Critical Learnings From Two Days, One Night

What would you do if you had to make a trade-off between your own advancement and the lack of advancement of others? Thanks to Netflix, I spent time this weekend watching the film, Two Days, One Night, which addresses this very question. [WARNING: If you hate international films with English subtitles, get over it and read the captions – it’s worth it]  

I suspect that no one reading this blog thinks that they will choose to impede someone else’s career, but I think we make trade-offs like this every day without realizing it. And, thus there are important lessons here.


Brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne direct this Belgian-French-Italian drama filled with compassion, hard choices, and reality. The movie trailer is powerful, but in short, Marion Cotillard and Fabrizio Rongione play Sandra and Manu, the woman and her husband, who go into a panic after finding out on a Friday that her colleagues have opted for a significant pay bonus, in exchange for her dismissal. Sandra has only the weekend to find and talk with her colleagues and plead her case. She asks them to forgo a 1,000 euros bonus so that she can keep her job after returning from sick leave due to depression.


I was taken aback by how well the film captures the dignity of work and the effect of finances on the family structure and human relationships. Set in Belgium, the film forces the audience to examine itself and one’s own approach to dealing with financial stress, which cuts across culture and class.


I will not give away the ending, but the film raises three main points that may help your financial situation:


How your financial trade-off is framed is critical. In the movie, many of Sandra’s colleagues frame the decision in reference to something else that they need. For many, they plan on the bonus to pay for children’s expenses, improvements on their homes, or paying off debts. For other colleagues, they frame the bonus as a result of what they’ve already worked toward the previous year. So, they are deserving of the bonus irrespective of what’s on the other side of the trade-off.


Aside from the obvious conclusion that living in expectation of a bonus is a difficult financial situation to endure, one must realize how they are framing the trade-off decision. If the trade-off decision is framed from your vantage point and needs, then you will be biased. If the trade-off decision is framed from the other person’s perspective, you might see things a bit differently.


Also, one must ask the question of what structure has allowed a decision to come to the current state. Sandra’s employer is actually to blame for the mess that she’s in, but this is a subtle fact that you will miss it if you are not paying attention.


We need to question the systems that have created financial messes for us! Student loan debacle? Mortgage crises? Wage stagnation? Income disparity? These messes all have powerful systems behind them that we should challenge.


Most people want to know what everyone else is doing. In most of Sandra’s conversations with her colleagues, each asks her who else voted to “give up” their bonuses. None of Sandra’s colleagues ask her who else has voted to “deny her a job,” which is a fundamentally different question.


We are often concerned with what decisions others are making as if they directly influence what decision we should make. We feel better if others make decisions that confirm what is already in our thoughts, or how we really want to act.


When it comes to managing your finances, it is important to be clear on what you want to do because your situation is different than your friends. I’m a big fan of getting advice and seeking help, but you still have to make the decision. Try and gather good information and make the best decision for you, and no one else.


Finding your own dignity. One of the big themes in the move is individual dignity. The movie beautifully captures the importance of working to our sense of purpose and ability to provide for our families. Sandra carries a high degree of responsibility for her household’s stability, which is often dependent on two incomes in today’s culture, here or abroad.


We each go through our own journey when we are not working. I’ve been here before and it is not a good feeling. When I did not make money, it took a toll on me. Even having a husband who can support our household on a sole income did not remove feeling “less than.” I felt this way because I did not personally contribute to the household as I wanted to, and I saw this reality displayed on screen through Sandra. You too are not alone – it’s normal to not feel good when you’re not working. If you feel OK, then I would be worried!


I like to earn money. I’ve gotten very comfortable with this fact (thanks to my career coach). There is certainly dignity in being able to work and getting compensated (financially and non-financially) for our gifts and value to the world.


Go get your dignity and fight for it!


Where to go from here?


I recommend that you watch Two Days, One Night. I’m almost certain you’ll learn even more than I've talked about here. It is one of the best movies I’ve watched this year, and if you've seen it too, let me know your thoughts.