“So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.” – The Eagles, Already Gone
I thought that The Shawshank Redemption was an outstanding movie – not just for the story or the acting, but for the subtle, yet profound message that it delivered to the audience.
I wanted to discuss this allegory a little further, so I decided to take an informal poll among my friends. Most of them have seen The Shawshank Redemption – some multiple times – and all of them told me that they enjoyed it immensely. However, when I asked them what they got out of the movie, no one extracted the same life lesson that I did. However, I saw this as a good thing; I could now argue that The Shawshank Redemption is a work of art, since art affects different people in different ways.
If you’ve never seen The Shawshank Redemption, then stop reading this blog post and watch it now. Get what you can from it and then come back. If you’ve already seen the film, then I’d like to encourage you to watch it one more time – but first allow me to tell you what I gained from it, after viewing it from (what else) The Bob Angle.
As I’m sure you recall, one of the characters, Brooks Hatlen, is released from prison after completing his sentence. Unfortunately, after being in prison for 50 years, he is unable to adjust to society again and eventually commits suicide by hanging himself.
Before his sentence Brooks was able to function fairly well in society… except, of course, for his inability to stay on the right side of the law. So what happened to his ability to cope? The answer is: Brooks’ universe shrank. While he was serving his sentence, his universe slowly started to contract, and eventually the prison walls functioned as the boundaries of his new existence. For all intents and purposes, there was nothing – or at least nothing attainable by Brooks – beyond those walls. Once his sentence was over and he was forcibly pushed past those boundaries and into the universe that we inhabit, life became too much for him to bear.
The lesson, as I see it, is this: The more boundaries there are in your life, the smaller your universe becomes. While you may be content living a circumscribed existence, you will not be able to see and enjoy all that life has to offer.
At this point, you may be thinking “I’m sorry, but this doesn’t apply to me. I’m not living inside a prison, real or self-imposed. I function well in society and there are no boundaries whatsoever in my life!“
Are you sure? I’d like to propose to you that your universe is also shrinking. Not through any physical constraints such as the prison walls in the movie, but by barriers that you have unwittingly created yourself. Most of us have invisible boundaries in our lives, and we aren’t even aware of the limitations that they are imposing on us. Let me give you a few examples:
The Transportation Universe
First of all, I must admit that I am also susceptible to these boundaries. Before I bought my first car, I used to take the bus everywhere, and began to know most of the bus routes in the city. Shortly after getting my car, I was driving to the grocery store and, without even thinking about it, I took the same route as the bus (which wasn’t the fastest or most direct way to get there). Midway through my journey I suddenly exclaimed out loud “What am I doing? Why am I driving on this street? I have a car now – I can drive on any street I like!“
Years of riding the bus had made me assume that the only way to get from Point A to Point B was by travelling along the bus routes. All of the other roads in the city were purged from my consciousness. My transportation universe had shrunk, and I hadn’t even noticed.
The Employment Universe
Years ago, I had a contract job working at a government ministry. One day, my manager confided to me that he wasn’t really happy in his job, but couldn’t identify another position within the ministry where he would be happy. So I helpfully suggested that he should consider extending his search to the private sector, which was where I was working previously. He had been working in the Ministry for so long that his employment universe was limited not only to the public sector, but to a single ministry within it. It never occurred to him to look beyond it.
The Culinary Universe
When you go grocery shopping, how many items are on your list? Probably 20-30. During an average month, that list may vary and you might buy 40-50 different items. If you buy groceries fro your entire family, then you might buy 80 different items each month. How many items do you think an average-sized supermarket stocks? The answer I found online is: 50,000 different SKUs. You can choose from 50,000 different items, yet you buy only 50-80 different items each month, and likely the same ones month after month. Even if you bought 100 different items each month, that’s still only 0.2% of the store’s inventory. Think about that for a second – when you walk into a supermarket, you are deliberately ignoring 99.8% of the merchandise. Nobody is forcing you to do it. This, too, is your own self-imposed limitation.
The Digital Universe
If you’re a software developer and you want to spruce up your application, the best way to do this is to ask for suggestions from someone outside your company – preferably, someone who’s never used the software before. In my experience, the best and most innovative ideas come from new employees. This sounds counter-intuitive, but it actually makes perfect sense.
I’ve written software, and after a while, you become so intimately familiar with the code that it feels as though you’re actually living inside the application. Each screen is a different room. However, just like Brooks Hatlen, the software slowly begins to impose its own barriers. Over time, my ideas become less grandiose and are eventually limited to minor enhancements or bug fixes. I no longer consider radical changes or bold, new directions. The code has become my prison, yet I am blissfully unaware of it.
New employees (or new users) have no such boundaries, and aren’t afraid to ask “Why don’t we do it this way?” or “Wouldn’t this approach be more intuitive?“.
Back in 2006, Microsoft developers were considering making the Windows Vista startup sound mandatory. Predictably, users were not too enthused with this loss of control. However, Steve Ball, Microsoft’s Group Program Manager for Vista, was unrepentant. When asked why he was imposing his will on the users, he explained that the startup sound was actually “A spiritual side of the branding experience. A short, brief, positive confirmation that your machine is now conscious and ready to react. You can turn on your Vista machine, go eat some cereal, while your machine is cold booting and then this gentle sound will come out telling you that you can log in.“
What Ball didn’t consider were the myriad real-world situations in which any sound is not desirable. For example, if you’re studying for an exam in your university library, the last thing you need is to have your train of thought broken by a Windows startup sound every time a student turns on their laptop. This is obvious to everyone, except the Windows Vista developers, since their universe has become constrained.
Finally, there’s Twitter, which irks me because of its 140-character limit. Now, you’re probably thinking “Wait a minute – that’s Twitter’s limitation, not mine!” Actually it is our limitation because of our tacit acceptance of this limit. When we’re composing a tweet and we’re approaching 140 characters, we never think that there’s something wrong with the design of Twitter – we just assume that our thoughts need to be edited. In my opinion, there shouldn’t be a limit on the complexity of our thoughts and ideas. We shouldn’t have to force them to fit inside a ridiculously small container. Yet we do, and we don’t question it.
Imagine that you are an art gallery curator, and that your gallery has recently acquired an previously-unknown Old Master, discovered (sans frame) at a garage sale. When the painting arrives, you realize that it’s larger than you thought, and that the frame you selected for it is too small. What do you do? Buy a larger frame, or take a pair of scissors to the painting to ensure that it fits inside your container?
The Shawshank Redemption is a remarkable movie, because it illustrated (to me, anyway) that we are all, to varying degrees, living a circumscribed existence. These invisible boundaries have placed you inside a prison of your own construction, yet until this moment, you were probably blissfully unaware of it. Now, by making you aware of just a few of these constraints, you now have a choice: you can continue accepting or even ignoring these limitations, or you can identify and break down your boundaries, break out of your own personal Shawshank State Penitentiary, and start flourishing in your new, unbounded universe.