I consider the movie Wall Street a minor classic. “Minor” because it’s not a moving or engrossing movie; the characters had only slightly more depth than the screens they were shown on, and the plot was only slightly less predictable than a sunrise. But “classic” because the movie still feels as pertinent as it did a quarter-century ago. I’m surprised the Occupy Wall Street protesters don’t have the video playing in a continuous loop, perhaps projected against the marble wall of a brokerage house. Imagine a 30-foot tall Michael Douglas as über-broker Gordon Gekko, spewing lines from his capitalist manifesto, repeated every 126 minutes: “The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth . . . you’re not naïve enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you buddy? It’s the free market.” And of course, his signature line, voted the 57th greatest movie quote of all time by the American Film Institute: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” The OWS protesters would be roused to oppose the blatant inhumanity and gluttonous cynicism of these words; and the denizens of Wall Street proper would be invigorated by their promise of self-determination and opulent reward. Win-win!!
When I first saw the movie, though, I was fascinated by a different line. This was from the scene in which Gekko is in his office, on the phone and on a treadmill (a real one, not a metaphor – unless that Oliver Stone was being clever!), and one of his colleagues asks him if he wants to go grab some lunch. “Lunch is for wimps,” Gekko says scornfully, before whipping out a pair of garden shears and castrating the hapless co-worker. Okay, there were no garden shears, but the look of sheer contempt that flashed across Gekko’s face probably did the job just as well.
I was horrified. I had no aspirations to work in finance or business, but I wanted at least to be a respected professional. And now here’s Academy Award ™-winner Michael Douglas telling me that I have to give up lunch – that sacrosanct hour of the day when neither duty nor authority could force me to drop the burrito and get back to the photocopier – or be branded an occupational wuss. I’d never heard such a thing. Every job I’d ever had had made a clear provision for a lunch hour. Almost everyone I’d ever worked with had said to me at one point or another, “Can’t do that now – I’m at lunch.” Could everything I’d ever known be wrong?
I wrestled with the thought that this was another of those over-the-top Gekko lines that only Boesky or Madoff would take at face value. But it was so blasphemously appealing! Not the declaration that lunch-eaters were wimps – the suggestion that real operators, the folks who make a difference, don’t pay attention to routine conventions like “lunch” or “civility”. They eat when they want to eat, or skip lunch if it suits them!
Goofy as it seems now, this was when I realized that there were two ways to approach work: you can attend to all the rules, written and unwritten, and be more-or-less assured of being compensated for coloring within the lines; or you can question the rules, not just for the sake of questioning, but for the possibility of finding a better, faster, cheaper, more effective, or more satisfying result. Of course, breaking rules just for the sake of breaking them is just as unimaginative as mindlessly obeying them, but knowing when to set aside convention and expectation to achieve a greater good can be a key component to figuring out fulfillment.