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Be a Billy Elliott to avoid those Groundhog Days

December 9, 2013

The phrase Groundhog Day has entered common use as a reference to the feeling that each day repeats itself in a boring, humdrum way, day after day. It’s also the title of an entertaining film starring Bill Murray, which makes a comedic play on the repetition of the day.

It’s based on a real event. Punxsutawney Phil is a groundhog resident of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. On February 2, Groundhog Day each year, the town celebrates their beloved groundhog with a festival of music and food.

During the ceremony, which begins before sunrise, Phil emerges from his temporary home on Gobbler’s Knob. According to tradition, if Phil sees his shadow and returns to his hole, there will be six more weeks of winter. If Phil does not see his shadow, spring will arrive early. Groundhog Day was first declared and recognised in Punxsutawney in 1886.

In the film, Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an egocentric TV weatherman who, during an assignment covering the Groundhog Day event, experiences repeats of the same day over, over and over again.

After the celebration concludes, a blizzard closes the roads and shuts down the phone service, forcing Phil to spend an extra day in Punxsutawney. He wakes the next morning to find it is February 2 again, and the day unfolds in exactly the same way, over and over again.

Connors’ Groundhog Day begins each morning with his waking up to the same song, Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe, on his alarm clock radio, but with his (and only his) memories of the previous day intact, trapped in a seemingly endless time loop to repeat the same day in the same small town.

Despite continually meeting the same annoying high school acquaintance turned insurance salesman Ned Ryerson, Phil creates an extravagant life for himself by robbing banks, seducing women and indulging his every pleasure. However, he begins to tire and then dread his existence.

He commits suicide several times, but even death cannot stop the day from repeating. After he dies, he simply wakes up in the morning again. In one attempt he kills the groundhog along with himself by driving a truck off a cliff, but even this does not stop the loop!

Subsequent to his indulging in all manner of hedonistic pursuits, he re-examines his life and priorities. He cannot escape, but he can achieve self-improvement by educating himself on a daily basis. There is enough time for Connors to learn to play jazz piano, speak French, sculpt ice, and memorise the life story of almost everyone in town.

The film depicts 33 different repeats of Groundhog Day. Eventually, Connors enhances his existence with the realisation that life is about self-improvement, development and authenticity. This allows him to find love with Rita, a TV colleague, and wake up on February 3, though again to I Got You Babe.

Groundhog Day is really a tale of self-improvement. Life may have an apparently monotonous repetition, but it’s down to you changing your attitude and decide to do something different.

The same, of course, applies to work. We all have a routine, task element to our work which has to be done, but there are opportunities for us all to remove the Groundhog Day feel it has by lifting our heads up and taking a different view, working in a more engaged way, not being so self-centric, and focusing on personal development and stretching ourselves to do something that matters to us.

This attitude is epitomized by one of my first school friends, Frank, who left school at 16 and set up his own bicycle shop in Burnley. He was bike mad, which in hilly East Lancashire, was a challenge! Today, thirty-five years later, I still see him every week, and he still runs his bike shop. For every bike he fixes, he charges by the hour, and even a small job takes an hour, but he does his best. Then he spends ten extra minutes doing something special.

Frank is a perfectly fine cycle mechanic, He pays attention to detail, is careful, focused and diligent. Like other very good bike mechanics, he gets the job done and earns his pay each day. In the last ten minutes though, Frank transforms himself from a mechanic into a craftsman. In those few extra minutes, he becomes remarkable, and memorable for his customers.

Sometimes all he does is carefully clean the chain, other times he’ll take the bike out to the street and ensure the gears are adjusted properly, and sometimes, especially if the bike is for a child, he’ll attach a horn, a water bottle – anything worth noticing – and give it for free. He’ll also spend just a couple of minutes with his customer telling them what he’s done for them, and also recommending some good cycle routes.

The astonishing thing isn’t how unusual Frank is, the astonishing thing is how easy it is to do what Frank does, and how many people don’t do it. Simply, he cares and that makes a huge difference. It doesn’t matter what your job is, those last ten minutes make it easy for your customer to find the difference between you and every one else. It takes 99% of the time you spend just to be average. The remarkable stuff can happen in 1% of your time – in a flash.

Frank has a passionate commitment to memorable customer service, making sure they come back time and again, but it’s the antithesis of Groundhog Day. He does something greater and far more purposeful than his everyday work of bike repairs. Yes, this is ‘Frank’s Cycles’.  You may smile at the relevance of this small bike shop in Burnley, but Frank stands for something, has a successful business, and enjoys great job and customer satisfaction. And the world, or at least Burnley, becomes just a little brighter and better. Frank goes the extra mile as standard.

Franks stands for something, and I admire that. Work gets a bad press, continually portrayed as an endurance test rather than a source of enjoyment. Work has taken centre stage in our lives, we are what we do. Surely work is a good thing, otherwise why is unemployment such a bad thing? The trouble with unemployment is that you never get a day off.

You have to do something that makes a difference to yourself. Another of my favourite films of recent years which highlights this theme is Billy Elliott, a boy brought up in the fictional northeast mining town of Everington during the 1984-1985 miners strike, and centres an 11-year-old boy’s love of dance and his dream of being a professional ballet dancer.

Billy’s father sends him to the gym to learn boxing, but he hates it and happens upon a ballet class that is using the gym while their usual studio is temporarily being used as a soup kitchen for the striking miners. Billy surreptitiously joins the ballet class and passionate about dancing but unbeknown to his father, continues lessons with his dance teacher’s help.

Billy’s good at something for the first time in his life and he won’t give it up easily, despite his immediate family’s perilous financial woes. The strike is biting and his dad goes bonkers when he finds out about Billy’s private dance tuition. His mates are ribbing him at school about his dancing.

Later, his father Jackie catches Billy dancing in the gym – but realises his son is truly gifted. He will do whatever it takes to help Billy attain his dream, so his fellow miners raise money and Jackie pawns Billy’s mother’s jewellery to cover the cost, and he takes him to London to audition for the Royal Ballet School.

Though highly nervous, Billy performs well, but he punches another boy in his frustration at the audition and the fear that he has ruined his chance of attaining his dream. He is sternly rebuked but when asked what it feels like when he is dancing, he replies It sort of feels good. It starts stiff and that but once I get going, then I like forget everything and I sort of disappear. Like I feel a change in my whole body — like there’s fire in my body. I’m just there — flyin’ like a bird — like electricity, — yeah, like electricity.

Seemingly rejected, Billy returns home but sometime later, he receives a letter accepting him to the Royal Ballet School.  Do you get that type of a feeling from anything that you do?

Billy Elliott can be seen as a deeply political film making a statement about community. However, looked at another way, the film is simply about is work. Billy wants a different kind of work from the people around him and wants to jump sisonnes rather than shovel coal. He wants to be fulfilled and work in a different environment that gives him what he wants from his life. And he does.

The fact is that we can all do a Billy Elliott and a Frank, avoiding groundhog days and chose our own paths. When you have a passion for something and your work is about realising it, you’ve got to go for it.

You must have great expectations as to what you can be, and what you want to do with your life. As Shackleton said, reach beyond your expectations. Live a life rather than simply make a living is my thought, but I see many people attempting to live their lives backwards, they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want so they will be happier.

For me, the way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then do what you need to do, in order to have what you want. Otherwise the pursuit of money becomes an end in itself, rather than simply the means to a comfortable and interesting life. Work is then the way we meet our need for money rather than our need for meaning, fulfillment and growth.

As French poet Paul Valery said Until you value yourself, you won’t value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it. Make sure you wind up your personal clock everyday, and make the best use of your time, whatever you’re doing. Make the most of yourself, because that is all there is of you: it’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be. The curious paradox is that once you’ve accepted yourself as wanting to do something different, you can then do something about it. Always expect things of yourself, otherwise you’ll be in the passenger seat for the rest of your life. Inaction creates nothing, action creates success.

So it’s up to you to be a Billy Elliott, making your work passion, talent and ethic an expression of who you are. The values by which you live your life are the same ones you should apply to your work. Don’t see work as just a job and limiting, get blown away by it, as Thomas Edison said, opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. Stand out from the crowd by being yourself.

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