Scratch That 007 - What Bond Can Teach Us About What Matters

Bond fever has struck again now that Spectre has landed in our neighbourhood theatres. I’m fascinated by the fact that Ian Fleming’s James Bond character has attracted fans for generations and appears to still have enough momentum to continue on for some time. 

Part of the attraction we have towards this character is that, though he feels confident enough about being surrounded by riches, he doesn’t feel beholden to the objects or to his surroundings. Though he appreciates the beauty of what he has at his disposal but he’s not afraid to get it or himself dirty or roughed up. And he doesn’t hesitate to think he can also get the girl because, well, he’s Bond after all. Now that’s confidence!

Of course, Bond has always been an attractive character himself, but what’s most appealing is that he’s focused on who he is and what he has to do and achieves it by any means necessary. Worry and any type of hesitation only get in the way. He uses what’s at his disposal and moves forward in completing his mission because that’s what he’s meant to do and wants to do. Strip him down to nothing but a Speedo and no one would dare argue that he’s not still the 007 we know and love.

I think there’s a lot we can learn from Bond’s approach to life, 7 lessons to be exact. What? Did you really expect a different number?

Lesson 001: It’s OK to use our stuff.

I have discussed this with him and he points out that the Rolex Oyster Perpetual weighs about six ounces and would appreciably slow up the use of his left hand in combat. His practice, in fact, is to use fairly cheap, expendable wrist watches on expanding metal bracelets which can be slipped forward over the thumb and used in the form of a knuckle-duster, either on the outside or the inside of the hand.
— Ian Fleming

Why do we buy things and then become afraid or reluctant to use them? We’re afraid to scratch our car, despite the fact that we purchased the off road package. We’re afraid to use the “good” china for everyday use. We worry that we might scratch the display on our smartphone. We don’t want to mess up our notebook so we keep ourselves from doodling in it. We don’t wear our fancy shoes every day because we need to save them for some reason.

How much of our stuff will outlast us or become obsolete and still look brand new? How much of our stuff are we not enjoying fully for fear that we might mess it up in some way? How much of our stuff sits unused for some fictional future time? What a waste. It could be useful now and it should be because it’s hubris to think we have an unlimited quantity of tomorrows. 

Lesson 002: A scratch is just a scratch.

As we use stuff, it shows wear. When it’s an antique or a natural product we sometimes call it character. When it’s high tech we call it a shame, damaged goods, impaired value or impaired function…even if it’s just a scratch. The newer or the more “valuable” the item, the more esthetics matter.

Natalya Simonova: ‘Do you destroy every vehicle you get into?’
Bond: ‘Standard operating procedure. Boys with toys.’
— GoldenEye

Depending on the object, a scratch can be expensive or irrelevant. That’s why the obnoxious dude with the big head parks his luxury car at a 45-degree angle. But wait, does it have to carry a true cost to us? If you get a scratch on your [insert car brand of choice], do you have to fix it? If so, why?

‘[Randy to his wife] You appreciate the part of me that didn’t get angry because two “things” we own got hurt. But the flip side of that is my belief that you don’t repair things if they still do what they’re supposed to do. The cars still work. Let’s just drive ‘em.’
OK, maybe this makes me quirky. But if your trashcan or wheelbarrow has a dent in it, you don’t buy a new one. Maybe that’s because we don’t use trashcans and wheelbarrows to communicate our social status or identity to others. For Jai and me, our dented cars became a statement in our marriage. Not everything needs to be fixed.
— Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

The why is pretty important because it can tell us a lot about ourselves, about why we purchased the object to begin with. I first learned this lesson when I watched Professor Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture.

If a scratch is never just a scratch and instead becomes an infuriating characteristic of a possession we own, the real question is whether we should own it in the first place.

Museum-worthy furniture should not be in our homes if we’re scared to use it. The same goes for museum-worthy cars. What makes the grade as museum-worthy? Anything we buy that we automatically feel we need to protect from world-inflicted bumps and bruises and that we feel will be impossible to live with “as is” or pay to replace (if it actually needs replacing).

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t maintain what we own, but there’s a difference between maintenance and worship. I have trouble seeing Bond get out of sorts because there’s a scratch on his latest Audi once he’s behind the wheel.

Lesson 003: Everything we own is transient.

Xenia Onatopp: ‘Enjoy it while it lasts.’
Bond: ‘The very words I live by.’
— GoldenEye

Even if we’re not afraid to use our stuff and we don’t mind a scratch, we still have a tendency to think that we’ll own everything we have forever, at least when we’re making a purchase. I’m certainly not suggesting that we should buy low quality goods but that we put a great deal of thought and research into objects that are unlikely to play a central role in our lives or for very long. It’s easy to see this is the case in the rear-view mirror but we tend to be blinded to that fact when we make a purchase. It’s easy to think of items that become obsolescent or undesirable before they’re used up:

  • Almost any tech gadget
  • Appliances
  • Cars
  • Furniture
  • Kitchen cupboards
  • Clothing
  • Books

As is the case with the latest weapons and escape tools Bond is briefed on by Q Branch, the greater the buzz around any of the above, the likelier we won’t have it and or care for it for long. Only the classics, the true-to-nature or the sentimental seem to survive planned or natural obsolescence.

Lesson 004: We are not what we own.

Well, one of us smells like a tart’s handkerchief. [sniffs] I’m afraid it’s me. Sorry, old boy.
— Bond (after being buried in a sewer), Diamonds Are Forever

If Bond is alone in a cell, dirty, smelly, hungry, is he still Bond? Of course he is. He’s Bond because of his mad skills, charm, resourcefulness and, most importantly, character. We never question whether the loss of his posh surroundings has altered who he is and what he's capable of.

Then isn't it curious that we think that amassing stuff, luxury or otherwise, has something to do with who we are as a person? Why do we need to be outfitted with all the bells and whistles before we become good at a new sport or activity? Why do we need to buy a house before we even know we need it? Why do we buy more of the same when what we own is already perfectly good and useful?

Because we're lead to believe that the clothes make the person, that a zip code changes who we are, that somehow if we look like we have the perfect life we’ll eventually feel we really do.

I’ve found that one must try and teach people that there’s no top limit to disaster-that, so long as breath remains in your body, you’ve got accept the miseries of life. They will often seem infinite, insupportable. They are part of the human condition.
— Ian Fleming, You Only Live Twice

If that we have does define who we are, then anyone would be crushed by a setback: bankruptcy, house fire, forced relocation, imprisonment, theft. However, it's often the opposite. Losing everything or much of what we own can be the most liberating experience of our lives. Ask anyone who has “lost it all” and you may see them light up and be more than willing to share the epyphany that accompanied it. Just like 007, we can always rise from the ashes and it can even be the best thing that ever happens to us.

Lesson 005: Incessant fussing steals the present.

We all know people who are constantly fussing over something or another. They’ll spend hours or days planning an event, making sure every detail is tended to, they’ll replace anything that is not exactly to their specifications, they’ll expend so much energy that I sometimes wonder whether they end up enjoying their creations. 

Perfectionists are also not a whole lot of fun to be around, as many reality shows are too happy to convey. This fact hits close to home because I used to be one. I used to host dinners where nothing but the best would do. Everything was home made using the best gourmet ingredients. Everything about the setting needed to be perfect and everything about the meal needed to go over without a hitch. And I made my guests uncomfortable as a result.

In trying to make sure everyone had a good and memorable time, I managed to kill the mood by keeping my guests to a standard dictated by the surroundings and by my behaviour. The higher the standards, the less it’s possible for you and others to relax.

Don’t think. Just let it happen.
— Bond, The Living Daylights

Want to have fun? Set it and forget it. Sure, prepare. Make things pretty. Then, when the time comes, mess it up by ignoring the details. Letting the small stuff slide means you’re focusing on the right things: the people you’re with, and the experience you’ve created. What’s the point of making a good meal if we can’t taste the food because we’re too distracted with the need to police both the experience and ourselves?

Fatima Blush: ‘Oh, how reckless of me. I made you all wet.’
Bond: ‘Yes, but my martini is still dry. My name is James.’
— Never Say Never Again

Now, can you imagine Bond fussing over the details? You may even have smiled at the suggestion. Silly, right? No, he doesn’t fuss. He prepares in advance and then goes with the flow of things as they happen, because something unplanned always happens. That’s life and it’s more about how we manage through it than how we resist it that counts. This attitude can change a minor setback into a great story instead of leaving us with the feeling that something “ruinned” a perfect evening.

Lesson 006: Focusing on stuff makes us less interesting.

Even though we might be attracted to individuals who sport a certain look and lifestyle, those of us who put too much value on things, luxury and otherwise, are found to be boring and shallow. Focusing on stuff requires a lot of attention and energy. Unfortunately, this concentration of effort saps learning and personal observation in other more meaningful aspects of life: relationships, personal growth, introspection. 

Once the superficial is stripped away and we get to know someone, it’s the depth of character that keeps us around. A person goes from being interesting on the outside to—hopefully—fascinating on the inside.

Tee Hee: ‘There are two ways to disable a crocodile, you know.’
Bond: ‘I don’t suppose you’d care to share that information with me?’
— Live And Let Die

There’s no doubt that 007 is a continuous learner. He adapts to situations, to new gadgets, to new surroundings with ease. His focus and attention are on the right things, as they should be. He’s the whole package, not just a Ken doll in a tailored suit. After all, looks fade and trends change but the quality of what’s between the ears keeps increasing and that’s pretty exciting.

Lesson 007: We’re unique, irreplacable.

Bond. James Bond.
— Bond's trademark introduction

Bond evolves but only the way Bond can. Obviously various actors have played the James Bond character over the years and many writers have taken a hand at writing novels with him as the leading character, but the true essence of Bond is unique. We know it when we see it. The faces may change and the circumstances may differ, but Bond is still Bond. 

How we leverage the world around us is meaningless if we don’t keep in mind that it’s there to serve us, our growth and our life experience and not the other way around. Everything we afix value to is, for the most part, artificial. Everything that really matters outside ourselves isn't found in the material world per se. It can’t be quantified despite how important it is. The only thing we do know is that when we use what the world makes available to further our pursuits, it feels good. It feels right. It feels like it’s a true expression of us. 

Conversely, when we start feeling like the world is using us for its purposes—by leading us to own what we’re supposed to own and do what we’re supposed to do—we feel like a puppet acting according to some hidden master’s wishes. It feels wrong, foreign, uncomfortable, obligatory. We start feeling like a number, like a faceless widget that’s there to behave the way others want us to. We lose our uniqueness. We’re predictable. We’re feel replacable.

By keeping our focus on what we know matters on the inside, we stay true to our inner Bond. We leverage what the world has to offer without conforming to it. We work on being the best version of us that we can be according to our standards, our values.

The quality of character, our resilience, and confidence in our abilities isn’t only highly valued and desirable but it’s attractive, even infectious. And, unlike any other thing that’s manmade, it can’t be duplicated or reproduced.

Imperfection and impermanence in the physical world is a fundamental reality of life and it only matters if we let it matter. 

As Bond see it, how we view ourselves and our situation is “…all a matter of perspective.”