13 Inspiring Lessons From J.J. Abrams’ Empowering Lead Characters

UPDATED: January 17, 2017
PUBLISHED: January 10, 2017

J.J. Abrams didn’t start off making blockbusters. His career has evolved over time. Now he has almost 50 producer credits, more than 20 writing credits and a dozen directing credits. He also has nine acting credits, numerous musical credits, and he has co-written seveal books. Here are some of the inspiring lessons from his powerful lead characters.

1. Nothing is final. Life is about changing and changing again.

I guess what I’m saying is this might all be a colossal mistake, as my dad would say, but on the other hand it may… maybe it’ll save my life or something.”

—Felicity Porter, Felicity

In the first season of Felicity, some tough decisions are made. Does she choose to stick with her parents’ plan, go to Stanford and become a doctor? Or does she follow her dreams (and a man) and go to New York University (University of New York in the show) to study art?

Felicity switches from pre-med, to art and back to pre-med, making along the way. And that’s OK. she had to come to those decisions on her own. If you’re struggling with some big decisions, take a deep breath. Nothing is final in life. You have time to pivot and try something else in a year or two. Life is about making mistakes because that’s when you learn who you are.

2. Communication is key.   

“I will do everything I can to help. But first you must tell us all you know.”

—Leia Skywalker, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The Republic is in crisis mode. As a veteran leader, Leia is used to that kind of recurring chaos. She also knows that a solid, informed team will result in a victory.

Tough times are always just around the corner. To equip yourself to make it through dips and valleys requires constant, complete communication with those around you.

3. If you dwell in the past, you’ll miss what’s in the future.

“We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why. Not until the future eats the present, anyway. We know when it’s too late.”

—Jake Epping, 11.22.63

Based on the massive Stephen King Novel, 11.22.63 is a gripping mystery about a divorced high school teacher who has the chance to go back in time to stop the JFK assassination. Throughout his quest, Jake finds that the “past pushes back”—the closer he gets to his goal, the more harm comes to him and those he loves.

The Hulu miniseries is more than a literal warning about time travel, it’s also a cautionary tale about living in the past. When you’re looking back, you miss what’s right in front of you today and the brightness of what your future could hold. We can’t change the past (despite what Stephen King writes), so keep your eyes ahead and plan for the future.

4. Don’t get stuck in a routine.

“I understand now. This world doesn’t belong to them; it belongs to us.”

—Dolores Abernathy, Westworld

How many of us do the same thing every day without even realize we’re doing it? It makes for an exciting show, but a dreary existence. That is until Dolores, one of the show’s main characters wakes up to realize the loop she’s been living in, and decides to change.

Take a moment to analyze your day-to-day routine. Why don’t you try a different route to work or take the bus a couple days per week? Why don’t you eat your lunch break outside instead of hovering over your desk with pizza leftovers? Although some routines can be beneficial and keep your brain from being overloaded with small, daily decisions, it can also stifle your creativity and leave you feeling in a rut. Try to change it up and see how you feel.

5. Being an island never works.

“And the other people on this plane, what’s going to happen to them?”

—Dr. Jack Shephard, Lost

“Who cares?”

—Ben Linus

In the mind-blowing 10-season series, Lost, we see characters take shape, transform and learn to adapt to their ever-changing surroundings while stranded on an island. Perhaps the most shocking transformation is Ben Linus, who everyone is hesitant to trust, but who turns out to be a good guy after all.

But he had to learn that he couldn’t go it alone. He had to rely on those around him or disaster would take the best of him (and his daughter). You’re not an island and you’ll never succeed if you act like one. Reach out to your support network and allow them to help you. Building successful relationships is the first step to building a successful life.

6. Trust your instinct.

“There’s been an attack, a big one. But down here, we’re safe.”

—Howard, 10 Cloverfield Lane

In a (not really) sequel to the dizzying sci-fi flick, Cloverfield, Abrams delivers an equally eerie movie where a young woman wakes up in a bunker and is told that the outside world is no longer safe.

Right from the get-go, she’s skeptical of her seemingly kind, but very watchful host (Howard) and eventually escapes. Your instinct is an often unexplainable voice or feeling that tells you when something isn’t right. Listen to that voice because it’s often correct.

7. Showing emotion and being vulnerable makes you real, not weak.

“I’m scared, Spock… help me not to be… how do you choose not to feel?”

—James T. Kirk, Star Trek: Into Darkness

“I do not know. Right now, I am failing.”


“I wanted you to know why I couldn’t let you die… why I went back for you…”

—James T. Kirk

“Because you are my friend.”


Star Trek: Into Darkness is a movie as much about developing relationships as it is about Kirk finding the leader within himself. The most important relationship is perhaps between Kirk and Spock. Throughout the movie, Spock learns that overly governing emotions can damage relationships and leave people wary to open up to you.

We often see images of leaders appearing tough, even distant, and we think that’s what it means to be a strong leader. But countless studies show that kind, open and vulnerable leaders create the best relationships that results in everyone succeeding. Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability and kindness to your team.

8. Stay true to yourself.

“Forgive me for being forthright, or female, but this is the way it’s going to be.”

—Sydney Bristow, Alias

Sydney is a spy who initially was working for the CIA, following every order without question. But when she learns the truth, a truth that cost her boyfriend his life, she becomes a double agent, hell-bent on taking down those responsible.

Too often we blindly follow leadership. We assume those in charge know what they’re doing and we trust everything that comes down the pipeline. When Sydney discovers the truth, she had to redefine her identity and stick to that identity. It wasn’t easy, but it teaches us something important: Who you were isn’t who you are. You have the ability to change. But when you do change, commit to it.

9. Be the calm in the storm.

“It’s just one of those things that one day you are going to look back on and say, ‘I beat that too.’”

—Olivia Dunham, Fringe

Olivia Dunham, the main character in the hit sci-fi series Fringe has the amazing ability to stay calm, even if the most fraught situations. Which, considering she’s switching between dual realities, she’s experienced some extremely fraught scenarios.

It’s a reminder that nothing in life is too much for us to handle. Life will constantly throw curve balls. We can choose to hide, freak out or run away from those problems. Or we can stand and face them. Our reaction is our choice.

10. Boldly go where others are unwilling.

“A five-year mission, Spock! That’s deep space, that’s uncharted territories! Think how incredible that’s gonna be!”

—James T. Kirk, Star Trek: Into Darkness

New adventures can be scary. Terrifying, even. Your family and friends might think you’re crazy. They might tell there is no way to succeed by going down this path. But something inside you has brought you here. You have a dream that’s bigger than you or anyone around you. Be brave enough to take the first step.

You might fail, and that’s OK. Because you also might succeed in ways you never thought were possible. Isn’t that why we’re here?

11.  Believe in yourself.

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”

—John Locke, Lost

John Locke is a complex character on the popular series, Lost. He believes this group is trapped on the island due to spiritual and mystical forces that are bigger than them. But the others doubt him and his beliefs.

People won’t always understand your beliefs or personal feelings toward your plans for the future. Although you should have a trusted network of friends and peers whose opinions you trust, this is your life. You have to make the best decisions with the available information.

12. Find a new perspective.

“Bad things happen, but you can still live.”

—Joe Walker, Super 8

One of the main characters, Joe Walker, is just trying to navigate the complicated world of adolescence. He’s into home movies and the pretty girl down the street. Suddenly, his relatively normal life is flipped on its head when a train carrying mysterious white cubes derails near his town. Chaos ensues.

Sometimes the most difficult and out-of-control situations requires changing your perspective. If you’ve lost your job, your biggest client or a big deal you’ve been negotiating for months, analyze what went wrong, and then focus how you can do better the next time around. Finally, keep in mind all the things that are going right in your life. It’s easy to focus on one negative while ignoring 10 positives.

13. It’s never too late to change.  

“I’m not a hero. I’m a Stormtrooper. Like all of them, I was taken from a family I’ll never know. And raised to do one thing. But my first battle, I made a choice. I wasn’t gonna kill for them. So I ran.”

—Finn, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Finn was raised to be a Stormtrooper, to blindly follow orders that usually involved capturing and killing members of the resistance. He could have ignored his conscience and continued to live that life. But he chose to change, to find another way.

We’ve all made mistakes in our life, sometimes ones that carried severe consequences. But it’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to choose a different path, ask for forgiveness and make better decisions in the future.


J.J. Abrams is featured on the February 2017 cover of SUCCESS magazine, on newsstands Jan. 9. Read the story here: J.J. Abrams and the Unopened Mystery Box