Commentary: 10 Dynamite Lessons From Napoleon

By John Bell, DLA Public Affairs

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In a recent presentation, Brad Bunn, director of Human Resources for the Defense Logistics Agency, mentioned the 2004 movie Napoleon Dynamite in noting that merely having a plan “is not going to make all your wildest dreams come true.”

Like him and others at DLA, I too am a fan of this movie, about two awkward Idaho high-school kids’ struggle to become something more than gawky outsiders. The mention of this cult classic in an HR context made me realize: Napoleon Dynamite has lessons for all of us — lessons about our daily work, our relationships with others and our careers.

1) Know what skills are important — and what skills you truly have. Early in the movie, Napoleon laments he lacks the skills most valued by the opposite sex: “Numchuck [sic] skills, bow-hunting skills, computer-hacking skills.” His friend Pedro reminds him about his skill in drawing fantasy animals, like the mythical liger, half lion and half tiger.

Of course, they were both wrong. Napoleon discovered via the 4H Club that his real-world skill was in taste-testing the milk of a non-mythical creature, the cow — quality assurance for the dairy industry. But the skill that turned him and Pedro from nobodies into school celebrities turned out to be … well, I won’t spoil the ending.

2) Dream big. Quiet newcomer Pedro was a long shot for Student Council president. But his intriguing campaign promise (“to make all your wildest dreams come true”), combined with Napoleon’s jaw-dropping performance, made it happen.

But the biggest dreamer was Napoleon’s über-nerd brother, Kip, who despite being utterly ridiculous, persuaded his vivacious online girlfriend LaFawnduh to visit him in real life — and to stick with him, despite being everything he was not.

3) Embrace those of other backgrounds. Napoleon and Pedro were from different cultures. Yet working together, they achieved more than they would have alone. Same for Kip and LaFawnduh. All four of them had the wisdom to see people as humans first.

4) Don’t let failures define you. Napoleon’s creepy Uncle Rico was always dreaming of the state championship he could’ve led the football team to, had he just not injured himself.

5) Get details in writing — or at least know who you can trust. Napoleon works one afternoon for a nearby chicken farmer, who pays him in a pile of coins. Only when Napoleon gets home does he realize he was paid, “Like, a dollar an hour! [Slow exhale.]

6) Be entrepreneurial. Kip (working for Uncle Rico) earned good money selling Tupperware door to door, which he used to buy nice things for the object of his affection, LaFawnduh. And Napoleon’s classmate Deb sold her handmade plastic accessories before starting a second venture taking portrait photos. Then there’s Rex of Rex Kwon Do (“Bow to your sensei!”) — but the main lesson there is a sartorial one, having to do with exercise pants made out of flags.

7) Be realistic. A time machine ordered via mail will never work as promised. And it’s a rare plastic food container that can survive the “van test.”

8) Be generous. Remember when Napoleon gave his classmate Trisha his portrait of her? It was hideous, and she was clearly not interested in Napoleon. But Napoleon got to take her to the dance. And his friend Deb showed her feelings for him with the gift of a handmade plastic keychain.

9) Steward your resources. Who hasn’t had a sudden hankering for delicious tater tots? One can see the wisdom of squirrelling them away for later. But maybe not in the pocket of one’s cargo pants, where they’re ripe for targeting — in Napoleon’s case, by greedy bullies.

10) Be loyal. At the end of the movie, Napoleon is without access to a car when he needs to take Trisha to the dance. But Pedro’s cousins save the day and give them a ride. At the dance,  Deb forgives Napoleon, Pedro forgets about Summer Wheatley — and they all, if but for a moment, are “Forever Young.”

Silly movie? Gosh! Maybe so. Does it have lessons for all of us if we look hard enough?  

Heck, yes! 

Note: The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Defense Logistics Agency or the Department of Defense.