13 Life Lessons We Can Learn from Zoolander
Let’s just start off by saying that Zoolander is one of the greatest movies ever made.
I’m not even kidding what I say that.
Released in 2001, Zoolander bombed at the box office because of the proximity of it’s debut to 9/11, but has gone on to have a massive cult following and boasts some of the most impressive DVD sales of any movie ever made.
Because it’s genius, that’s why.
On the surface a silly flick, Zoolander is a richly layered comedy that’s so deep you sometimes don’t get jokes until the fifth or sixth time you see the film.
While even the first layer of the movie is enjoyable, it’s the fact that each character and each scene serves as commentary on the bizarre worlds of either fashion in particular or celebrity in general that gives the movie its smarts.
The (acting and intentional over-acting) are equally enjoyable, and gift us with more quotable scenes and one-liners than any movie since Caddyshack.
If I had to estimate, I would say that I’ve “seen” Zoolander something like 600 times—mainly because the DVD played on a continual loop in our door room for the majority of my junior year1.
Personally, the film speaks to me because it contains a number of elements I appreciate: bromance, break-dance fighting, modeling, mind-control, and unrepentant, over-the-top satire.
These things are obvious. Less obvious is the fact that Zoolander is a fantastic interpretation of the Hero’s Journey. Like many great Hollywood classics, uses Joseph Campbell’s ideas about mythic structure for both story telling and character arc. Like many great films, Zoolander presents a number of the stages of the Journey somewhat out of sequence, but the majority of them are there.
As a huge Campbell nerd, this is exceptionally appealing to me, and makes an already great movie even better. During this piece, I won’t touch too much on mythic structure—I’ll be writing an entire series on that in the future—save to point out where on the Journey a certain point of the movie might reflect.
However, let me say that I truly believe that we can learn from all stories, even the ones that seem silly.
If you pay attention, there are lessons even in the most unexpected places; and today, I would like to take you through one of least expected of all.
Please come with me, as I lay out what I’ve learned from my friend Derek.
This is pretty simple, but I think it’s an important lesson. All we need to do is examine the origins of Zoolander’s career.
A reflection in a spoon: by such things are the strings of destiny pulled. DZ recognized his strength, and decided to bank on it. In doing so, he became one of the most successful models in the world.
In the Hero’s Journey, Derek is in Stage One: The Ordinary World. When we first meet him, Derek is at the top of his game, and on top of the world. He sees life through a particular lens, and is on concrete footing.
Derek’s journey will take him further, but let’s start by applying his general attitude to ourselves. Playing your strengths works well in any endeavor, and therefore should be a large part of the decisions making progress. I feel that the tendency to gravitate towards that which we’re suited is something that we should embrace, not run away from—and yet people do the opposite.
While I certainly think there is merit in learning to embrace the suck and try to work through you limitations, the fact is that you’re going to be more successful if you don’t force yourself to rely on doing things you don’t enjoy,
When I work with my business coaching clients, I am endlessly amazed at how often people seek to master things they either aren’t suited to learning or simply don’t need to know. You have people who are terrible on video stammering through YouTube uploads when they should simply be writing; or people who “hate” Facebook spending two hours a day on social media; and the worst is people trying to figure out tech.
Playing your strengths is the simplest path to success and fulfillment.
To use myself as an example: My entire life, I’ve been great with words but terrible at math—while I’ve spent a bit of time trying to shore up my weaknesses, I think it’s plain to see that I’ve selected a career path where my strengths allow for success.
Zoolander shows us that if you’re good at something, that should be your focus—not worrying about thing that you are bad at. This has been helpful to me in all aspect of my career, including my in-person training business: early on, I made a lot of mistakes, but I still managed to be successful, because I always played to my strengths. And because I was aware of this, it helped me overcome even the biggest mistakes, and learned from them.
When perennial favorite Derek is passed up for the Male Model of the Year Award in favor of up-and-comer Hansel (so hot right now), he has an understandable freak-out; his prominence in the industry is a defining characteristic of his life, a cornerstone in the foundation of his entire worldview.
His loss is the beginning of the end of Derek’s career, and forces him to reevaluate both his place in the world and his values, culminating in a confrontation with the idea of his own mortality, and, ultimately, the realization of the fact that there’s more to life than his experiences would have led him to believe.
This experience takes Derek to the next on the Journey—it is the Call to Adventure, signaling that things need to change and he has more in store for him.
The lesson here is simply that everything is fleeting, especially youth. Now that I’m 30, I’m starting to realize that my values and priorities are different than they were at 20. While I knew this on some level, it’s really become both more obvious and more impactful since I wrote out my list of rules for a successful life.
While I’m definitely happy with where I am in life, it is not without a certain wistful fondness—and perhaps a bit of reluctance—that I accept aging. Although I’m not old by any stretch, life is different now than it was, for both my friends and myself. As people start settling down and getting married, interactions change, and you have to put away a few aspects that may have once defined your friendships.
By watching Zoolander, I’ve learned to appreciate youth and accept the inevitability of both aging and change2.
In terms of business, Derek’s loss reminds us that your time on top is not guaranteed; once that’s firmly in mind, we understand how important it is to give your best every single day, and never, ever get complacent.
Building on the point from above, Zoolander puts us in touch with our own mortality and the fickleness of fate.
Even though he lost to Hansel, Derek is not ready to relinquish his place in the universe. This is Stage Three of the Hero’s Journey – Refusal of the Call. Many heroes resist change and don’t want to venture out of the Ordinary World.
Fate, however has other plans in store.
In nearly any adaptation of mythic structure, reluctant heroes are met with consequences for their reluctance—usually in the form of death3.
Zoolander is no different; in attempt to pull him from his morose thoughts, Derek’s model buddies suggest the most obvious thing in the world: Orange Mocha Frappuccino!
Quick sidebar – can we all just take a moment to appreciate that Meekus is being played by Eric Northman from True Blood? Yeah. Deal with that.
Derek’s friends were the last three people in the industry who believed that Derek was better than Hansel. As the physical embodiment of the Ordinary World, they were rope tying him to the delusion that if he just wished hard enough, things would go back to the way they are.
After the above scene, the boys coordinate outfits, hit the jeep, and get their OMF on. Unfortunately, catastrophe ensues when Derek’s three friends meet their demise in a freak gasoline fight accident.
True to Campbellian structure, tragedy clears the way for destiny; the hero is now free to go on the adventure of self-exploration.
I think the lessons here are clear: first, we see the correlation between consumption of Orange Mocha Frappuccino’s and spontaneous combustion.
Secondly, we see that your next breath is not guaranteed. As Derek mentions in his moving eugoogoly, the tragic deaths of Brint, Rufus and Meekus show us that life is a precious, precious commodity—and if a group of male models can die in something as routine and commonplace as a gasoline fight, how much more evidence to you need to accept that today can be your last?
I have taken this lesson to heart, and while I don’t morbidly obsess over my eventual death, I take a second to appreciate my life, and spend quality time with the people on my life who won’t always be around.
Thirdly, with regard to our own journeys, we learn that sometimes we need to cut people out of our lives to get to the next phase of our development; on the other side, you’ll have to accept that they’ll leave of their own accord in order to move along in their own quests.
One of the most poignant scenes in the movies is when Derek goes home to spend some time with the original Zoolander clan.
This is the next stage of the Hero’s Journey – Crossing the First Threshold.
At this point, the Hero has accepted that he needs to undertake some sort of effort to make a change, and does something out of the ordinary, which usually takes him to strange and unfamiliar places.
Thinking himself perhaps done with the industry, Derek tries his hand at the family business of coal mining—a failed experiment that leads to a painful discussion with his father, who condemns his son’s life choices and disowns him.
So much for fatherly love! With cries of, merman! cough cough, merman!, our young hero flees the scene and heads back to city life.
While of course this is meant to be funny, it’s a scene that’s always resonated with me. I’ve discussed this in other posts, but I’ll briefly mention here that my mother, with whom I am very close, hasn’t always approved of my career path.
In the early stages of my career, Momma Roman made it perfectly clear that she didn’t consider training to be a “real job.” She felt that it was an okay thing to while I was figuring things out, but hounded me constantly about getting a masters or whatever degree she thought would lead to something more.
To be fair, she only had my best interests at heart, and, her perspective shaped having raised me by herself with very little money, felt that stability was the surest way to avoid struggle.
Although knew that at the time, I was constantly faced with disapproval and disappointment, with constant reminders that I was squandering my education and wasting my potential; a painful situation to say the least, and I could certainly relate to how Derek felt when he reluctantly trudged away from his family in his fabulous snakeskin outfit.
At the end of the film, Poppa Zoolander is watching the Derelicte fashion show on TV when Derek finally lets the beast out of the cage and exposes the world to the beauty of Magnum. Stunned by the sheer radiance of his son’s masterpiece, Derek’s dad finally accepts his son for who he is. (This, by the way, is another stage in the Hero’s Journey – Atonement with the Father.)
I’m happy to report that my mother eventually came around, much like Derek’s dad. For me, this happened only when my income went above (and stayed above) six figures per year, all while I was getting published more frequently.
For Momma Roman, it took a combination of consistent income (or, as my mom would put it, stability) coupled with the external validation of talent to change her mind—and since around 2008, she’s been extremely supportive.
The lesson here is that you have to be true to yourself, even when facing disapproval from those closest to you; eventually, they’ll come around, but it may not happen until your prove yourself.
In other words—just as I did—you’ll have to develop your own version of magnum, which we’ll touch on in the 11th lesson.
As a corollary to that, wetness is the essence of beauty.
Reeling from his father’s rejection, Derek is feeling more lost than ever. Just as he is about to succumb to despair, his agent Maury Ballstein contacts him with an opportunity to work with Mugatu, the only fashion designer who had theretofore spurned him.
Derek meets with Maury, which comprises Stage Five of the Hero’s Journey – the Meeting with the Mentor. During this conversation, he Derek shows signs of growth and maturity, bringing up the idea of a school to help children.
From there, we enter into Stage Six of the Hero’s Journey – The Road of Trials, which is comprised of Tests, Allies, and Enemies. Our Hero meets with the villain, and, unfortunately, Derek fails a test. While he was initially skeptical of Mugatu’s change of heart, the villain plays on Derek’s weakness—vanity. Won over by Mugatu’s flattery, Zoolander accepts the Derelicte campaign; a mistake for which he’ll pay dearly.
After being led astray, Derek winds up at a week-long day spa, where he is subjected to brainwashing techniques intended to turn him into a really, really, really, ridiculously good-looking assassin.
From Derek’s failure, we see very clearly that not all opportunities are what they seem, and that if you’re not careful, a lot of people will try to use and take advantage of you.
To be clear, I believe that most people are generally good, but there are some scumbags out there. If you’re going to develop any sort of a platform, eventually you’re to deal with an unbelievable number of sketchy or disingenuous people who try to strike up friendships for the wrong reason, thinking that you’ll be able to help them in some way.
They come with flattery or bearing gifts, or promises of traffic or profit—and it can seem appealing.
Personally, I’ve learned that I have to vet people and products thoroughly before I can get involved on any level. And I think that applies to any industry.
At the end of the day it’s all about going with your gut, no matter how shiny something seems, and from Derek’s experience with Mugatu, we learn that if someone looks fair and feels foul (hat tip, Tolkien), you’re better off staying away.
I generally advise turning the other cheek and just being cool with people; I’m of the mind that if you don’t react, they eventually stop.
With some folks, however, a lack of response can be seen as weakness; this may encourage them to keep going, even to the point where they suggest you dere-lick their balls.
Derek had had enough taunting from Hansel (so hot right now) and his cronies and eventually decides to push back. After a brief bit of verbal sparring, our hero throws down the gauntlet, and—against the advice of Billy Zane (who, by the way, is a cool dude)—challenges Hansel to a walk-off.
This is a continuation of Stage Six, and is another test.
As for the lesson, if I may paraphrase Mencius, while I dislike fighting, there are things I dislike more, so there are occasions when I will not avoid conflict. There are other occasions when you’ve just gotta challenge someone to a David Bowie refereed walk-off.
Which is exactly what Derek does.
It’s an epic battle, and though Derek
fights walks bravely, Hansel emerges victorious when he goes monk.
Despite his loss, Derek passes the test, because he stood up for himself. This prepares him for conflict later on, and his biggest test.
Although it didn’t work out for him, Derek’s courage is an inspiration, and teaches us that sometimes, you gotta put your foot down, your back up, and come out swinging…or walking.
One of the most important lessons you’re ever learn is that even though you may fail, you have to try—and that there is very often victory in defeat.
Speaking of people taking shots at you, let’s examine the reasoning behind such behavior.
First, a set up from the film: on the run from Mugatu’s henchmen, Derek is forced to seek shelter at Hansel’s loft, but he must first gain access by having a conversation to the tension between them.
We’re still in Stage Six of the Journey, but this is the last stop on the Road of Trials In this instance Hansel, at the door to his apartment, serves as a Threshold Guardian. By turning Hansel from an enemy to a friend, Derek has gained an important ally for his quest4.
The life lesson this teaches us is about forgiveness and understanding. The rivalry between Derek and Hansel was bubbling in espoused hatred—but ultimately stemmed from mutual jealousy; which, if you think about it, is one of the most potent forms of love.
When they were able to talk it out, they became best friends and had a freak-fest with Matil.
This shows us that when people are negative, it usually indicates nothing more than a strong dose of envy—and that should be taken as a compliment, as it shows how much people really admire you.
It’s often said that “haters” don’t actually hate you; they hate themselves, and are just projecting because they begrudge the fact that you’ve achieved something they haven’t. I think that’s a fair point.
I’ll take it further and say that this is even more prominent online. The problem with the Internet is that it creates and allows for association with dissociation; that is, you’re introduced to someone, but the physical distance allows you to see them as personas instead of people.
The Internet allows us to connect to one another, but the inherent disconnection leads to people taking things out of context and getting bent out of shape; the result is long-standing arguments and grudges between people who—if they’d met under other circumstances or in person—would probably get along really well. Especially because they often have a lot in common5.
In examining the relationship between Derek and Hansel, I’ve come to see that when people battle on the Interwebz, a lot of it is just based on petty envy, which has allowed me to avoid a lot of petty squabbles.
By keeping that in mind, you’ll be able to just do the important thing: focus on the Journey.
Nuff said, I think.
While at the loft, Derek, Hansel, and Matilda have some deep conversation and give in to the power of the tea, culminating in one of the wackiest orgies I’ve ever heard of.
The sex isn’t the important thing, though. The important thing is that the next day, Derek confesses to Hansel that he’s realized he’s in love with Matilda.
Derek has just hit Stage Seven of the Hero’s Journey – Meeting with the Goddess. His experience with Matilda is certainly odd, but he feels connected to her in a way that allows him to experience pure love.
The lesson here, other than the importance of love, is not to let stupid things like sexual history get in the way of that feeling, and that judging people based on that history is a terrible idea.
I think it’s fairly obvious that none of us like to spend much time dwelling on the sexual histories of our respective partners; whether it’s feelings of inadequacy or guilt or mistrust, it usually makes us feel a little weird. But, as Derek shows us, a person is more than the sum of their sexual experience, and should never be judged for their choices.
Although Derek witnesses Matilda in congress with Hansel, some Finnish dwarves, and a Maori tribesman, he moves past it and just loves her honestly. His immediate dismissal of the orgy and acceptance of Matilida is a great lesson for all of us to avoid rushes to judgment, and base our assessment of people solely on their experiences with us, rather than those that came before—so if you love someone, you shouldn’t count them out simply because their high school nickname might have been fingercuffs.
Derek Zoolander was many things: a model, lover, sex symbol and icon. Now, that’s not quite as good as being a genius, billionaire, playboy and philanthropist, it’s still a pretty awesome resume.
But, impressive though he may have been, one thing Derek Zoolander could not claim to be was an ambiturner—a shortcoming that frustrated him daily. However, it was this very limitation that allowed Derek to achieve his greatest success.
In the climax of the film, we’re in the part of the Journey called The Ordeal, when Mugatu has the audacity to say that Zoolander’s repertoire of modeling looks—including Blue Steel, Ferrari and Le Tigre—are all the same, and throws an M-shaped shuriken at the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Derek’s erstwhile assassination target.
This action forces Derek into Stage Nine of the Hero’s Journey (Reward), and in a moment of exceptional need, he Seizes the Sword, as Campbell would say.
In spite of the fact that Derek lived his life suffering from a complete incapacity to turn left, when he needed to do it to save the world, he was able to overcome this debilitating restriction in the moment and swing a louie.
As it turned out, when it really counted, his sternocleidomastoid did function both ways.
The lesson here is two fold. The first is that many times our limits are self-imposed, and when we truly need to go beyond them, we can.
The second part builds on the first: only when Derek finally sheds the shackles of self-doubt and is he able to turn left. He is willing to sacrifice himself to someone else, and has the confidence to do so, putting his precious pretty face in the path of a ninja star.
It is only through the removal these things that he as able to finally perfect and unveil Magnum, his pièce de résistance.
In that instant of selflessness and self-discovery, Derek achieves the full promise of Stage Nine – Apotheosis, or deification. For one brief moment, Derek is god-like.
From Derek’s struggle and ultimate triumph with ambi-turning, we see that if challenges are part of the journey, and without them, we’ll never become who we have the potential to be.
The next lesson is the most important, and the one I want you to walk away with.
During the course of his Hero’s Journey, Derek’s encounters with aging and death, his confrontation with his father, and his experience with momentary apotheosis reinforce what he began to see early in the film: there’s more to life than being…well, ya know.
This is the final stage of the Hero’s Journey – the Return with the Elixir. In this stage, the Hero returns to the ordinary world, and uses what he learned on his quest to help others.
In the film’s dénouement, we see that Derek has come to accept that he’s in the twilight of his modeling career, and has focused his attention on a school that will help develop young minds and young talent.
Derek has begun to think about the world outside of himself, as well as after himself – and he wants to create something that will not only help people, but also contribute to his legacy. From this idea is born the Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too.
From this, we learn that while our own development and success may be (and should be) at the foremost of our minds for the majority of our lives, at some point we need to think about giving back, and using the skills and successes we’ve accrued to help others move further down the line on their respective paths.
This lesson has had the most impact on me, and it is the reason that I enjoy coaching, teaching, and writing so much: by sharing with you my experiences, and the benefits of by my triumphs and losses, I achieve the final phase of my own journey; I help pass on a piece of myself to you, hopefully helping you get to the next stage of your individual quest.
It’s one of the truly great pleasures that coaches have—our journeys are linked to yours, and your successes are linked to yours.
If you’re a coach or a trainer, remember that.
Yes, as it turns out, there is more to life than being really, really, really, really ridiculously good looking. But not much.
All of that is some deep shit, and it’s all true. But then again, I’ve been sunbathing off the southern coast of St. Bart’s with spider monkeys for the past two weeks, tripping on acid; changed my whole perspective on shit–so really, what do I know?