VO+ELF We see clips from the film "Elf", corresponding to the Voice Over. SEAN Today on Out of Frame, let's talk about a lovely film by one of my all-time favorite directors. Jon Favreau's brilliant holiday classic... Elf. It's filled with heart and almost 15 years after it was made, it's right up there with A Miracle on 34th Street, It's A Wonderful Life, and A Christmas Story as one of the truly great holiday movies. Will Ferrell is perfectly cast and completely in his element as Buddy the Elf. It introduced me to -- and gave me a huge crush on -- the adorkably talented Zoey Deschanel. Plus we got Andy Richter & Kyle Gas; a hilarious, pre-Game of Thrones Peter Dinklage; Ed Asner; Mary Steenburgen... a supremely grumpy James Caan. And guys... Bob Newhart is in this movie! I mean... C'mon. But ya know what? I actually think that Elf can teach everybody a lot about how to accept themselves and get more out of their lives by finding the intersection between their personality & skills, and what other people value. Sound like a stretch? I promise you, it's not. SEAN For those of you who haven't seen the movie, or haven't seen it in a while, here's what you need to know. Note. Spoilers ahead. One fateful Christmas Eve, while Santa was delivering toys to an orphanage a little baby accidentally crawled into his toybag. The stow-away wasn't discovered until the night was over and Santa had already returned to the North Pole. So they decided to keep him. They named him Buddy, and Papa Elf took it upon himself to raise him as his own child. Sadly, all Buddy ever wanted to do was be the best Elf he could be, but he simply did not fit in. Literally. We see Buddy in the classroom with other young Elves. He's a giant. SEAN Most of the elves are pretty nice to Buddy out of pity, but he had no real place in elf society. And as Papa Elf explains, there are only three jobs available to an elf. We see bold text in the center of the screen, over corresponding clips from the movie: "1. Make shoes." SEAN They can make shoes at night. Text: "2. Bake Cookies." SEAN They can bake cookies in a tree. Text: "3. Build Toys." SEAN Or they can be one of Santa's elves and build toys for children around the world. CUT TO: CLIP: PAPA THE ELF PAPA ELF "Some people call it the big show." CUT TO: VO+ELF Back to VO and clips of Elf. SEAN That means there was only one job for Elves who live at the North Pole. Not a lot to work with. And as desperately as Buddy wanted to make toys, he's terrrrrrrible at that job... CUT TO: CLIP: BUDDY MISSES HIS QUOTA BUDDY "I will come in under quota..." CUT TO: VO+ELF SEAN As an "elf", Buddy is pretty much the worst. And why wouldn't he be? He's not actually an elf. But Buddy doesn't really know that. Up to this point in his life, nobody has had the heart to break the news. CUT TO: CLIP: PAPA ELF We see the scene of Buddy sitting on Papa Elf's lap. NEWHART "You're adopted" CUT TO: VO+ELF SEAN When Buddy finally learns that he has human parents, he travels to New York City to meet his biological father, Walter. Hopefully the human world is where he'll finally fit in. Alas... Nope. Buddy doesn't have a place in the real world either. He's just too weird. In just a few days, he causes multiple traffic accidents. He tackles a mall Santa. He gets into a fight with a famous author. CUT TO: CLIP: BUDDY TACKLES ARTIE LANGE SANTA BUDDY "Imposter!" CUT TO: VO+ELF SEAN And he basically ruins Walter's career in the process. By the end of Act II, it's pretty easy to write off Buddy as useless. No matter where he is, he's always in the way. More of a liability than an asset. But... That's not actually true. Buddy is really good at a lot of things. He has a bunch of amazing skills. He's incredible at building holiday displays. He's impossibly good at arts & crafts. He's got a pile of creative ideas that entertain and amuse other people. And heck, it's Buddy's positive influence on Jovie that encourages her to sing in public and bring enough Holiday Spirit back into the world to recharge the Clausometer and get Santa's Sleigh off the ground again. Buddy's cheerful attitude saves Christmas. And that's what's really worth thinking about here... Buddy's problems never came from his inability to add value to the world. It's just that his real talents and skills were never the right fit for the jobs that he was being asked to do. And he never found a role that made sense for him. But once the things he was genuinely good at finally matched up with what other people -- like Jovie, Walter, and Santa Clause -- needed, he became the hero of the whole story. In a way, that's what the economic concept of comparative advantage is all about. It's the idea that there's almost always something one person can do more efficiently than anybody else. And finding out what that is -- finding out where you fit in the best at work, in your family, or even in society -- is actually critical to being successful and, I think, to being happy. Buddy spends most of the movie struggling to fit in, mainly because he's always trying to be something that he was never going to be. We see Buddy's elf boss look at him with pity. SEAN His chubby human fingers couldn't keep up with the other elves making Etcha-Sketches at the North Pole. So as much as he wanted to do the job, there was no advantage to having Buddy make toys. We see Buddy spinning around a revolving door. SEAN In New York, Buddy's unfocused, hyperactive temperament definitely wasn't right for a job sorting mail at Walter's publishing company. Even though he wanted to emulate his dad, there was just no advantage for him there either. It's only when Buddy stops trying to be a perfect elf or a normal human, and just embraced everything that makes him unique that everything starts to come together. I think that's a good lesson for a lot of people out there. Comparative advantage isn't about being the best in the world at a particular job or skill -- that's a different idea called "Absolute Advantage". Instead, it's more about being the best in the world at being you. Even if you don't have as many abilities as someone else, that doesn't mean you can't make valuable contributions to a business or to society at large. So be honest with yourself about what makes you unique. Take some time to think about the things that you like to do and the skills and personality that you actually have and how they can be employed towards creating value for other people. If you do that, you're more likely to find a career -- and even a place in society -- that makes the most sense for you as an individual. For most people, that's going to lead to more financial success and more personal fulfillment at the same time. And we see that with Buddy! In the Epilogue, we learn that Buddy has become a successful children's book author. It's a perfect fit. This role allows him to draw on his experiences as an elf and build on his natural creativity, while creating value for parents and children in the human world. In the end, Buddy wins by being himself. What about you? SEAN Hey everybody, thanks for watching this episode of Out of Frame. If you liked the video, check out FEE's eBook "Your Life, Your Work", which covers a lot about how you can figure out your comparative advantage and learn to have a better personal life and a better career. You can download it for free at the link in the description. And if you want to see more video essays like this, hit that subscribe button and check us out as @FEEonline on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. https://fee.org/resources/your-life-your-work/

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About this show

Video essays that explore the intersection of art, culture, and big ideas written & produced by FEE's Director of Media, Sean W. Malone.

December 7, 2017

The classic holiday film Elf offers a lot more than a good time and a bunch of laughs. It teaches you how to get the most out of your life by finding your comparative advantage - the intersection between what you’re good at and what people need. After watching this video, download our free ebook “Your Life, Your Work” to learn more about how to find your own comparative advantage and build a life you’re excited about. Get it HERE.


Written & Produced by Sean W. Malone
Edited by Jaye Davidson & Sean W. Malone