10 Life Lessons From The Doctor


I recently came clean about my addiction. It was a confession about my obsession. A revelation about my life away from the office. My secret? I’m a Whovian!

Whovians are “the epitome of awesome. They secretly run the world’s major services, have good grammar and insert Doctor Who references into every piece of popular culture available.” At least that’s what the Urban Dictionary says about these cosmically committed fans of The Doctor.

My conversion to this wildly imaginative British television show was sudden and unexpected. Many friends and colleagues have been fans of the show since its first run from 1963 to 1989. Its current incarnation began in 2005, making it one of the longest running shows in television history. The show is often described as science fiction, but the creativity, compassion and connection with its audience make it much more than a simple fairy tale across space and time. The narrative that drives this show (and is so brilliantly brought to life by writers, producers, directors and actors) is a series of timeless life lessons.

Here are ten lessons I’ve learned from Doctor Who:

1. Imagine the possibilities. The central premise of the show revolves around a Time Lord who explores the universe back and forward in time. His method of transportation is the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space).  In civilian terms, it’s a blue police call box otherwise known as a time machine.

Those who experience The Doctor for the first time are understandably dazed and confused. The realization that the TARDIS “is bigger in the inside” is just the first glimpse at the infinite possibilities that lie ahead.  It’s The Doctor, however, who captures our attention and ignites our imagination. We can’t help but be drawn to this man who, despite his age (he’s 2,000 years old, give or take a few hundred years), retains an endless admiration, respect and wide-eyed wonder of the universe. He, above all things, is an ‘imagineer’ of epic proportions.

2. Don’t go it alone. Although he is often hesitant to bring along traveling companions or align himself with allies, The Doctor has, through the years, learned he doesn’t need to do it alone. Great leaders surround themselves with people who complement and supplement their skills, abilities and personalities. From its beginning, the show was a celebration of diversity and inclusion. The show’s founding producer, Verity Lambert, was a rarity in television. In the early 1960’s, she was the only female producer working at the BBC. Throughout time and space, The Doctor has traveled with human companions of both genders and with various ethnic backgrounds, as well as a host of aliens and even same sex (but different species) partners. The Doctor and his time traveling team teach us that if you want to go fast, go it alone. If you want to go far…go together.

3. Be here…and nowhere else. Doctor Who is a time traveler. He is a nomad of the universe. He wanders a bit, but rarely without focus. When the The Doctor is called to action, his arrival may be delayed by an occasional cosmic detour, but he always lands with the knowledge and courage to act. Perpetuity depends on his ability to be everywhere and yet only where he’s needed in the moment…and one challenge at a time.

4. Embrace change. Change is constant. As The Doctor travels back in time and flashes forward to the future, we witness the end of civilizations, the birth of stars and the everlasting quest for self-actualization. The Doctor himself has lived thousands of years and yet the time-space continuum requires him to adjust to a changing universe. Twelve actors have portrayed The Doctor over the past 50 years. The Doctor looks, acts and feels differently with each actor and yet his purpose remains the same. His regeneration is both a reaction to what has already happened and preparation for what is ahead. His time traveling team also reflects a constant reality of life: people come in and out of your life. Some stay for only a brief moment, while others remain with you throughout your journey.

5. Question everything. The Doctor interrogates reality. Not because he’s a cynic, but because he understands that people and situations are almost always more than they seem. He lives life with curiosity and with an endless willingness to learn. In each episode this life perspective is almost always a pivotal moment that determines which path the team takes: the seemingly easy path to success or the more difficult terrain littered with obstacles. He teaches us to assume nothing, open our eyes and think for ourselves.

6. Live life to its fullest. In “Vincent and The Doctor” we witness the bouts of mental illness that influenced the work of Vincent van Gogh. The Doctor takes him forward in time to witness his place in history as one of the most celebrated artist of all time.  In the episode, as in life, Van Gogh somehow found the beauty that surrounded him: “Pain is easy to portray. Turn that pain into your passion to portray the ecstasy, joy and magnificence of our world.”  The Doctor shows us that life, without challenges, would not allow allow us to grow, learn and shape our own destinies.

7. Look for the remarkable in the most unlikely places. The Doctor, at first glance, seems a very unlikely hero. “He’s like a mad professor,” says actress Karen Gillian. Extremely creative and insightful people don’t follow the rules. They think while they talk and improvise as they go. To many, they may seem undisciplined and ‘messy. They are often underestimated, undervalued and overlooked because they operate outside the norm. Matt Smith, the eleventh Doctor, captured this method in the madness: “The Doctor is the cleverest man in the universe. He’s this blend of good, fun and madness.” Whovians wouldn’t have it any other way.

8. Own what you leave behind and be thoughtful as you move forward. Peter Capaldi, the current incarnation of The Doctor, explains that an unintended consequence of The Doctor’s work “traveling back and forward is the wreckage he leaves.” It’s what Susan Scott, in her book Fierce Conversations, calls your ’emotional wake.’ The impact, positive or negative, on relationships. Our lives, professional and personal, are much more than outcomes, achievements and accomplishments. The true measure of one’s life revolves around how you lived and who came along for the journey. What you leave behind, and take forward, can leave people either disgruntled and discouraged or confident and committed.

9. Celebrate your successes. Our culture is heavily weighted toward negativity. We spend more time looking for what’s wrong rather than seeking out and celebrating what’s right. The Doctor may be harsh at times, but his actions in the moment are dictated by decisions that determine success or failure…life or death. He is often detached and seemingly without emotion. His heart (correction: Time Lords have two hearts) shines through when he empowers his companions through positive feedback. The ninth Doctor, portrayed by Christopher Eccelston, may have captured it best: “Before I go, I just want to tell you…you were absolutely fantastic.”

10. Have faith in yourself and others. Fans of Doctor Who know that there are a number of rules associated with the complex relationships The Doctor forges with anyone (or anything) he meets. The most important rule? “Don’t trust The Doctor.” While his most powerful nemesis,  The Daleks, accept this as a literal, unconditional and unwavering rule, his time traveling team understands the true meaning.

The lesson lies not in what is said, but rather what isn’t said. Trust is a currency that gains value through relationships and over time. When you meet The Doctor there’s little time to establish and earn trust. Worlds are colliding. Lives are at stake. The future relies on action sooner rather than later.  “Don’t trust The Doctor” isn’t a warning. It’s a call to action. In the absence of tangible evidence or previous actions to earn our trust, he asks us to to believe. To leap forward with faith…in him and ourselves. In doing so, he encourages us to look inward and find our own strength.

So, there it is: my confession about an obsession with Doctor Who.

One last thought: While I do not know this to be true, I have one last lesson to share about Who. Through space and time he arrives on cue, but his name we never really knew. People ask, who is this Doctor…Doctor Who? This man of magic and mystery known only to a few. While we know him as The Doctor – Doctor Who – the real story here is about the brilliance that resides in YOU.

Until next time,

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2 responses to “10 Life Lessons From The Doctor

  1. Ryan,

    What a great post! It’s easy to let the wisdom of Doctor Who get lost as you’re pulled in and along by the action, emotion and new species, times and places. But you’ve focused in on the lessons we can learn as we veg so that we can apply them to real life after we turn off the tube. Now we can all say we’re studying philosophy when we turn on a new episode of Doctor Who.

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