The Netflix black comedy Don’t Look Up broke weekly records last week when it was viewed for a total of 152.6 hours, the company has announced. The film tells the story of two scientists who spot a “planet killer” comet headed toward Earth, and what happens when they bring that message to the government and the public.
Don’t Look Up is an artful combination of hilarious and deeply disturbing, mainly because the most dysfunctional reactions to the news somehow seem very believable. It’s worth watching for anyone in a leadership position, because in between laughs over the very realistic social media memes and the silly Ariana Grande-like pop star portrayed by Ariana Grande, there are some very valuable lessons about what not to do when you’re faced with an impending crisis.
1. Don’t ignore the importance of messaging.
Our two astronomers, having just learned that our planet faces an existential threat, are–understandably–emotionally on edge. As two people who spend most of their time inside observatories staring at telescope readings, they’re also very unaccustomed to being in the spotlight. And they’re not especially good at it.
Early in the film, both are invited to appear on a Good Morning America-style TV show. Dr. Randall Mindy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) starts off with a lengthy scientific explanation of how the comet was spotted. Ph.D. student Kate Dibiasky, (played by Jennifer Lawrence) follows up by losing her temper at the jolly and frivolous tenor of the show and its hosts.
I found myself yelling at the screen during this scene because this is the first and perhaps most important moment when things go horribly wrong. It’s a perfect illustration that how you say something can be much more meaningful than what you actually say.
2. Don’t ignore brain biases.
The brain is a very imperfect organ with which to understand the world, and yet it’s all any of us has. In particular, when you present someone with information about something they’ve never seen before that contradicts their current beliefs and expectations, they are likely to discount or disbelieve it. This is due to conservatism bias, which causes people who have beliefs in place or decisions they’ve already made to discount or disbelieve new information that requires making a change.
History has shown us many examples of this phenomenon. An old friend of mine who lived in Paris during the German occupation learned that the Nazis planned to round up the city’s Jews a day before it was to happen. She spent that day warning every Jewish person she knew to leave town right away, but very few took her advice. Having lived their whole lives safely in that city, they couldn’t imagine what might happen to them if they stayed, or that staying might be more frightening than leaving when they had no place to go.
When sharing difficult news that will bring huge changes, it’s important to remember that conservatism bias is likely to affect people’s reactions. Sharing the news gently, gradually if possible, and acknowledging the difficulty of hearing it and making the required changes may all help you overcome that bias.
The characters in Don’t Look Up do none of those things. Not surprisingly, their listeners seize on every possible excuse to disbelieve what they have to say.
3. We already have it all.
Late in the movie, with the future looking grim, the scientists, along with family and friends, find themselves in an ordinary conversation about home-made versus store-bought apple pie and the benefits of grinding your own coffee beans. DiCaprio’s character pauses to say, “The thing of it is, we really did have everything, didn’t we? I mean, when you think about it.”
This is a lesson we all need to learn, and we need to learn it over and over until maybe someday it sticks. For all our dreaming for the future, for all our striving to build companies and careers, and for all the worrying about everything we do as well-so many of us already have so much of what we want, and everything we need, to make our lives complete. We shouldn’t require a killer comet hurtling toward Earth to make us stop and take notice.