Groundhog Day and a bit of change theory

The slow hands of time

Doing the Careers Theory Unit for the Level 6 IAG qualification does strange things to you. You’ll be absently mindedly watching a film or reading a novel, and all of a sudden, leap to your feet and exclaim with a new found pride, “That’s a classic example of Happenstance Theory!”

Or maybe you won’t. I did. Which is why, after reading a book about the writing of a massively popular Hollywood film, I wanted to write a post about how I found themes in it which I thought I could apply to careers guidance.

Writing Goundhog Day by Danny Rubin

The film is Groundhog Day. I’m told that there are a few anti comedy gold misfits that may not have seen it and so, at this point, I should provide a brief summary of the plot.

But I’m not going to though. Because you should watch it. It’s really good.

Towards the end of the book the screenwriter, Danny Rubin, reflects on the many reasons he thinks the film was so successful. This is one of them:

“I think the most emotionally compelling argument made by the movie, the one that seems the most inspirational and optimistic, and convincing of all, is this; The absolutely worst day of Phil’s life took place under the exact same conditions as the absolutely best day of Phil’s life. The best day and the worst day were the same day. In fact, a whole universe of experiences proved to be possible on this single day. The difference was Phil himself, what he noticed, how he interpreted his surroundings, and what he chose to do.

This is an extremely empowering message. It suggests that, like Phil, we need not be the victims of our own lives, and that the power to change our fate, to change our experience of a single day, rests within ourselves. No matter what cycle we are stuck inside, the power to escape is already present within us.”

That’s a wonderful little piece of writing. Films have always had the power to inspire but the construction of the plot in Groundhog Day lends it’s self to be used as a motivator for people to change or a beacon to highlight that change is both feasible and wanted.

Lewin conceived change as “a modification of those behaviours keeping a systems behaviour stable.” In Groundhog Day this modification takes place over (countless) repetitions of the same day, as the main character enters as initial cynic and then transitions to depressed, to even more desperate and reckless right through to optimistic and welcoming. The initial concept for the film was much more of a dramatic piece which delved into the mindset of man who literally lived through the same day for centuries. A concept in the original script attempted to show just how long Bill Murray’s character (Phil) has been in the loop by showing him reading one page in a book of a whole library a day. He would systematically start at one end of the row of book shelves and, reading only one page a day to convince himself that time was moving forward, would work his way to the end of the end of the row. Laugh a minute right. But this was before Bill Murray got involved and made it a ‘dramedy’ and they needed to get the idea across of the sheer mind pulping tedium of a never ending cycle of the same day.

The pressure to intervene “in the system to develop new behaviours, values and attributes through changes in organizational structures and processes” comes from the tedium of already having tried all the other options. Reckless thrill seeking – check, short term gratification – check, multiple suicide attempts – check. None of have any impact on Phil’s situation so he pursues the only option left open to him: become good. He learns about people in the small town, he saves children from injury (time and time again) he learns new skills and, in the space of twenty four hours, becomes a central figure of the community praised by all at the annual Groundhog Day party. After exhausting all the routes to negative conclusions he settles on structures that breed positive outcomes.

I think there is much to draw upon here for IAG practitioners. Many clients, be they employees or school children, feel that their paths are already set and, no matter their efforts, to some extent their futures are already mapped out. The feeling that each day will be the same as the next and that change, or the desired consequences of change, are too far away to be realistically obtainable are so depressing that Lewin’s first stage of “Unfreezing” isn’t attempted by the client. The persistence and resilience required to unfreeze from current behaviours and instigate new ones becomes an insurmountable barrier not even to be attempted. The simple tale of Groundhog Day shows that it can and, that with enough change, benefits can be seen within a day because, like the quote above says, Phil’s worst day was also his best day. He just did things differently.


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