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What the director of Dune can teach us about finding fulfillment...

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Welcome to Edition #42 of Did You Know? (DYK), the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold story of how someone (or something) became successful—and what you can do to follow in their footsteps.

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Did You Know? Fulfillment is worth pursuing!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? Denis Villeneuve, director of Dune, felt unfilled by his career path as a biologist. He dropped everything to attend film school. It led him on a 40-year journey that fulfilled his childhood dream of directing the Dune series.

It’s the last year of high school in Gentilly (in Quebec, Canada)—and Denis Villeneuve just “fell into a deep depression.” For as long as Villeneuve could remember, he was destined to become a biologist. But, as university decisions loomed, he was no longer so sure.

He made short films in high school as a hobby—and loved it. But, the path of science—and the stability that came with it—“felt predetermined.”

Then, against even the advice of the Catholic priest who counseled Villeneuve when he was down, Villeneuve said, “F*ck it, I’m going to film school in Montreal.”

And so Villeneuve went. And at L’Université du Québec à Montréal, the fog lifted. “My real happiness began,” Villeneuve recalled. “It cured me.”

While Villeneuve found life again, his path to finding fulfillment had only just begun. 

After producing multiple short films in school, Villeneuve debuted his first film in 1998, at the age of 31, and then his second film in 2000, at the age of 33. Then, realizing he lacked the skills to make it big, he took an eight-year career break to produce commercials to get more practice at writing screenplays.

After returning to filmmaking at the age of 41, Villeneuve began directing a new movie every 2 to 3 years. 8 years, 7 films, many nominations, and a few awards later, Villeneuve, at the age of 49, received his first $100M budget to direct Arrival (2016).

Fast forward another 5 years and Villeneuve fulfilled his “40-year dream” of directing Dune (2021), his favorite childhood book that first sparked his interest in storytelling.

So, the next time you find yourself feeling unfulfilled, remember Villeneuve, who followed his instinct—and pursued it relentlessly for 40 years.

A Dune: Part Two (2024) poster showcasing Zendaya and Timothée Chalamet (L) and Denis Villeneuve (R). Images via CineMaterial and Hollywood Reporter.

(2) A study from the present

Did you know? The happier you are at work, the better work you’ll do.

Villeneuve knew what he wanted. He’d always known what he wanted. Or, so he thought.

When depression hit, Villeneuve realized that what he wanted had changed. “I’m deeply obsessed by the idea that we can change,” Villeneuve recalls. “That we can evolve as human beings”—and that’s okay.

It turns out that Villeneuve was on to something. According to a 2015 study by Warwick University Associate Professor of Economics Daniel Sgroi, employees are 13% more productive when they’re happy. In other words, “happiness in a workplace carries with it a return in productivity.”

So what? The happier you feel at work, the better work you’ll do, and the more “successful” you’ll be.

(3) A strategy for your future

Did you know? Your journey matters just as much as your destination.

Wondering if you’re going down the right path?  

Imagine for a second that you are wildly successful in the path you’re pursuing right now.

Ask yourself…

(1) Is the destination compelling? (Or, “Will I find fulfillment in where I end up?”)

  • E.g., “I might end up making $X per year, but this would be at the expense of needing to be traveling Y days per week. This might sound fun to some, but not to me.”

(2) Is the path compelling? (Or, “Will I find fulfillment on the journey to achieving my goals?”)

  • E.g., “I could become a billionaire if my startup goes public, but this would mean needing to live a decade (or decades) of financial uncertainty and stress.”

As you’ll soon realize, every path has its pros and its cons. It all comes down to figuring out what matters most to you, whether the destination excites you, and whether the path you’re pursuing is “worth it” to you.

In Villeneuve’s case, pursuing biology may have been the path to immediate stability—but it would have also been the path to an unfulfilled life. Pursuing filmmaking ended up being the path to fulfillment—but it also became a path that’d take 40 years to fully unfold.

This is not to say that biology is unfulfilling and we should all become filmmakers! What you should do with your precious time should be your choice—and you’ll know as Villeneuve did in the depths of depression when you’re not listening to your body and soul.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: I wanted to become a doctor in high school. That was until I realized how little interest I had in any of the classes I’d need to take to get into medical school (and then to become an astronaut—my childhood dream—which I had a 0.083% chance in achieving).

I found the destination compelling—but not the path. I have many friends in medicine now who love their jobs. I just wasn’t going to be one of them.

Pursue your version of fulfillment!


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