It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the most popular holiday movies and my #1 favorite movie. I’ve not missed watching it over the holiday season in the last 25 years. For me, it’s cathartic, as I’ve always seen it as indicative of the ebbs and flows, highs and lows of life, and probably you, like me (and James Stewart’s George Bailey) have weathered similar storms and can identify on some level with George.  Couple that with the fact that I also see the same work/life changes play out, to varied degrees, in our coaching work. And like George, how we all deal with and process those storms is key to our attitude, mindset and ultimately our success in work and life – it is a dominant theme in our coaching.

So, as we process last year’s successes and challenges and move into an exciting new year, what can we learn from George Bailey and how can we affirm “it’s a wonderful life” even during storms? That is our challenge and opportunity. George provides some thought-provoking insights.

But first, here is a quick recap:
  Released in 1946, it initially failed. The copyright lapsed in 1974 and the film came into the public domain where it was shown on television, struck a nerve with the audience, and the rest is history. It became one of the greatest films of all time. George Bailey spent his life serving the people of Bedford Falls and eventually running his father’s modest “building and loan.” Early on, he supported his younger brother’s college education with his own college savings while he stayed to help his father. Then when his father passed, he reluctantly gave up his dreams to travel the world and build skyscrapers, to run the business and prevent the meanest and wealthiest man in Bedford Falls, Mr. Potter, from taking over the B&L and the town.

But on one Christmas eve, overwhelmed with the misplacing of an $8,000 loan ($122,260 in 2023) that would bring him and the B&L down, George was broken and contemplated ending his life. Enter Clarence Odbody, a quirky but sweet guardian angel who had yet to earn his wings. Clarence showed George what life would have been like if he had never been born. In the end, all of George’s prayers are answered, and those he sacrificed so much for rescued him. 

So here are my top three powerful yet simple career/life strategies modeled by George that demonstrate how to move towards a wonderful life, especially in the face of challenge and uncertainty. 


1. Perspective & mindset trump change

Clarence came through at a time when George had given up and was contemplating taking his life. He had George experience a flashback of life without him in it. George saw that his brother Harry, who he saved from drowning as a child, wouldn’t have survived. Potter had taken over the family B&L and the town; homeowners were evicted, families uprooted, and greed, gambling and drinking prevailed in what was now called Pottersville. His mother lived a bitter, lonely life, and his wife Mary never married. This experience shifted George’s perspective from an “ending” (I’m worth more dead than alive) to a “new beginning” (it is a wonderful life) where he saw how blessed he was, and what a blessing he had been to his family and community.

This philosophy is right out of a change exercise we use to help shift the perspective of our coaching clients to process a major work/life change. In no way am I competing with an angel – Clarence nailed it!

We ask clients to write about that one change (past or present) that has had the most impact (often work related), recognizing that continuing to play that often negative recording will impact their attitude, confidence and career campaign success. It’s not unusual to receive more than four typed pages from senior executives in advance of our meeting. In a recent three-hour client session and six flip chart pages of notes later, we successfully processed the “ending” state – loss and the emotional roller coaster of that change event. Then, on the flip side, we brainstormed the gains, silver lining, or blessings from that change which enabled this client to “lean into” a “new beginning” state and ultimately, over time, “acceptance” (vs. avoidance) of that experience. This is the beginning of that mindset shift that will trump change.

In George’s case, we might have asked him to process all the events surrounding the misplacement of the $8,000 loan money, which led to his downward spiral. Again, I defer to Clarence’s poignant exercise for George, to experience that life flashback and inventory. Ultimately, it was faith, the power of prayer and calling in the angels for help that led to George’s transformation.

Ideas to reflect on:

  • Is there one most recent or past work/life change that is sapping your attitude, confidence, success? What caused it? What was your role? Describe your emotions when it first hit. How did you cope?
  • Make a list of “losses” to process the emotions of an “ending.” And now create a much longer list of gains, blessings and the silver lining to lean into “acceptance” and a “new beginning” state.
  • As with George, this is the beginning of that perspective and mindset shift that will trump change over time. 
  • Here are a few related articles that might be of interest:

2. The power of gratitude 

On the surface, George felt his life had been a series of regrets and failures. After all, he had given up his dream of going to college, traveling the world, and building skyscrapers, in order to manage the family B&L, support his family and the people of Bedford Falls. By seeing what life would be like without him, George was overcome with emotion and gratitude for the life he had lived. He saw the difference he made, and the impact on his family and community – it was a wonderful life.

George was able to shift his perspective from one of failure, fear and despair and embrace a new beginning and a new attitude of gratitude for his wife and family, the B&L and community who depended on him, and even the misplacement of the loan money that would have ruined his reputation, closed his business, and landed him in jail.

George realized he was anything but a failure. As we often say in our coaching work, he embraced his story and recaptured his personal power and voice through gratitude.

In the final scene, he even expressed gratitude towards the bank examiner, police, and media who were there to help convict him, as he thanked and hugged them.

Especially during tough times, I find that starting or ending the day by listing or journaling what I’m most grateful for is one sure way to shift into that “attitude of gratitude” and appreciation (and we often recommend it to clients). Over time, I find I have greater clarity about the silver linings and blessings in most situations.

Ideas to reflect on:

  • How can we make an “attitude of “gratitude” a regular part of our daily routine in the new year? List or journal and find things to be grateful for and appreciate every day. 
  • Like George, what would be the impact on mindset, perspective and in managing life’s changes?

3. Be of service – develop a spirit of giving

Dr. Michael Beckwith, a renowned speaker, author, and spiritual teacher, writes in Living from the Overflow, “…we give to live until we live to give.”

George lived by this principle. Like his father, he was a giver, even when it might not always have made business sense. He was committed to being of service and ensuring that anyone who wanted a new home in Bailey Park would be given an opportunity; he was quick to help homeowners struggling to make payments and lend money to those in need.

In the end, George knew that his commitment to service and acts of kindness, to the lives he touched – his family, business and community relationships and friendships — were his greatest gift. He realized that his human capital currency, was worth far more than any financial currency.

The rest of the movie’s ending: The final scene hammers home the power of George’s human capital and his service focus. The entire town shows up with baskets of money, jewelry, and other valuables to make that missing loan payment for him. The police tear up the arrest warrant, even the no-nonsense bank examiner contributes to George’s cause. George is declared “…the richest man in town”, and Clarence finally receives his wings.

Ideas to reflect on:

  • How would I rate my human capital currency, friendships, networks, relationships?
  • How do I compare with George’s currency and spirit of giving (acknowledging that it’s a high bar!)?
  • Can I broaden my awareness, improve my communication, convey my authenticity and reveal my vulnerability?
  • Should I give more and not just receive? But to be of service to my family, work, life, community?
  • “The best life lesson to learn early in life is to be kind. If you’re ever going through a challenging time, challenge yourself to do an act of kindness every day until you start feeling better.” – Rachel Sharpe, 15 Heart-Warming Life Lessons You Should Learn Today (11/2/21). 

The takeaway?

There are many more career and life strategies we can glean from George’s story and how he was able to process and turn a life-threatening “ending” (I’m worth more dead than alive) to a “new beginning” (I have a wonderful life).

However, it was through faith, prayers, and Clarence’s genius idea to allow George to experience a flashback of his life that shifted his perspective and mindset. This eclipsed a major life storm filled with regrets, failure, and despair. This shift opened the door for George to recognize the power of gratitude and appreciation for his family, community, work and life.

In the end, George realized that his commitment to service, a spirit of giving and his selfless acts of kindness to the lives he touched — his family, business and community relationships and friendships — were his greatest gift.

Let’s challenge ourselves to be like George Bailey and affirm it is a wonderful life throughout 2023.