Four Business Lessons From The Movie “Up In The Air”

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In the movie “Up in the air”, Ryan Bingham(Goerge Clooney) works for a firm that specialises in ‘employee termination assistance’. Corporates(companies unwilling to do the firing themselves) hire this firm’s resources to fire their own employees. Those employees were predominantly white-collar hard working middle managers, who had spent considerable time in their life for their companies. Ryan Bingham was one of those “Termination Engineers” — a stranger who would call you into the conference room and fire you.

The below content is part of the following book

Business and Life Lessons From The Movies by Shah Mohammed M on Amazon.


Ryan’s HR firm has got 23 “Termination Engineers” who travel 250days/year and the company has been spending a considerable amount of money on Travel, Insurance, Food and Stay. Moreover, the employees had to spend substantial time away from their own families.

Natalie Keener, a young and ambitious new hire, proposes a solution to the firm’s CEO to cut down the expenses by 85% and also help employees to spend more time with their own families. The solution was to conduct layoffs via video conferencing.

Ryan is unhappy, informs his boss that Natalie is yet to grasp an in-depth understanding of users, and it would be impossible that the solution would be relevant and meaningful. He highlights that she needs to understand how the customer would think, how they would behave in various scenarios, before proposing a solution.

“Empathy should be at the heart of proposing a solution. Without the understanding of what others see, feel, and experience, solutions are meaningless.”

People would be immensely upset and vulnerable at the time of firing. Ryan is concerned that the proposed solution does not meet the emotional needs of customers.

Steve jobs “I have always found is that you have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. So we started with: what incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?”

Natalie, after proposing the solution, decided to go ahead and understand some users in order to validate her idea — A typically bad methodology — We need to do ‘User Research’ before even thinking about a solution — We need to have an unbiased blank mind to observe essential traits, pains, emotional needs, desires of users.

During user research, a pre-proposed or pre-conceived solution would bias our mind, potentially clouds our ability to see through things as they are. We unconsciously look for traits that could help us to justify, defend our solution(What psychologists call ‘Confirmation Bias’) and would force us to miss out on exploratory research to obtain all the rich, detailed insights about the user. This narrow view could block the emergence of potential alternative ideas.

Product stakeholders should fall in love with the user’s problems, not with their own solutions.


David Kelly, of IDEO, calls prototyping as “Thinking with your hands”. A crude prototype is effective in the evaluation and evolution of ideas, effective in breaking the complexity, effective in rapid sharing, communicating and convincing others, effective in driving the idea forward and accelerating the pace of the project.

Designers would like to test the concept ideas during the conceptualisation stage itself. They prefer low fidelity models as prototypes to test the “User Experience”, “User Benefits” before going for a costly development of a new or improved service/product prototype in the later stages. One of the tools we use to simulate the concept — Acting out scenarios or role-playing. No hardware or software needed — It saves time and money. Simulate the scenarios.

In the movie, in one of the scenes, Ryan would like to demonstrate the drawbacks of Natalie’s proposed solution. He would ask Natalie to act out how she would fire him from the office.

“Ok, Natalie, Fire Me” — Ryan.

“Imagine we are connected through video conferencing” -Ryan, though both of them would be sitting across the table. An easier way to prototype. No need for software or hardware. Just act out.

At this moment, we need to note that Ryan would not act as Ryan Bingham, but act like how a couple of real customers would behave. One a bit aggressive user and the other customer a bit timid, very sensitive.

Natalie :Mr Bingham,  
I regret to inform you that your position
at this company is no longer available.

Ryan :Hm. Who the hell are you?

Natalie : My name is Miss Keener. I'm here
today to discuss your future.

Ryan : My future? The only one who can fire me
is Craig Gregory.

Natalie : Mr Gregory hired me to handle this for him.
Ryan : - Handle what? Handle Me?

Natalie : Mr. Gregory hired me,
Ryan : he's the only one who can fire me.

Ryan : You know what? I'm gonna go talk to him.
Natalie : - Mr Bingham...
Ryan would get up at this point and move towards the door. Natalie
too would get up, run behind Ryan to stop him. Ryan would remind her

Ryan : No, no, no. You can't follow me.
You're on a computer screen, remember?

So, Ryan would demonstrate how a firing through a computer screen would not match the real-life requirements.

Now, Ryan would act as a different type of user and ask Natalie to fire him again.

Natalie : Mr Bingham, I'm here to inform you
your position is no longer available.

Ryan : I'm fired?
Natalie : - Yes, you're fired.

Ryan advises : Never say fired.
Natalie : - You've been let go.

Ryan : Why?

Natalie : This is a mythical situation.
How could I possibly know why?

Natalie : Why doesn't matter,
Ryan : you never know why.

Natalie : It's important to not focus on the why, and rather, spend
your energy thinking about your future.

Ryan : Well, I'm gonna spend
my energy on suing you

unless you give me a good
reason why you're firing me.

Natalie : Mr. Bingham, the reason's not important.

Ryan : So you're firing me without grounds?
Now I really have a lawsuit.

Now, he has demonstrated how the company would end up in facing the potential lawsuit. Though the movie showed only a couple of scenarios, designers generally act out many user types and user scenarios before finalising a concept. Prototype various user scenarios.


Our brain is not of one mind — It has two independent systems — Emotional Mind and Rational Mind. Our rational mind would want us to get up 5 AM, but when the time comes, our emotional mind would want to sleep for a few more minutes and would finally win the battle of minds. Our rational mind would like to be on a diet, but as soon as you see a desert, our emotional mind would force us to eat the desert. If you want to change things in life, your first priority is to appeal to the emotional mind and then you could reach the rational mind.

Ryan knows that people, at the time of firing, are emotionally vulnerable. Talking to a rational mind would not help in calming the person. If you could see the dialogue posted above, Natalie was talking more of logical, analytical reasons than emotional ones.

Ryan, on the other hand, would pick out the content that would target the user’s emotional mind, would choose the words cautiously and talk slowly in a softer tone with a visible empathy. He knows that if he made an analytical appeal, then people probably would not hear or listen to him and ‘emotional hijacks’ may happen. When an emotional mind is in turmoil, the rational mind recedes the control of the mind and go to sleep. Unless you appeal to the emotional mind, you cannot wake up the rational mind.

By observing the below dialogues, you could understand the emotional state of an employee at the time of firing

Am I supposed to feel better
that I'm not the only one losing my job?

This is ridiculous!
I have been a fine employee for over 10 years

and this is the way you treat me.

How do you sleep at night, man?

How's your family?
They sleeping well at night?

Electricity still on?

Heat still on, refrigerator full of food?

Gas tank full of gas?

Going to Chuck E. Cheese
this weekend or something?

Not me.

No, my kids,
we're not gonna do anything.

What do you suggest I tell them

Natalie, with the lack of experience in handling the employees, responds with a counterpoint(She is placing points that could appeal only to rational mind)

Perhaps you're underestimating
the positive effect

that your career transition
can have on your children.

The employee ‘Bob’ who is in the firing line retorts back

The positive effect?  
I make about 90 grand a year now.

Unemployment is what -
250 bucks a week?

Is that one of your positive effects?

We'll get to be cosier cause I'm not gonna
be able to pay my mortgage on my house.

So maybe we can move into a nice
fucking one-bedroom apartment somewhere.

And I guess without benefits,

I'll be able to hold my daughter as she,
you know, suffers from her asthma

that I won't be able to afford
the medication for.

Natalie would again talk about the results of a psychological study showing how the hard situations had turned the life of some children — Again, it is more of rational logical reasoning which would not appeal to the employee’s emotional mind.

Well...tests have shown that children under
moderate trauma have a tendency to

apply themselves academically... a method of coping.

The employee gets angry at this instant

Go fuck yourself.  
That's what my kids will think.

Ryan interferes before the situation goes out of control,

Ryan : Your children's admiration is important to you?
- Yeah.

Bob : Yeah, it was.

See the ‘Emotional Component’ which Ryan had tapped — Kid’s admiration of his father.

Ryan : I'm not a shrink, Bob.
I'm a wake-up call.

Ryan : You know why kids love athletes?
Bob : - I don't know. Cause they screw lingerie models?

Ryan : No, that's why we love athletes.
Kids love athletes

because they follow their dreams.

Bob : Well, I can't dunk.
Ryan : - No, but you can cook.

Bob : What are you talking about?

Ryan : Your resume says that you minored
in French culinary arts.

Most students,
they work on the fryer at KFC,

but you bussed tables
at Il Picador to support yourself.

Then you get out of college
and then you come and you work here

You could see from the above conversation that Ryan has done prior research about Bob and he has been customizing his communication to appeal to Bob’s likings, desires.

Ryan asks,

How much did they first pay you
to give up on your dreams?

A powerful dialogue(awakening the buried emotional desire), slowly showing the employee that he is now free to follow up his earlier dream. Ryan continues,

I see guys who work at the same
company for their entire lives,

guys exactly like you.

They clock in, they clock out,
and they never have a moment of happiness.

You have an opportunity here, Bob.

This is a rebirth.

If not for you, do it for your children.

And Ryan continues to appeal to his emotional mind(enhanced by visual images of Bob’s children)

Well, anybody who ever built an empire
or changed the world sat where you are right now.

And it's because they sat there
they were able to do it.

That's the truth.

In another scene, Ryan’s younger sister was about to get married. Suddenly, the groom develops cold feet and has got second thoughts about marriage. Ryan’s elder sister asks him to persuade the groom to go through with the wedding.

Ryan meets the groom and asks him the reasons

Ryan : Uh...Kara mentioned that you were
having some thoughts.

Jim : I don't think I'm going to be able to uh...
to do this.

Ryan : Why would you say

Jim : Well, last night I was just kinda laying
in bed and I couldn't get to sleep.

So I started thinking about the wedding
and the ceremony,

and about our buying a house
and moving in together.

And having a kid,
and having another kid and then

Christmas and Thanksgiving
and spring break.

Going to football games, and then
all of a sudden they're graduating.

They're getting jobs, they're getting married.
And, you know, I'm a grandparent.

And then I'm retired.
I'm losing my hair, I'm getting fat.

And then the next thing you know
I'm dead.

I'm just, like...I can't stop from thinking,
what's the point?

Ryan feels empathetic and agrees with Jim. He understands that he needs to appeal to Jim’s emotional mind. Decisions are predominantly taken by the emotional mind.

Talking about the benefits of marriage — longer life, economic power, not dying alone, building a generation, economic benefits, emotional support — All these things may appeal to a stable rational mind, but not to the emotional mind. Sometimes people have a problem to visualise or feel the benefits of a future event — Unless they could experience how they would feel in a situation, it would be tough to convince them by talking about future benefits.

Ryan, instead of talking about the future, he begins with a past event so that Jim could connect with the experience(appealing to Jim’s emotional mind)

Ryan : Jim, your favorite memories, the most
important moments in your life.

Were you alone?

Jim : No, I guess not.

If there are no people around us, we may not have good memories in life and would have nothing to look back.

“A happier, meaningful life is driven by the people around you.”

Ryan : last night, the night before your wedding
when all this shit is swirling around in your head,

weren't you guys sleeping in separate bedrooms?

Jim : Yeah, Julie went back to the apartment and
I was just by myself in the honeymoon suite.

Ryan : Kinda lonely, huh?
Jim : - Yes, it was pretty lonely.

Ryan : Life's better with company.

Jim : Yeah...
Ryan :- Everybody needs a co-pilot.

Jim : That was a nice touch.
Ryan : - Thanks

Yes, everybody needs a co-pilot to lead a happier and meaningful life.

If you need to motivate people, first appeal to their emotional mind.


In one of the scenes, Ryan would ask Natalie about their company’s work

what is it you think we do here?

We prepare the newly-unemployed for
the emotional and physical hurdles of job hunting,

while minimizing legal blowback.

In design, we are constantly reminded “Do not make products that are easier to sell, but make products that are easier to buy” — This completely changed our perspective — We no more focused on what would be beneficial to the company. But, Natalie’s focus was more on what would be beneficial to the company. Her proposed solution began with the goal of “Savings to the company”.

Ryan replies

That's what we're selling.
It's not what we're doing.

He continues

We are here to make limbo tolerable,  
to ferry wounded souls across the river of dread
until the point where hope is dimly visible.

Then stop the boat, shove 'em
in the water and make 'em swim.

“In the factories we make perfume. But in the stores we sell hope” -Revlon Founder Charles Revson

If you ask a skin care manufacturer, he would say that they are in the business of helping women have healthier, youthful and beautiful life rather than saying of making a line of skin care products.

Do not promise a better product, promise a better life.

So, think everything from a consumer’s perspective and profitability would follow. If you love your users, your users would love your product/service.

Note: The above content is part of the following book

Business and Life Lessons From The Movies by Shah Mohammed M on Amazon.


21 KEYS to SUCCESS in BUSINESS -A Guide for Every ASPIRING ENTREPRENEUR by Shah Mohammed M.

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at or

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