20 Life Lessons Millennials Can Learn From ‘Forrest Gump’ on Its 20th Anniversary

This weekend marks the 20th anniversary since the release  (July 6, 1994) of Forrest Gump and there have been plenty of directors who have attempted to recreate the magical spark of Robert Zemeckis’ timeless American epic.

Inevitably, they have all failed miserably at matching the charisma of the slow-witted Forrest Gump — played to absolute perfection by Tom Hanks, who guides us through some of the most defining events in American history and leaves us inspired full of hope for humanity.

From segregation to JFK to Vietnam to “shit happens” — Forrest Gump’s experiences are more diverse than any other character in the history of motion pictures.

And through it all, he never once compromises who he is — a selfless, compassionate and hard-working American male.

Millennials can learn a lot from someone like Forrest Gump and, without even realizing it, we already have. Here are the 20 life lessons that all Millennials hopefully absorbed from the cinematic masterpiece, Forrest Gump.

Expect the unexpected

Forrest’s mother (a tremendous Sally Field) shares this wisdom with him on her deathbed through the most quoted analogy in the history of film — “life is like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re going to get.”

Although it’s something Forrest learns right there on screen, he makes it a point of emphasis to carry it with him the rest of his life and, in turn, share it with everyone he interacts with from the very opening scene on the park bench to the very last frame where he puts his son on the bus.

Don’t hold grudges

Speaking of his son, Forrest’s most remarkable trait is his ability to forgive others that have done him wrong in the past — like his son’s mother, Jenny, who repeatedly rejects Forrest’s affection.

Forrest immediately accepts Little Forrest as one of his own, which leads to the most emotional scene of the movie (them watching TV together in Jenny’s apartment). Then, he has the spirit to invite Jenny to come live with him, even though she’s going to die and eventually leave him as a single parent.

Talk about being the bigger man!

Give and take

Forrest and Jenny’s relationship isn’t always tumultuous. In fact, they are inseparable during childhood, when she teaches him to climb a tree and he teacher her how to dangle from it. The moment is a mere flash in the 142-minute film — and could easily be forgotten, but there’s something about it that sticks with you long after the credits roll.

The lesson is simple: to be a good person, you have to willingly be a part of the never-ending give and take of life. It’s not always about “me, me, and me;” it’s OK to share with others and contribute to something larger than your individual being.

Make peace with god…or whatever you believe in

Come to terms with all that bad shit that’s happened in your life; otherwise, it will consume you until the end of your life.

Perhaps my favorite scene in any film, Lt. Dan thanks Forrest for saving his life in Vietnam before jumping in the ocean for a swim, which cues Forrest to note that his friend has finally made peace with god.

This applies to all of us — religious and non-religious people alike, because it’s all about acceptance and moving on.

Side note: Gary Sinise, who played Dan, is by far and away the biggest snub in Oscar’s history. How that guy didn’t end up with a statue makes me cringe.

Stay versatile

Whether it’s running the country or steering a shrimp boat or cutting grass at his alma mater or mastering the sport of ping-pong, Forrest is always engaging in something completely different than what he was previously doing. It makes for tough story telling: how can a guy go from shrimpin’ to sitting on a park bench in Savannah?

Nonetheless, the enduring message rings loud and clear 20 years later: stay active, stay multitalented and keep challenging yourself to do new things.

Follow orders

Something we all hate because it directly challenges our individual definition of the word freedom, but through the lens of Forrest Gump we can learn to appreciate obedience.

Forrest never sees his drill sergeant in Vietnam or football coach Bear Bryant as people who are restricting or impeding his personal freedom; instead, he complies with their directions — perhaps, because he doesn’t know any better — simply for the betterment of those around him.

In order to be a good teammate, he realizes he needs to listen to his coach. In order to be a good member of the army, he has to follow the commands of his superiors. Without that discipline and respect for authority, there would be a complete and utter chaos — no team could win a game, no army could win a war.

Start with small goals

There are so many minuscule moments in the film that are so much larger than the time that they are given. One of my personal favorites is when Forrest decides to go for a little run. What begins as a jog to “the end of the road,” ends up being a three-year canvassing of the entire country and some of the most majestic background shots in any film.

Like most of the things he does in the film — dance for Elvis, shake the hand of three presidents — Forrest starts the run with the smallest intentions and transforms it into a national phenomenon.

This moment is so big that it actually has two lessons attached to it.

You’re the master of your own happiness

I’ll admit I probably should tattoo this on my body so I can remember it better, but it’s still one of Forrest Gump’s most valuable and unforgettable lessons.

What is forgotten amongst most viewers is that Forrest’s run is inspired when Jenny disappears one night. Rather than sit around and depressively drink because the woman of his dreams doesn’t reciprocate his love, Forrest places one foot in front of the other and eventually runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Grand Canyon — more than once.

In essence, don’t let others bring you down; don’t let others determine your fate; and don’t be a feather blowing in the wind.

Believe in your destiny/purpose

A good way to ensure that you’re taking ownership of your own life is to believe in the fact you’re born to fulfill a specific, unidentifiable purpose. Yes, I know it’s a bit sappy — and really ambiguous in nature, but that’s one of the many things Forrest Gump wants us to remember about life.

Throughout the story, Forrest has to listen to what others tell him to do — or tell him to that he’s too stupid to think for himself, yet he remains unbroken in his quest for that elusive American Dream we all want so desperately to obtain. This perseverance propels him around the world — Washington DC to China to New York City to Vietnam, which ultimately allows him to fulfill his purpose of becoming a dad for Little Forrest.

Because once you’ve seen the world like Forrest Gump, you can settle down, stay in one place and read Curious George to your son every night without the urge to go on a three-year run.

(Well, at least until he’s in college)

Guide your children

I promise this is the last time I reference Little Forrest because he plays a really minor part in the story, but the way that Forrest’s parents guide him is definitely worth our appreciation. Too often do parents let their kids run off without giving them the necessary amount of attention or proper guidance about what to do in certain situations. Forrest adopts basically the complete opposite parenting model. He reads to his son, he goes fishing with his son and he’s there to see him off to school every morning.

Although Little Forrest is naturally smarter than his father, his biggest advantage in life is not his intelligence — it’s that he has a parent who cares about him more than anything in the world.

We’re all different

Forrest’s mom is a very similar type of parent, even though she holds the intellectual edge over her son. Nonetheless, she recognizes that “we’re all different” in her fight to educate Forrest and treats her son as a typical normal person despite his below average IQ.

It’s early in the movie, but her persistence sends a stern message that resonates more than two hours later — after all our differences and idiosyncrasies are washed away, we are all human beings.

Admit your flaws

Yes, I’m going with the predictable, “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is” here, although I don’t think that’s actually the lesson. Rather, the lesson is that it’s OK to admit your inadequacies and to come to terms with them. As his mother noted earlier in the movie, we’re all different, so why should a few flaws hold you back from achieving what you want to achieve?

Forrest is unafraid to resist this perpetual notion that a defect is a bad thing. It’s not necessarily the case, a flaw could be what makes you, well, you. Forrest’s “flaws” are what ends up pushing Forrest back again and again into the jungle of Vietnam, where he saves a half dozen lives and walks away as a Purple Heart recipient.

Do your best

Adding on to that previous lesson, it’s important to remember what Ms. Gump tells Forrest repeatedly: “you have to do the best with what God gave you.” Never make excuses or whine about what you don’t have. Whining is for cowards.

“I did the best I could,” Ms. Gump says on her bed.

You’re damn right you did!

Pick your battles

Forrest is for the most part shy and passive aggressive — at least for a Vietnam veteran; however, he knows when to throw a fist. He does so when Jenny is struck in the back room of the Black Panther party as well as when she’s performing naked on stage before he goes to war.

Both are moments when punches needed to be thrown in the name of love. Can’t fault a man for fighting for what he loves.

Note: He also gets close to hitting the strippers when they make fun of Dan on New Years, which is yet another classic Dan and Forrest scene.

The best, of course, is Forrest offering Dan ice cream in the hospital. Dan grabs it and tosses it in his piss can. Kills me every time.

OK, back to work…

Keep your promises

I haven’t given Bubba nearly enough attention in this column and I apologize. I guess I was just saving it for this point right now: Forrest promises that he will go into the shrimpin’ business with him when the war is over and that they will split the profits 50/50. Of course, Bubba never ends up making it out of ‘Nam, yet Forrest follows through on his promise giving half of everything he earns to Bubba’s family.

This eventually leads us to that epic sequence when Bubba’s mother — who comes from a lineage of servants — finally has enough money to have servants of her own.

Invest in yourself

Although he’s an award-winning soldier and ping-pong player, Forrest breaks it big financially with some luck investing in Apple. However, it’s not luck that propels Forrest.

In reality, it’s the fact that he’s persistent as all hell as a shrimp boat captain. He fails many times, but his will is never shattered. Eventually, he rides through a crazy storm and ends up being the only boat left on the water. The result is that Bubba Gump shrimp takes off and he finally makes some money.

The investment is actually Apple is Lt. Dan’s idea — a mighty good one at that!

Take a piss before you meet the president

In case you forgot this classic exchange between our hero and President John F. Kennedy:

Forrest (narrating): One, because I was not hungry, but thirsty, and two, because they were free — I must have had me about 15 Dr. Peppers.

JFK: Congratulations, son. How does it feel to be an All American?

Forrest: I have to go pee.


Prepare for others to move on

Speaking of JFK, Elvis, John Lennon, and all the other famous people who Forrest crosses path with before they die, it’s important to remember: “Death is just a part of life. Something we’re all destined to do.”

All the credit goes to Ms. Gump on that one. Which reminds me…

Put the past behind you

Forrest has to say goodbye to three of the most important people in his life — his mom, Jenny, and Bubba, yet he never lets it keep him down.

Again, Ms. Gump said it best so I won’t try to even paraphrase: “you got to put the past behind you before you can move on.”

Of course, it’s important to remember those who have passed on, but it’s equally important to keep living. Hence why Forrest repeatedly rises above death at every dramatic turn in the movie. 

Be yourself

I mentioned it at the top and I’ll stand by it: the ultimate lesson of Forrest Gump is to be yourself and never compromise what you believe in, regardless of the hell that you’ve witnessed.

Forrest Gump sees it all — the good, the bad and the ugly — yet when we leave him, he’s feeling as weightless as a feather dancing in the wind.

And because of that freedom on the screen, we, too, are free, if only for a moment — liberated from all of life’s constraints that continuously challenge who we are and what were meant to do.