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  • Writer's pictureElana Duffy

Lessons from the year 26,631

Our more diligent followers may recall when I wrote my earlier post extolling the universal virtues of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I therein lamented that my fellow writer Elana had already written a piece on one of my favorite works of literature, Catch-22. Forgiveness is forthcoming. I also mentioned the unlikelihood of being able to write a business-relevant piece based around another of my favorite pieces of literature: the sci-fi epic Dune. Having recently given it my annual re-read, and remembering how great I am, [Editor's note: Yes, we left that part in] I have decided to take on the challenge to bring real-world relevance to the story.

While the setting is as fantastic as any one would expect from a famous piece of science fiction, the characters and their motivations are as commonplace and human as in all great works of fiction. This is mainly because they're the same kinds of people, emotions, and goals that all of us in the present deal with every day. You could swap Duke Leto Atreides's war room and its discussions of futuristic feudal war with a conference room full of coworkers brainstorming how to overcome the competition and all that would be different would be a few words. "Spreadsheet" instead of "solido tri-D projector," for example. "Competing bid" with "two legions of Imperial Sardaukar," and so on.

It's a great book and I highly recommend it both for entertainment and educational value. But for those of you who would prefer to cut straight to the lessons to be learned, here are the big ones:

You can know what possible mistakes are ahead and make them anyway. One of the main characters of the book (no spoilers!) comments at one point that "knowing where the trap is - that's the first step in evading it." It's a very good point and well spoken, but the trap being referred to is sprung all the same and that character ends up dead. Recognizing pitfalls and possible errors is definitely that first step, but without taking steps after that you'll fail all the same. How many times have you sat with a group (or even by yourself) and listened to someone talk about avoiding the mistakes of the last time, but then wound up with a product just as flawed or pitch just as uninteresting as that last time?

People who can stop/destroy something can easily control it. A depressing thought in some ways, to be sure. But it's an accurate one. One of the key struggles in Dune is the fight over the universe's supply of "the spice," a life-prolonging, vision-inducing narcotic harvested on a single planet. Various powers and families fight and scheme to control its production and hoard it. But, in the end, the character that figures out how to destroy it and end its growth forever is the one who emerges victorious. You can work your heart out and put in effort around the clock on a project, but keep a clear eye for those roadblocks (be they personal, technical, bureaucratic, etc) that can stop you dead no matter what. For example, when trying to sell a TV pilot (as I currently am), there can be a dozen people at network who say "yes" to it, but it takes one "no" to end the approval process. There may be no way around things like that, but it's better to be prepared than not.

Beware of manipulation. Both sides of it. Wariness about being manipulated is an obvious thing to watch out for. But being the manipulator can be just as dangerous. A major plot within Dune is the protagonist's apprehension over using people's religious beliefs to gain their trust and aid. He needs the local population to fight for him, but is all too aware of the ways having a powerful, religiously motivated army can be dangerous. In the, he does what he has to do to win, but regretfully foresees the unfathomable bloodshed and suffering that will one day come of it. Sure, that was manipulation on a grand scale in a galactic conflict. Something like fawning over a manager for favor or "borrowing" someone else's ideas for a project may seem pretty harmless. But what happens when another manager gets promoted, or somebody catches on to your "borrowed" ideas? Manipulation may get you quick gains, but getting bitten in the ass is almost always the end result.

"Fear is the mind killer." This one is a direct, oft-repeated quote from Dune, and probably the best known saying from the author's body of work. I realize that all of this advice has been mostly focused on warning you of the dangers of things. That being considered, you should not be afraid to try, to work, or to take risks. Awareness and understanding of possible problems and things to avoid doing is all well and good, but fear can drain all confidence and stop you dead in your tracks. Whatever it is you're trying to do, be it work or personal related, being afraid of all the "what ifs" can turn anything into a "never was."

Dune is a complex, twisting tale full of great characters compelling stories worth reading, whether you're a colossal sci-fi nerd currently staring at both a Star Trek and a Battlestar Galactica poster (as I am) or not. And anyone who reads it can probably garners dozens of lessons beyond these four from doing so. These are just the big, universal ones that can apply to life, work, or most anything else that I have learned in my many readings. So don't just take this as all you can learn from the novel, read it for yourself. Unless you're afraid to. And you don't want your mind to get killed, do you?

Paul Mooney is a contributing writer to Present Tense LLC. With a background of film, screenwriting, advertising, and a healthy dose of the Marine Corps he has many stories to share. He is a freelance writer and producer living in New York City. Follow some of his writing on Task & Purpose as well as some of his antics on Brocast News. Paul is also the writer and director for Vetted, a television comedy highlighting the follies of veterans transitioning in NYC, and edited the first Present Tense ebook.

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