Andy Weir's The Martian: focusing on the process and not the outcome

17 October 2015 - Mindful Living

At The Mindful Company, we love our movies, and the latest one on our radar is Ridley Scott's The Martian. Based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, The Martian focuses on Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon), who, during a windstorm on Mars, is accidentally left behind by his team. 

Due to the relative positions of Earth and Mars, the earliest a rescue operation could arrive would be hundreds and hundreds of days - a far longer time period than Watney has food to survive. Staying alive is one aspect of Watney's adventure, but he also has to keep his sanity despite experiencing extreme isolation. Studies have shown that isolation is detrimental to both our physical and mental health. Chronically lonely people, for example, are more likely to have high blood pressure; develop dementia, Alzheimer's and infections; and die early. Extreme isolation, such in the case of prisoners, can cause a number of mental health conditions too, including anxiety, mood swings, paranoia, and decreased mental capabilities. 

Despite being isolated over 140 million miles away from Earth for an extended period of time, Watney manages to stay resilient and calm - focusing on each immediate step in front of him. Weir told Ars Technica that he purposely avoided discussing the psychological challenges that Watney would have undoubtedly grappled with, instead deciding to give Watney an almost superhuman ability to deal with stress and solitude.

"I didn't want the book to be a deep character study of crippling loneliness and depression," Weir said. "There are a bunch of severe psychological effects that would happen to someone being isolated for almost two years. And also the anxiety and stress of being on the verge of death from various problems for so long—most people would not be able to handle that. The loneliness, the isolation, the anxiety, and stress—I mean, it would take an enormous psychological toll. And I didn’t deal with any of that. I just said like, 'Nope, that’s not how Mark Watney rolls.'

Deliberately omitting the consequences of extreme isolation may initially seem like an inaccurate depiction. However, in fact, Weir and Ridley Scott were not entirely wrong in their depiction of Watney's emotional health. In addition to their intelligence, training, and expertise, astronauts like Watney are specifically chosen for missions like these because of their above-average displays of mental and emotional resilience, and determination.  

Dr. Jim Green, director of NASA's planetary science division, and who Ridley Scott consulted to ensure every aspect of the film is as realistic as possible, said, "I see that determination in our scientist and our engineers, and that is an absolutely essential characteristic of our astronauts. Just as important if not even more important than a high IQ...[Astronauts] would have better coping skills [in such emergency situations, such as severe isolation]. That's one of the things that NASA looks for in their astronauts.

What can we learn from Watney's superhuman ability to be mentally resilient?

In the film, Watney said:

"At some point, everything's going to go south on you. You’re going to say, 'This is it. This is how I end.' Now, you can either accept that, or you can get to work....You just do the math and solve the problem. And then onto the next problem and solve that problem. And solve the next problem too. And if you solve enough problems, you get to go home."

Part of being mentally resilient is about focusing on the process and less on the outcome - it's another way of saying "it's about the journey, not the destination". When faced with an apparently difficult and impossible destination, such as being stranded on Mars, it is better to break the problem up into manageable parts and focus on each next immediate step. If you're anxious and caught up in the outcome, it may paralyse and prevent you from moving forward and carrying out the next necessary step that is within your control. 

Why focus on the process and not the outcome?

1. By focusing on the process, rather than the outcome, it puts you more in control. You have control over the next immediate step, but you only have partial control over whether you reach that specific goal. Focus on what you are able to control at this moment.

2. When you're focused on a specific outcome, you're less inclined to experiment, less open to long shots, and less likely to stumble on an even better outcome than the one you were aiming for.

3. You may find yourself enjoying the process more, or in Watney's case, less likely to entertain negativity and unproductive thoughts. Life is lived in the present, not the future, and happiness is a process, not a place.

4. You allow yourself to better enjoy whatever outcome does occur. Things rarely turn out exactly the way we expect them to. If your happiness depends on your success, and if your success is predicated on a specific outcome, you are setting yourself up for a higher likelihood of disappointment and frustration. Instead let go of the need for any particular outcome, and you increase your chance of success and contentment. Happiness is better derived from knowing you gave it your best shot. 


The Mindful Company Team