Why The Hurt Locker Hurts

The Hurt Locker is a gripping movie — enthusiastically and universally acclaimed — about an elite team of American soldiers in Iraq "who have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world: disarming bombs in the heat of combat." Time after time we watch the team's new leader, Staff Sergeant William James, arrive at a bomb site and, with gut-wrenching intensity and focus, attempt to untangle and defuse an I.E.D. (improvised explosive device). Totally consumed by his mission, he exposes his two subordinates, Sanborn and Eldridge, to unnecessary dangers and risks, "as if he's indifferent to death."

Chief among the film's many virtues is the deeply compassionate display of a man's struggle to be true to his dangerous, heroic obsession, though doing so leaves him in the most existentially harrowing place imaginable — "the hurt locker." The expression, of course, is figurative, meant to describe a mental and emotional state of pain, where human warmth and intimacy are forsaken. The riveting portrayal of James and his comrades compels the viewer to feel acute tension all the way through. You'll be emotionally spent by the end of the movie.

The Hurt Locker also raises a question about work that's relevant for professionals the world over: Where do I draw the line between passionate commitment and destructive fixation? The adrenaline rush that comes with living on the edge of life and death in the service of one's country is counterpoised against the desire for connection with family and other loved ones. What are the consequences when the former wins and the latter loses?

For country, you might think, the outcome is desirable; a rare talent is being applied to meet an urgent performance demand with direct positive impact on military achievement. But at what cost to the soldier and the people closest to him? You feel the pain of the young sergeant's heart-wrenching farewell to his only son as James prepares to return to the field of battle. He's a professional driven by his mission, relentlessly pursuing the cause he believes in — at almost any cost.

Should we fault him for his preference? Why not fully support the complete immersion of a great talent into work that must be done very well, even if the personal cost of such a choice is dear? When the stakes are life, death, and defending the country, we're more inclined to encourage obsessive involvement in the task despite the costs. But what about business professionals who've crossed over from passionate commitment to destructive fixation? Are the costs worth it in that context?

Everyone has their own individual value systems, and I try to refrain from judging or imposing upon the personal values others hold. But one piece of more general advice would seem to hold true: You need to know your own core values and continually align them with your actions by experimenting with how you get things done. And when there are costs, to those around you and to yourself, at the very least you need to be sensitive to this, and honest in dealing with the consequences. Most people want to have some measure of engagement in all four aspects of their lives—work, home, community and the private self (mind, body, and spirit). But there are those, like Sergeant James, for whom work is all. And why not?

I urge you to see this movie. But whether or not you do, I'm eager to hear your stories — your own or those about people you know — who have wrestled successfully with this dilemma: Is it possible to live a rich life that is solely focused on achievement in work, to the exclusion of all else?

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