At first blush, the takeaway seems obvious – after all, the movie reiterates the line which purports to underscore its message several times – “Don’t run after success, run after excellence and success will run after you”. This pithy message is made even more poignant with the final image, of the ‘3 idiots’ (the protagonists) running, and so-called ‘success’ in the form of a character illustrating the corollary viewpoint running after them.
When I thought about it a bit deeper, what occurred to me were the following points:
1. The central character, ‘Rancho’ illustrated not only the pursuit of excellence, but even more importantly, the kind of person one should presumably aspire to be – generous, kind, helpful, unswayed by excessive praise or criticism. This is illustrated over several anecdotes, but the feeling generated by him is generally that most people sooner or later love and admire him. Becoming this sort of person could then be seen as a goal in itself.
2. Excellence stems from sustained hard work, and hard work, even if it doesn’t give you an immediate reward, can only be sustained over the long period required by loving what you do. This returns to the passion hypothesis, derisively disputed by Cal Newport, but includes his premise that only by being “so good they can't ignore you” can you succeed. The movie then is implicitly arguing that the hard work needed to acquire mastery can only happen when you start by choosing a path you love already, or are interested enough to pursue. If you secretly harbouring an infatuation with some other professional calling, then you won't be able to achieve excellence in the path that you’re following only out of a sense of duty – like the wildlife photographer trying to be an engineer in the movie. This point especially appeals to me – as I am afraid to fully commit to the marriage to writing, keeping a toe in other pursuits, in case I'm not good enough or lucky enough to succeed in this endeavour.
3. The final point, and to me the most important one, centers on creating value. Simply focusing on excellence is a bit pointless if you are excellent at conning people out of their money. It may make you successful by a narrow definition of sheer net worth; however, if by success you mean feeling fulfilled and happy in a larger sense, creating value is the key to success. If you notice, all the inventions Rancho worked on found a problem or gap and filled it. Although the movie doesn’t explicitly mention this, I believe that creating the most value possible through one’s work is really the oft-neglected ingredient in the elusive formula for success; at least the 3 idiot-brand of success.