Good Will Hunting: "Don't infect him with the idea that it's okay to be failure, because it's not." How Good Will Hunting explores success, fear of failure and life satisfaction.

This post is part of the Psychology in TV and Movies series of posts. I’ll be writing about the films and shows which capture interesting ideas and theories from the world of psychology. Today I look at success, fear of failure, and life satisfaction in Good Will Hunting. While Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are arguably the most well known elements of the movie for their writing and acting, I'm more interested today in the rivalry between Mathematics Professor Gerry Lambeau (played by Stellan Skarsgård) and counsellor Sean Maguire (played by Robin Williams).

LAMBEAU
This is a disaster, Sean! I brought you in here to help me with this boy, not to run him out

SEAN
I know what I'm doing with the boy...

LAMBEAU
I don't care if you have a rapport with the boy - I don't care if you have a few laughs - even at my expense. But don't you dare undermine what I'm trying to do here.

SEAN
"Undermine?"

LAMBEAU
This boy is at a fragile point right now.

SEAN
He is at a fragile point. He's got problems.

LAMBEAU
What problems does he have, Sean, that he is better off as a janitor or in jail or hanging around with a bunch of retarded gorillas?

SEAN
Why do you think he does that, Gerry? Do you have any f**king clue why?

LAMBEAU
He can handle the problems, he can handle the work, and he's obviously handled you.

SEAN
Gerry, listen - Why is he hiding? Why doesn't he trust anybody? Because the first thing that happened to him was that he was abandoned by the people who were supposed to love him the most!

LAMBEAU
Oh, come on, don't give me that Freudian crap!

SEAN
And listen, Gerry, why does he hang out with those retarded gorillas as you call them? Because any one of those kids would come in here and take a f**king bat to your head if he asked them to. That's called loyalty!

LAMBEAU
Oh, that's nice--

SEAN
And who do you think he's handling? He pushes people away before they have a chance to leave him. It's a defence mechanism, alright? And for 20 years he's been alone because of that. And if you push him right now, it's going to be the same thing all over again. And I'm not going to let that happen to him!

LAMBEAU
Now don't you do that. Don't you do that! Don't infect him with the idea that it's okay to quit. That it's okay to be a failure, because it's not okay, Sean! If you're angry at me for being successful, for being what you could have been.

SEAN
I'm not angry at you

LAMBEAU
Yes you are angry at me, Sean. You resent me. But I'm not going to apologize for any success that I've had.

SEAN
I don't have any anger at you

LAMBEAU
Yes you do. You're angry at me for doing what you could have done. Ask yourself if you want Will to feel that way for the rest of his life, to feel like a failure.

SEAN
You arrogant s**t. That's why I don't come to the goddamn reunions! Because I
can't stand that look in your eye when you see me! That condescending embarrassed look. You think I'm a failure! I know who I am. I'm proud of what I do. It was a conscious choice. I didn't f**k up. And you and your cronies think I'm some some sort of pity case! You and your kiss-ass chorus following you around going "the fields medal, the fields medal". Why are you still so f**king afraid of failure?

LAMBEAU
It's about my medal isn't it! Oh god, I can go home and get it for you. You can have it!

SEAN
Oh please don't. You know what Gerry, shove the medal up your f**king ass, alright? I don't give a shit about your medal, 'cause I knew you before you were a mathematical god. When you were homesick and pimply-faced and didn't know what side of the bed to piss on!

LAMBEAU
Yeah, you were smarter than me then and you're smarter than me now! So don't blame me for how your life turned out. It's not my fault.

SEAN
I don't blame you! It's not about that, you mathematical d**k! It's about the boy! 'Cause he's a good kid! And I won't you f**k him up like you're trying to f**k up me right now. I won't see you make him feel like a failure too!

LAMBEAU
He won't be a failure!

SEAN
If you push him into something, if you ride him--

LAMBEAU
Sean. I'm where I am today because I was pushed. And because I learned to push myself!

SEAN
He's not you! You get that?!

Very Brief Background

Lets set the scene here. We have two characters expressing different views about what needs to be done about Will Hunting (Matt Damon). Will is currently seeing Sean (Robin Williams) for court-mandated therapy.

To take some stock of what is happening between these two, I'll provide simple summary of the three characters that are the focus of this scene.

Will Hunting (Matt Damon):

Gerry Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård):

  • A mathematical genius/savant
  • Winner of the Field's Medal ("It's like the Nobel Prize for math, except they only give it out once every four years")
  • College roommate of Sean
  • Sees the gift in Will and wishes to see Will fulfill his potential as a mathematical great
  • At one stage in the movie he hits on female postgraduate student

Sean Maguire (Robin Williams):

  • Counsellor/Psychologist to Will
  • Dedicated much of his recent life to looking after his wife battling cancer
  • His wife dies sometime before meeting Will for the first time
  • Sees the gift in Will, yet wishes to help Will choose his own path and work through his fears of emotional intimacy
  • He can bench press 285 pounds

The differing views between Gerry Lambeau and Sean are one element of this movie that I continue to find so entertaining on every re-watch.

Gerry Lambeau's Point Of View

In his wiser moments, Gerry Lambeau puts forward a pretty simple argument. Will has the potential to leave a mark on the world for the better. Gerry wishes to help him get there. He wants Sean's help to iron out the kinks in Will and rectify what is holding him back from achieving great things.

This approach is moderately similar to what is called the 'strengths based approach' (Saleeby 2001) in mental health treatment - to concentrate on the strengths of individuals rather than their deficiencies, and promote the positive parts of one's makeup. Think of it like a parent aiming to give attention to positive behaviours in a child and ignore the negative behaviours rather than become engaged in a battle with them. Carried out effectively, strength based approaches can help people in awful circumstances find some direction. Beyond that, it’s an approach that helps some to find their identity among phases of feeling lost.

There is a darker side to Gerry's point of view. It's got a flavour of control. Failure is not an option for Gerry. There's a preoccupation with a loss of reputation. The side effect of his approach is that It is setting someone (in this case, Will) up for the nasty side of the perfectionist's all or nothing worldview - if you don't measure up than you are a complete failure. One thing I can't help but admire about Gerry is that he has the bluntness to say to Sean something to the effect of 'don't let him end up like you (a failure)'.

Shafran, Cooper and Fairburn (2002) called this viewpoint that Gerry is talking about “clinical perfectionism” - when your sense of self evaluation is overly dependent on demanding standards in one particular area. Albert Ellis and Robert Harper (1961) simply called this "musterbation". ***A Guide to Successful Marriage, with Robert A. Harper. North Hollywood, CA: Wilshire Book, 1961.***

Gerry speaks about the need to be pushed to achieve greatness. Comedian Chris Rock echoed the same argument about the need to be pushed in order to achieve in his recent stand-up special ‘Tambourine’.

"We need bullies... Bullies do half the work. That’s right. Teachers do one half. Bullies do the whole other half. And that’s the half you’re gonna use as a f**king grown-up. That’s right...

You think kids were nice to Bill Gates in high school? ... You think kids were nice to Mark Zuckerberg in high school? He invented Facebook after somebody smacked him in the face with a book. He invented Facebook just to get friends.

We need bullies. S**t, pressure makes diamonds. Not hugs."

So Gerry's worldview looks pretty clear:

1) If you have a special talent, you have a duty to make a difference in the world

2) You need to be pushed to turn the talent into something of substance.

3) It's not a good idea to tell someone that failure is okay.

Sean Maguire's Point Of View

Sean's viewpoint is a little harder to pin down. He argues that people who have had issues with trust and abandonment in their past do not respond well to control. He predicts that Will is likely to take back his own sense of control in reaction to Gerry's approach by escaping rather than be burnt by the weight of expectation. If this argument between Gerry and Sean was to mirror the tension taking place in the song in Father and Son by Cat Stevens, Sean argues that Gerry is playing the role of the insistent father, and Will is going to end up playing the role of the son who is bound to go against his father’s wishes if he’s ordered to listen.

The more interesting tangent Sean puts to Gerry is that he's not going to let Gerry's view of failure and life success have any effect on what conclusions he makes about his own success.

“I can't stand that look in your eye when you see me! That condescending embarrassed look. You think I'm a failure! I know who I am. I'm proud of what I do. It was a conscious choice. I didn't f**k up.”

We don't know a lot about Sean's life before his wife became sick. From Gerry's perspective, Sean progressed from a student of great potential into a person who 'settled' for a marriage, a life of teaching counselling at a small college and operating a small counselling practice. It's implied that many of Sean's potential achievements were not pursued because of his choice to look after his dying wife. Sean seems to see it differently. He is secure in his view that he has lived a worthy life to date. He hasn’t chased any one thing, nor has he come close to reaching the top of his field - Sean’s own summary of his life choices is quite close to what behavioural scientist Steven Hayes defines as happiness.

“You know, there's many different definitions of (happiness). I think one dangerous definition of it is to think of happiness as kind of a warm, joyful feeling in your heart that you have to pursue and grab and hold onto for fear that it'll go away. I mean, it's fun when you have those feelings, but we know, and the evidence shows, the more intent you are on having those feelings and chasing those feelings, that's a butterfly that flies away the more you chase it. A better way to think about happiness that actually is something that I think you can reach towards is … living in accord with your values and in a way that is more open and accepting of your history as it echoes into the present, that's more self-affirming, self-validating and values-based. The Greeks had a word for it; they called it eudaimonia, and it's not a bad definition.”

Sean's work with Will is all about his life beyond a single pursuit of mathematical success. He shows a keen interest in Will’s life that goes beyond his mathematical potential. Sean barely speaks of Will’s gift in his discussions; Sean has regard for Will beyond the mathematical genius side to his life. He offers Will the opportunity to define his sense of self by more than success in one field. He is open to the darker sides of Will - he is aware of how person’s way to make sense of a trauma is often to attribute the blame of what has happened to themselves (Foa et al., 1999). He provides Will with a freedom to choose for himself and the freedom to let go of the weight of over-responsibility.

So to sum up, Sean argues the following:

  • Sean defines failure in a different way to Gerry Lambeau

  • Sean won’t conclude that his own life has been a failure, in spite of Gerry’s suggestion. He is proud of himself and the choices he has made. 

  • Will doesn’t need to be pushed. Pushing Will is probably going to result in Will pushing him and Gerry away. 

  • Will operates in a very different way to Gerry. Will probably isn’t a mathematical d**k


THE CONFLICT HERE IS QUITE BRUTAL - WHAT IS GOING ON WITH THESE TWO?

The friendship and rivalry between Sean and Gerry I think is one of the best sub-plots of the film. Their conflict in this scene provides a really nice example of the potentially destructive ways we maintain our self esteem as proposed by social psychologist Mark Leary. In 2007, Leary put out a paper that tried to make sense of vast array of social psychology experimental data. It sheds some light on what happens when arguments between two people arrive at a stalemate of ‘I’m in the right here, why can’t you see that?’.

Leary notes that an overwhelming amount of lab studies tend to conclude that humans are motivated to enhance their self esteem - to see themselves in a positive light. We go about enhancing our self esteem in a number of ways, and often we do this by overestimating the worth and value of the people who are similar to us, the places we choose to visit and the things that we associate with. A nastier way that we enhance our self esteem is to disparage the achievements of others - this approach to bring others down is a simple way that people feel better about themselves while also confirming that the things they value in life are the right things to value. There have been a number of studies examining the downside to pursuing high self esteem (Baumeister et al., 1996; Heatherton & Vohs 2000; Johnson et al. 1997), and most of them imply from their data that this pursuit turns you into a rubbish person in the eyes of others.

People can do the most bizarre things to artificially enhance and maintain their self esteem in the short term. They react aggressively, treat others with contempt, and above all, they conclude that they perceive themselves more accurately than others perceive them. So if a disagreement takes place, people who are receiving feedback about themselves from another party tend to conclude that the other party is ignorant, biased or deluded, even if this feedback is accurate (Pronin et al. 2004). Over time, if unchecked, these kinds of conflicts that seemingly maintain a person’s self esteem in the short term can slowly eat away at relationship quality over the long term.

These efforts to maintain self esteem by degrading the other person appear to be at the heart of this conflict. Gerry concludes that Sean’s movement away from achievement and toward his marriage has meant that Sean has become a failure as a person. Sean undermines Gerry’s greatest mathematical achievement, the Field’s Medal, and suggests that the people who Gerry associates with are simply there to stroke his ego. In a matter of two minutes, they’ve both been able to undermine the other person’s most meaningful pursuit in life, and neither of them concede an inch.

It’s a beautifully written scene, and both actors do justice to the writing. We have all been Gerry at some point, insisting that our approach to life is the right approach for everyone else. We have all been Sean at some point, counter-attacking those who cut us down with equally devaluing comments aimed at balancing out the ledger of how undermined we feel.

If you would like to read more about a healthy way to not get caught in the trap of dangerous self esteem maintenance, check out these resources:

1) Dr Steven Hayes podcast on the dangers of artificially inflating self esteem

2) Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning - Self Esteem: A proven program of cognitive techniques for assessing, improving and maintaining your self-esteem.

3) Irvin Yalom - Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death.


REFERENCES

Baumeister, R.F., Smart, L., Boden, J.M. (1996). Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: the dark side of high self-esteem. Psychology Review. 103, 5–33.

Ellis, A. & Harper, R. (1961). A Guide to Successful Marriage. North Hollywood, CA: Wilshire Books.

Foa, E.B., Ehlers, A., Clark, D.M., Tolin, D.F., Orsillo, S.M. (1999). The Posttraumatic Cognitions Inventory: Development and validation. Psychological Assessment. 11, 303–314.

Heatherton, T.F., Vohs, K.D. (2000.) Interpersonal evaluations following threats to self: role of self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 725–36.

Johnson, E.A., Vincent, N., Ross, L. (1997). Self-deception versus self-esteem in buffering the negative effects of failure. Journal of Research in Personality. 31:385–405.

Leary, M. (2007). Motivational and Emotional Aspects of the Self. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 317–44.

Pronin, E., Gilovich, T., Ross, L. (2004). Objectivity in the eye of the beholder: divergent perceptions of bias in self versus others. Psychological Review, 3, 781–99

Saleebey, D. (2001) Practicing the strengths perspective: Everyday tools and resources, Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 82, 221-222.

Shafran, Cooper & Fairburn. (2002.)

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