In the 2021 film Don’t Look Up, two astronomers spot a massive comet hurtling toward Earth. The comet will destroy life as we know it unless humanity unites to stop it.
The film is the perfect metaphor for our time. The comet in Don’t Look Up is representative of climate change, but that’s just one of the many existential asteroids plaguing us today. We live in one of those periods when the world as we know it is collapsing and a new world has yet to be born.
Our perspective in these uncertain times will guide our actions. These actions will shape our future.
“Don’t Look Up” presents the characters of the film from a variety of perspectives. The scientists dr. Randall Mindy, played by Leonard DiCaprio, and graduate student Kate Dibiasky, played by Jennifer Lawrence, adopt a “confront it” mindset as represented by the “Just Look Up” movement, while the film satirizes the fictional As comet deniers, the President of the United States and her comet-denying minions of the government focused solely on ways to monetize impending catastrophes. This “ignore” perspective seeps into public consciousness when fictional President Janie Orlean delivers the slogan “Don’t Look Up!” at a rally.
Wrap our brains around the big problems
Whether the characters in “Don’t Look Up” could “see” the comet or not depended on whether they were looking “up” or “down”. The choice between confrontation or denial involved a different kind of perception that goes beyond seeing with our eyes. It’s not visual. It requires seeing with our mind’s eye. It’s an act of understanding.
Our mind’s eye can only see what we can comprehend, and we only comprehend what we are willing to tolerate.
When we cannot deal with the enormity of a problem, when our mind’s eye cannot accept a new reality, we avert our eyes, we look down, we ignore, we deny.
It’s a challenge to perceive through our mind’s eye when we’re caught between a familiar, if uncomfortable, world and a new, unknown reality that threatens life as we know it.
Scottish anthropologist Victor Turner popularized the term “liminal space” to describe the state of being “between and in-between”. We can see our lives clearly in the rear-view mirror, but the windshield that should give us a view of the road ahead is fogged up.
We encounter such insecurities in different forms throughout our lives, for example when we have given up our old job but have not yet found a new one. These are bumpy but manageable transitional moments. We can hold them in our minds.
Hold the paradox
Today, as we experience an accelerated dissolution of the world we know without seeing the world of our future, we are not an individual moment of transition but a collective one. Our traditional workplace vanished in the COVID-19 miasma, yet the future of work remains amorphous and undefined. We’ve taken our businesses to the digital world just to face the unknowns of the metaverse. It’s hard to imagine what’s real when our reality is floating between VR, AR and AI.
Even that doesn’t capture our collective disorientation. The challenge we face now is to understand the world’s all-consuming, existential problems – including the climate crisis, rising authoritarianism, wars, pandemics and a reshaping of global powers – while we understand our personal role in averting a control universal catastrophe. This requires a paradox from each of us: you alone cannot stop the destruction, but at the same time what you do individually is important.
What do we do in this discouraging moment?
We must heed the call of our fictional scientists: just look up. Stare the problem straight in its glowing, meteoric eyes. Push away the instinct of denial. Perceive through the eye of our mind – what some spiritual traditions call “the eye of the mind.”
For many years, I’ve helped business leaders negotiate their often conflicting inner qualities—the visionary dreamer, the analytical thinker, the empathetic lover, and the determined warrior—to look their best in both work and personal life.
The next steps in this journey of the mind require learning how to face these outer truths that can threaten our sense of self, our center of well-being, and even the world as we know it.
In the film, the comet flies so close to Earth that it can be seen with the naked eye.
“There it is! Look! It’s right there,” exclaims Mindy.
“You can see it!” says Dibiasky.
In a profound snippet of dialogue, Mindy points out the paradox: “It’s horrific and beautiful at the same time,” while Dibiasky tells the crowd, “Just look up – at the sky! Just look up!”
In fact, the unvarnished truth of transformative change can be both terrifying and beautiful at the same time. Seeing it – simply looking up – is expanding the ability within yourself to take the terrible along with the good. It requires expanding your capacity to tolerate what you cannot know and welcome the unknown.
Approaching the abyss of uncertainty
To begin the journey to the Just Look Up Perspective, try these three important first steps:
- Record everything. Let your mind fully comprehend what is happening and what is at stake. Don’t pretend the stakes aren’t high when they are, but remember this goes both ways. Uncertainty brings with it the potential for creative destruction that can ultimately produce great things.
- Feel it. Allow yourself to feel the fear and horror of the situation deep inside, but also feel the other emotions, including optimism and hope. We don’t know what the world will be like on the other side of this great shock of history, but it could be great. Could plowing through the bad lead us to greater good?
- Act accordingly: Our fate is not sealed. When it all falls apart, we often show our best selves, our greatest creativity, and our deepest passion. With smart action and boldness, coupled with humility, we can change the course of the future.
Ours is a powerful moment to see with our mind’s eye, even when our instinct is to duck and take cover as the comet rushes toward us. Our time challenges us to step into the abyss of uncertainty and become the actors in the transformation of our future needs.