What We Can Learn About Life From Gangster Movies – Part 1: The Godfather

So I’ve been chatting a lot with my cousin, Christine, lately.  She lives in Florida and just had a beautiful baby girl.  It kills me that she is so far from New York right now.  Not only do I want to be able to help her with her little princess (or just help her around the house so she could take care of the baby) but I also miss her camaraderie.  I don’t have any sisters.  Christine is like a sister to me.  We like the same music (mostly) and our brains work in the same crazy kind of way.  We have so much in common that you’d think that we were actually sisters.  One of the things that Christine and I like to do is quote movies to each other.  We usually start it with a Facebook status and then comment back and forth until life summons us back into reality.  We’ve done it recently with My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Silver Linings Playbook to name just two.  Our mutual love of movies got us talking about some of our favorites.  Of course, the genre of “gangster movies” came up.  In my post “21 Things You Might Not Know About Me,” I talked about a memorable time that my dad and I spent watching a marathon of The Godfather trilogy.  Any self-respecting Italian has seen all three.  I quoted the first movie at dinner recently (“Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli.”).  My older girls looked at me as if I were crazy.  That’s when it hit me – they had NEVER seen these classic movies.  I quipped, “All you need to know about life you can learn from three gangster movies: The Godfather, Goodfellas, and A Bronx Tale.”  The girls rolled their eyes at me (as they so often do these days).  As I went to bed that night, I went over the movies in my mind.  It’s true – you can learn a great many life lessons from these movies.  I have watched all three over again recently to make sure I didn’t miss anything.  Here is my list of important life lessons from The Godfather.  Let me know if you agree or disagree – or if I’ve missed anything!

Lesson 1:  It’s Not Always What You Know, But Who You Know

Don Corleone was keenly aware of how important a network of supporters was.  Contacts are key.  The Corleone family used their contacts in the newspapers to help save Michael’s reputation when he killed the police captain and Sollozzo.  You never know when a contact will come in handy, so build and develop your own network of support.

Lesson 2:  Your Word is Your Bond So Live With Integrity

It’s been said that your true integrity is visible to others by your actions when you think that no one is watching.  Your reputation is built over time.  People will view you as trustworthy based on your behavior. No one took this to heart more than Don  Corleone.  He was a man of his word and everyone knew it.  When Don Corleone meets with the heads of the five families, he tells them that he will forgo any retaliation for Sonny’s murder if Michael can be returned to NY from Sicily free from harm.  The heads of the five families know that Don Corleone follows through on what he says.  They take him at his word and Michael comes home.  No harm befalls Michael and none of Don Corleone’s soldiers seek revenge for Sonny.  They respect the Don’s word and follow his commands to the letter.

Lesson 3:  Family is Everything

The Godfather clearly emphasizes the importance of family in the traditional sense.  The movies each open with large, festive family gatherings (the first with Carlo & Connie’s wedding, the second with Anthony’s communion, and the third with the ceremony of Michael’s installment as a Commander of the Order of St. Sebastian).  Don Corleone tells Johnny Fontane, “…..a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.” While we all know people in our own families who do not treat us with kindness and respect, we also know people who are not necessarily family that treat us as such.  What do we say about these people to others?  So-and-so is “like family to me.”  Family does not necessarily require a genetic link.  After all, when you think about it, we are all part of the human family.  The Corleone family was made up of both genetic and non-genetic family members.  And let’s not forget Michael’s scolding to Freddo in Vegas when Freddo took sides with Moe Greene in an argument with Michael – “You’re my older brother and I love you, but don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again.  Ever.”

Lesson 4:  Self-Sacrifice is An Important Part of Maintaing a Family

The moms out there know this.  We have all canceled plans to stay home with a sick child or help out with an injured parent.  We don’t like it, but we do it.  In the case of helping your parents, it may be the a return of the favor.  For our children, it’s part of the job description of a parent.  Michael Corleone knew this to be true.  He sacrificed the legitimate life he established as a decorated war veteran in order to save the Corleone family and avenge the attempt on his father’s life.  He risked his own life by committing double murder and then spent a period of time in exile in Sicily.  He did so willingly to save his family.

Lesson 5:  ALWAYS Think Before You Act

Regret can be a tough thing to live with.  Since none of us yet possess the ability to turn back time, care needs to be taken when making decisions (big and small) to avoid regrets.  This is how we learn from our mistakes and stop the cycle of repeating them.  There are consequences to each and every decision we make.  These consequences must be examined and evaluated before action is taken.  When Sonny was acting for the Don during Don Corleone’s recovery from the attempt on his life, he often let his emotions get the better of him.  This ultimately cost him his life.  Regardless of the situation, always think before you act.

Lesson 6:  Keep Your Friends Close But Your Enemies Closer

Truth is this is borrowed from Sun Tzu, a Chinese general and military strategist, who wrote the book The Art of War.  But both Michael and Don Corleone knew this to be true.  They knew that keeping your enemies close doesn’t stop them from being enemies.  What it does do, however, is eliminate unexpected attacks.  This is why the Don knew that the person who came to them offering to broker a peace between Barzini and the Corleone family would be the traitor.  You cannot expect to win a battle or a war if you don’t know who you are fighting.

Lesson 7:  When People Show You Who They Are, Believe Them

Said another way, actions speak louder than words.  Look at Carlo, Connie’s husband.  He beat Connie mercilessly on several occasions.  When Sonny found out about it, he should have had him “taken care of” immediately.  Instead, he beats him up and embarrasses Carlo in front of his neighborhood.  It was clear from Carlo’s treatment of Connie that he was a loser.  Even Don Corleone recognized this, which is why he told Tom to “Give him a living, but never discuss the family business with him.”  Sonny’s lack of appropriate response to Carlo ended up costing him is life, as Carlo sold out to the Barzini family and set Sonny up.  Personally, I’m all for second chances.  But always watch what people do – especially when they think no one is looking.  That’s when you’ll see who they really are.

Lesson 8:  Business is Business; It’s Not Personal

In part this lesson is an extension of lesson 5 (ALWAYS Think Before You Act).  It is very important to take emotions out of your decisions.  For example, when you make a decision out of fear, you are acting from a position of weakness, not strength.  The emotion clouds your judgment.  Don Corleone held this truth of keeping emotion out of business, thereby un-personalizing it.  Unfortunately, Michael did not.  In the end, Michael dies alone – no family by his side – as the result of having personal vendettas against anyone who wronged the family.  Perhaps if he followed more closely in his father’s footsteps it could have turned out differently for him.

Lesson 9:  Life Is About Quid Pro Quo

Literally translated from Latin, it means “this for that.”  It means no one does anything for nothing, there is always something expected in return.  When Don Corleone would agree to do a favor for someone, he would respond by saying, “Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me…..”  This is, perhaps, an extension of lesson 1 (It’s Not Always What You Know, But Who You Know), as it is a way of developing and maintaining your support network.  It’s okay to give a little, as long as you get a little in return.  At his daughter’s wedding, Don Corleone grants a favor to Amerigo Bonasera, whose daughter is brutally beaten by her boyfriend and his friend, when she refused to have sex with the two young men after having been made to drink whiskey.  Bonasera asks to have these men “taken care of” and Don Corleone, after a scolding about respect, complies.  When Sonny is murdered, Don Corleone calls on Bonasera to do a service for him.  He asks Bonasera to repair the massive damage to Sonny’s body so that there can be an open casket at the wake.  Quid pro quo.

Lesson 10: Know Yourself

Perhaps an extensions of lesson 6 (Keep Your Friends Close, But Your Enemies Closer), Sun Tzu addresses this concept in his discussion of keeping your enemies close.  Knowing your enemy allows you to take on the offensive. Knowing yourself helps  you to stand on the defensive.  When you know what your strengths and weaknesses are, you are better prepared to deal with them.  In addition, you must know your what standards and limits are.  Don Corleone turned down a lucrative deal with Sollozzo to get into the drug business.  He tells the heads of the five families, “It doesn’t make any difference to me what a man does for a living, but your business is a little dangerous.”  He turns down a lot of money because he believes that drugs are a dirty and that he would lose some of his political connections as a result.  

These are the life lessons I have gleaned from The Godfather.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.  Please comment below or on my Facebook page.