Everything I Needed to Know About IT, I Learned From “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (part 3)
This is part 3 in a series that began here and continued here, which found life-lessons for IT practitioners up on the big screen in the movie “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”. (I did something similar for the movies “Doctor Strange” and “Logan.”)
If you missed the first two issues, use those links to go back and check them out. Otherwise, read on, true believers!
As with any deep discussion of movie-based content, I’m obligated to point out that there will be many spoilers revealed in what follows. If you have not yet had a chance to enjoy this chapter of the Spider-Man mythology, it may be best to bookmark this for a later time.
Humility is its own reward.
It could be said that, if honesty about those around us is the source of empathy, then honesty about ourselves is the source of humility.
Along with empathy, humility is the other great value to which we can aspire. Not the false humility of someone fishing for more compliments, nor humility that originates from low self-esteem, but honestly understanding our own motivations, strengths, and weaknesses, and keeping them in perspective.
In IT, humility allows us to clearly see how our work stacks up against the challenges we face; how to best utilize the people, skills, perspectives, and resources at our disposal; whether our approach has a realistic chance of success or if we need to step back and consider a new path; and more. Humility moves ego out of the way and lets us see things for what they are.
Of course, Spider-Man (Peter, Miles, and the rest of the Spider-Folk) is innately humble. That’s part and parcel of the mythology. No, the place I found this lesson was how the movie was humble about itself.
From the recognition that certain aspects of the Spider-Man franchise were poorly conceived (Spidey-O’s cereal, “evil” Toby Maguire); or poorly executed (the 1977 TV series); or both (the Spider-Man popsicle), this movie is intent on letting the audience know that it knows the complete Spider-Man pedigree, warts and all. But the humility goes deeper than that.
After the third origin montage of the movie, you get the feeling the writers were never taking themselves that seriously. You sense that they are now making a commentary on just how many Spider-Man origin movies there have been (and how unnecessary some of them were). Miles’ comment “how many of us are there?” is a direct reference to the insane number of reboots the franchise has undergone. And the title of the comic Miles’ dorm-mate is reading (“What If... There Was More Than One Spider-Man?”) shows the movie is aware of its own preposterous nature.
The overall effect ends up endearing the characters, the plot, and the narrative to us even more, in the same way that “Spaceballs” and “Galaxy Quest” were to their respective franchises. The humility becomes a love letter to the story and the people who have invested so much into it.
Understand how to relax.
Played mostly for laughs, Miles’ initial inability to “let go” of things using his spider ability is a wonderful metaphor, especially for those of us in problem-solving roles, who often find ourselves asked to do so in stressful situations (like when the order entry system is down and the boss’s boss’s boss is hovering over your shoulder).
Whether it’s meditation, exercise, raging out to metal, travel, perfectly rolled sushi, looking at art, getting lost in a book, enjoying a fine Scotch (or wine, or chocolate, or doughnut), or gaming non-stop, you need to know for the sake of your ongoing mental health what it takes for you to unwind. While many of us find most of our work in IT fulfilling, there will always be dark and stressful times. In those moments, we need to be able to honestly assess first that we are stressed, why, and finally, how to remove some of that stress so that we can continue to be effective.
As the movie illustrates, not being able to let go can get in the way of our ability to succeed (hanging from the lights in Doc Oc’s office), and even hurt those around us (Gwen’s hair).
When you get quiet and listen to your inner voice, that’s when you are the most powerful.
Since “Into the Spider-Verse” is largely an origin story about Miles’ transformation into his dimension’s one-and-only Spider-Man, much of the action focuses on him learning about his powers and how to use them. The difference between this and many other superhero origin stories is that Miles is surrounded by the other Spider-Folk, who are much more experienced. This comes to a head near the end of the movie, when the others decide that Miles’ inexperience is too much of a liability and leave him behind. After an entire movie of Miles running, jumping, and awkwardly swinging from moment to moment, idea to idea, and crisis to crisis, this is where, for the first time, Miles finally stops and just is for a moment. He takes a few precious seconds to center himself, to understand where he is, and where he wants to be. In that moment, he is finally able to get in touch with all his abilities and control them.
Much like knowing how to relax and let go, being able to “check in” with ourselves in this way is incredibly powerful. Over the length of our IT careers, we will find ourselves surrounded, as Miles did, by people who are doing the same work as us but are vastly more experienced and confident about it. If we’re lucky, some of those people will be patient with us as we learn the ropes. But even so, being patient with ourselves—being able to stop for a moment in the middle of the cyclone of ideas, tickets, questions, incidents, doubts, system failures, and fears—will serve us well.
Pushing outside of our comfort zones is good, but if it doesn’t fit, we need to recognize it before we hurt ourselves.
“Try harder than you think you can!” “Push yourself just a little further!” “Do more than you planned!”
It seems like the message to try and exceed our limits is everywhere, and is mostly a positive one. We should want to keep improving ourselves, and having a cheerleader (even an inspirational coffee mug) can be an effective way to reinforce that desire.
But there can come a point when our attempt to push through the discomfort in pursuit of growth becomes unhealthy. When we are no longer “lean and mean,” but “emaciated and ornery;” when we’ve trimmed the fat, stripped the muscle, and are now cutting into bone.
In the movie, this lesson becomes clear when we see the other Spider-Folk experience the slow but deadly effects of being in a dimension not their own. Their cells are slowly dying, and if they don’t get back home, they have no hope of survival.
In our dimension—where we’re more likely to be accosted by users claiming “the internet is down” than by plasma-gauntlet wielding stalkers—it would be nice if being dangerously outside of our comfort zone was as clear. Sometimes it is. Many of us have experienced the effects of long-term exhaustion, drained of motivation and unable to focus. The movie is teaching us that we need to first understand what is happening to us, and then work to find our way “home.”
As I described earlier, maybe that means centering ourselves and determining what we really need; or maybe doing something relaxing until we’ve recharged. But to not do so, to keep powering through in the vain hope that we’ll somehow find equilibrium, is as deadly to us (our career, if not our health) as being in dimension 1610 (Miles Morales’ home) when we belong in 616.
It’s never too late to try again
I’ve already commented on the state of dimension 616’s Peter—his emotional state at the start of the movie, the condition of his relationships, etc. And I’ve also commented on how, by the end of the movie, he’s beginning to take steps to repair his life. As moviegoers, we are invited to compare that choice to Wilson Fisk’s. His way of fixing his mistakes was to steal something that wasn’t his. We’re left to wonder, even if he had succeeded in spiriting a copy of Vanessa and Richard from another dimension, how would they survive? What would they think of him? So much about his choice leads only to more problems, more mistakes. It’s not that Peter’s path is easy. But if reconciling with Mary Jane is difficult (even if it’s ultimately unsuccessful), it’s still the only way to move ahead.
I am reminded of two business-critical failures, occurring a week apart, that I observed at a particular company. In both cases, a human error by a technician caused the failure.
In one case, the tech came forward immediately, owned up to what happened, and offered to help resolve it. Even after it was evident that the failure extended beyond their skillset, this person stuck around to watch, so they would learn and know more next time. The incident was resolved, and nothing more was ever said.
In the other case, the technician did everything they could to cover up the event, and their role in it. The truth came out fairly quickly (never forget that there are logs for everything) and the employee was literally walked out the door.
The lesson for IT pros should be clear. Even after a critical failure, we have opportunities to improve, fix, and ensure that next time the outcome is better. No technology failure spells “the end”—only our own attitude toward the failure can do that.
In watching the Spider-Folk work together as a team, with all the similarities and differences in their abilities, attitudes, and personalities, I was reminded of an anonymous quote:
“In that which we share, let us see the common prayer of humanity.
In that which we differ, let us wonder at the freedom of humankind.”
If there is any lesson we can walk away with from this movie, it’s this: there is more about us that is the same than there is different; and both the similarities and the differences are the source of our strength as individuals and teams working in IT.
Until next time, true believers,
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” 2018, Sony Pictures Entertainment