any movies that show the career of a writer, who is almost always portrayed as an eccentric loner (I know many writers, none of whom are eccentric, nor loner).

Some friends and colleagues suggested I include Freedom Writers, Tin Men, Baby Boom, Glengarry Glen Ross, even 9 to 5.  What do you think?  What would you have included?


I went to the archives to re-post, as this became one of my favorite blogs -
and one that generated quite a few comments and recommendations.
Have a thought? Chime in below!
Originally posted in October, 2010 on the Bi-College CDO website