Lessons From The Martian

I love movies, and I learn a lot from them. As Steve Martin (Davis) brilliantly offered to Kevin Kline (Mack) in Grand Canyon (1991), “That’s part of your problem: you haven’t seen enough movies. All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.” With that thought in mind, I invite you to consider the wisdom offered by Matt Damon in the movie The Martian (2015). Whether you’ve seen the film or not, you know that Matt Damon’s character (Mark Watney) is stranded alone on Mars, and he must figure out how to survive. Recounting his survival mindset, here’s what Mark had to offer:

“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you, and you’re going to say, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.” ~Mark Watney (The Martian)

Admittedly, few if any of us literally face life or death issues or obstacles, but we still often face daunting obstacles and problems (personally and professionally), many of which potentially have life changing impact (e.g. business or relationship success or failure).

Mark Watney’s insight is simple – solve one problem and then solve the next problem. In other words, you can’t solve all of the problems at once, so focus on one problem at a time. What he doesn’t say (but which is modeled throughout the movie) is the idea that solving one problem at a time involves taking one next step at a time. This is perhaps the even greater wisdom from The Martian. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when we look at our overall goals, projects or even to do lists. It’s easy for things to seem too big, complicated or time consuming. The reality of all things, however, comes down to this simple fact:

Everything comes down to ONE next step or next action.

That’s it, and it’s universal.

No matter your idea, project, initiative or solution, there’s always only ONE next thing. Of course, there can be multiple next things being done by different people or teams (especially when you’re using agile planning processes), but for any one person (including you) there’s always ONE next thing. When you accomplish that one thing, then you move on to the next ONE thing, ideally broken down to the smallest next step. It’s that simple, and it’s consistent with the answer to the ancient question: How do you eat an elephant? Answer: One bite at a time.

As an example, let’s assume that you want to take a vacation to Italy. It may seem a daunting task in regards to planning, time needed and monetary cost, and this initial look at the entire process is the part of any task that can often delay or stop us because it feels so big and overwhelming. In fact, while there are many moving parts and elements to such a trip, there’s only one next step. While there could be many first steps, the key is to identify or simply just pick the first next step. For some people, it’s picking the dates. For some people, it’s picking the location. Whichever you choose, there will always be one first or next step in the process. For example, if you decide that picking the dates is the first step, then your next step might be to research the best times to visit Italy, to check your calendar for the best times in your schedule for the trip, or even to talk to whomever you plan to travel with. Whichever you choose, that’s your first step.

Once you’ve taken that first step, you then pick the next step (not the next group of steps). You may want to make a list of all of the steps that you anticipate, but never lose sight of the fact that you must always focus on the next step. As you identify and take each next step, you’ll be moving toward the completion of the whole plan – but one next step at a time.

The same approach would be applied to putting together the money you need for your trip to Italy. While it might seem like a large amount of money and perhaps even feel beyond your capabilities, break it down (working backwards) to determine how much money you would need to save each week leading up to the trip in order to accumulate the funds you need. Again, one next step at a time.

The same is true for professional goals (e.g. a new job or career), business goals (e.g. launching a new product or service), and personal goals (e.g. learning something new). Everything can be broken down into small steps, and one of those steps will always be the next step.

It may not come down to life or death as it did for Matt Damon in The Martian, but embracing the concept of the next step will have a positive impact on every aspect of your life – your goals, your desires, your dreams, your plans, your relationships, and your outcomes. Think big and dream big, and THEN find the first step, take it, pick the next step, take it, and you’re on your way!

The Martian


  1. Jeff,

    Just read this after watching The Martian. Was fascinated by Watney’s methodical, scientific but reassuringly human approach to disaster – or problem solving. It reminded me of a quote by Lincoln:
    ‘Give me five hours to chop down a tree and I’ll spend the first hour sharpening the axe’.
    Thankyou for sharing!


    Ps Found your article by Googling ‘Mark Watney Mindset.

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