On Persistence, Both on Earth and On Mars

I’m going to keep this as spoiler free as I can for the folks who haven’t seen The Martian yet (I say “yet” because you’re going to go see it…right?). I feel like this post is still well within the statute of limitations for movie spoilers, but take it with my high recommendation that the movie’s worth watching. And if watching it alone wasn’t enough motivation, go see it so that you can feel just why I’m writing this post. Also, this one’s going to be quick because I need to go to bed at a reasonable hour for once in my life. Watch this trailer, and it’ll prep you for the rest of the post:

I’ve never wanted to commit to piracy during a movie before today. There’s a point where Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney, talks about what it takes to be an astronaut. It’s not some hyper-dramatic speech, but it speaks volumes about reality and how we can approach the obstacles in front of us. And since I A) didn’t whip out my voice recorder for the scene, and B) don’t have access to the movie personally, you’ll have to accept this as a quote anyway:

“I guarantee you that, at some point, everything’s going to go south on you. And you’re going to say, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now either you can accept that, or you can get to work… You solve one problem, and then another, and then another, and if you solve enough problems you get to go home.”

No flash, no grandiose description of hard work or tenacity or giving it 100%. Just a simple statement: if you solve problems, you win. If you don’t solve problems, you lose. End of story.

I kept expecting Watley to have some giant, dramatic breakdown over the course of the movie. When he wakes up after the storm on Mars, he’s a man stranded on an inhospitable, empty planet with the only ride back to Earth thousands of miles away from him. I thought there’d be some huge moment of indecision, perhaps a dramatic contemplation of suicide. Instead, he delivers just a few words: “I’m not going to die here.” And then he gets to work trying to make the impossible happen.

The Martian Small

It’s easy to let our hearts and emotions get in the way of how we process reality. Self-doubt, despair, overconfidence, envy, hubris…they all can cloud our ability to accurately assess a situation. Mark, in the face of certain death, instead opts for hope and science by breaking down a gigantic problem into its component pieces and then finding solutions, one by one. By doing so, he turns a giant, unfathomable problem into…well, it’s still a giant, unfathomable problem. But it begins to look more and more like a conquerable one. Sometimes it takes walking away from the emotion and looking at an issue with a purely analytical focus to see what you can really achieve.

There’s an old, cheesy saying that I tend to lean on: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” We’re in a world where the complexity of the world’s problems make them all look like elephants: climate change, congressional deadlock, war…but even some of our personal problems and quests can feel pretty hopeless or overwhelming as well. But if there’s anything The Martian teaches, it’s that there’s a whole lot you can achieve when you’re truly committed to achieving a goal.

-Josh

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