14 Learning and Development Lessons from Stranger Things

Stranger Things, Netflix’s hit series, taps into our inner nerd, our 80’s fan, and educates us on education. Just wrapping its second season, here are some L&D lessons to be learned….

Lesson 1:  See things ‘Upside Down’

Sometimes we all need to change our perception of what we deem as reality, because there’s an ‘Upside Down’ for everything. Not everything is as it seems, especially where emotion (and emotion is attached to everything) alters perception. So, we all need a different perspective in life and in business, whether it’s with your instructional design, training program, or content.

Even the name of the show’s alternate universe, that is the ‘Upside Down’ suggests that the place is more like another face of our world with opposite degrees, temperatures and views. It brings to focus the importance of looking at a situation from another lens.  The frustrations of being stuck and caught up in the same views and approaches to learning problems, ideas and opportunities are all too palpable. This can be stagnating and detrimental to achieving learning goals. How do you get that new perspective on every day training problems?

Look Outside

Although businesses vary from industry to industry, they often share the same kinds of challenges, and in turn, solutions. Expose yourself to industries and models different than your own. You may discover a solution you hadn’t considered.

Reach out to L&D partners who have experience across many industries including your own, and can provide you with valuable advice and options you haven’t thought of previously. Escape stale perceptions about your business and talk to eLearning partners, even a 15-minute consultation can provide you with frontline feedback. They’ll tell you about their experience with different solutions and like organizations, and also about their challenges and opportunities. These conversations allow you to recognize any false assumptions you might have had and help you create a solution that is actually valuable to your trainees and program.

Look Within

Your employees bring diverse experience and perspective. Open up discussion across all departments and levels. You may be surprised by the innovative approaches that rise to the top given a supportive environment. (Faulkner, J.)

Lesson 2: Be Brave and Overcome your Fears

Don’t run from problems because it will never solve them. Fear manifests itself in all situations and the real enemy is in the threats that drive two very primal human emotions – worry and fear. These are usually far worse than the reality. This brave group of characters show us that by facing their fears, they learn a lot about and gain huge insights into themselves and each other. A great example of this is the Mr. Baldo story where Will gets advice to stop running from his fears. (Saint, C.)

Fear is the one emotion that can destabilize you and hinder progress. There will always be times where fear depletes your momentum. The loveable geeky group of friends in ‘Stranger Things’ overcome monumental fear and obstacles by embracing the journey into the unknown and the dark mysterious dangers of the Upside Down. But they always come out successful and stronger. We see this most clearly in Eleven, who despite her initial fears, faces them bravely, and gains more strength and hones her skills with every conflict she faces. (Chichester, L.)

Lesson 3: Tap Into your Inner Child’s Imagination

Throughout Stranger Things, we are urged to consider the power of imagination. Creative imagination can be accessed in moments of slow or idle time, and help us look at problems from different perspectives. Imagination pervades our entire existence, influences everything we do and allows us to create. It leads to elaborate theories, dreams and inventions in any profession from the realms of academia to engineering and the arts. Like in stranger things, their ability to imagine takes the characters to great heights. The takeaway here is to be creative always.

Lesson 4:  Every Journey is About Growth

The young protagonists in the show are purposefully written to be pre-teens, in a coming-of-age time. They toggle crazily between childhood and maturity.  The story-line focuses on their growth from youth to adulthood specifically while overcoming great obstacles. There are multiple parallel stories that run through the show including the typical ordinary challenges and problems that face kids, as well as the more extraordinary fantastical larger-scale dangers of the Upside Down. Like real businesses today, they’re facing micro and macro challenges and problems.

They’re still children where they can quickly believe in the unseen, believe in each other, believe in their pure selves, and use their imagination to navigate the new foreign worlds of the Upside Down as well as adulthood. But they’re old enough to make rational decisions and learning to control their emotions to be useful. Eleven, for example demonstrates this by learning to control her anger and direct the emotion for positive purposes.

So ultimately the show, like all training programs, is about learning and growth which includes making mistakes and learning from them. The characters are all faulty, they’re not perfect, they all make mistakes but they do learn from them. They don’t allow their failures to stump them and they just keep moving forward.

Lesson 5: Think Quality Not Quantity

The show is an intensely immersive experience. Like the 80’s setting and the many 80’s references imbued in the show, it draws on how the 80’s generation consumed and experienced movies wholly. That is why the show resonates with this generation so well.

In fact, the immersion does not simply end after a session, but you find yourself converted into a hardcore fan. The story really sucks you into the next episode and the culture beyond the show. The strategy for creating hype around ‘Stranger Things’ was expertly done, proving that small-scale and high-quality trumps any barrage of low-quality content. Marketing efforts have even allowed fans to take part in interactive experiences beyond the show, such as an online interactive experience in the basement featured on the show. This proves that that quality not quantity in content always triumphs. (Hollom, B.)

Lesson 6: Be United in the Collective Journey

The kids from Stranger Things are a tight crew, and their intense friendship is at the very core of why the team gels so well. The strength of their team rests in their oft-repeated mantra across both seasons of the show that “friends don’t lie”. “And the proverbial glue that binds them is Eleven, making the whole group much greater than the sum of its parts. Together equals stronger.” They communicate well, learn to disagree on things and accomplish their missions united in a collective journey of learning, growth and accomplishments. They are united, band together, trust and defend each other implicitly. (Chichester, L.)

Honest communication between human beings becomes sacred, because it’s the only way any of them will survive the chaos surrounding them. They won’t get through it alone.

What is more, the skills or powers of each individual combine to work collectively. For example, Mike, is known as the Dungeon Master because of his encyclopedic knowledge of Dungeons & Dragons which helps with the many puzzles the team has to unravel. Dustin’s alias is the Compass Genius because he has innate geographical and mapping skills.

As a group they band together and don’t go it alone. The strength of as all successful teams lies in the unity of the team which serves as a safety net for when the things get tough. Whether playing Dungeons and Dragons or building a great team, banding together provides for a much-needed support system. (Blackman, S.)

Lesson 7: Tap into Emotion

It is always important to make an emotional connection with your audience. Like the nostalgic leveraging of Stranger Things, where they use the power of nostalgia of the 80’s, you need to make an emotional connection with your audience, regardless of what kind of training you have. Emotion is what moves people to change their behavior, and do what you want them to do.

Because different people have different emotions about same events there is a lot of variation. With emotional appeal you need to be very clear who you’re appealing to, and how you want them to feel in association with your message. For example, when appealing to the desire to feeling of accomplishment, you want to focus on positive emotions related to it and how it make them feel.

Lesson 8: Every Generation Has Something to Offer

The generational groups in the show pan over all ages, and the heroes include not only the kids but also their parents and the older siblings.  Each group understands, experiences and approaches the same problems differently. But once their diverse paths cross, together they bring in their different skillsets and knowledge to successfully defeat the Demogorgon. In organizations training managers have to consolidate older and newer generations, and figure out how knowledge and skills can exchange between generations. Understanding that each group has had diverse experiences and paths to the same space, the differences can be positive when bringing it all together.

Lesson 9: Analog and Digital are Complimentary

Stranger Things propels us back to the analog world of the ’80’s before the digitization of everything we rely on today. Before computers started to dominate science and technology, virtually every measuring instrument was analog. The setting of the show takes place in the 80’s where we’re at the intersection between analog and digital. In the show reality is analog, and we’re urged to reflect on the differences between that time and now, and about our own transition to digital (as well as the characters in the show and their personal evolution).  In the show, there is no internet, they characters are in an analog world. The kids belong to the A.V. club, they rely on walkie talkies and radio to communicate, and there is no internet to use for their research.  The Upside Down itself, is the analog of reality. It’s not the same thing as reality itself: it’s a representation or an analogy of it. Just as an analog watch is not time itself but the representation of it.(Martel, J.F)

As L&D professionals, we often deal with the convergence of the analog and digital. In eLearning, Instructional design and training, we toggle between digital and analog.

“In the L&D context, on the job learning (such as working with tools, applications, documentation etc. while working on the field or in office) is more analog as it does not involve specific training intervention (especially digital ones like eLearning). It is more about applying what one has have learned through a previous training. While digital technology refers to the mobile/web-based or blended training developed and delivered through digital platforms to those employees as enablers. Enabling digital learning technologies compliment on the job learning and performance. This also indicates that digital learning finally converts into analog learning and performance.”  – Sachin Nandwani

Lesson 10: Be Real, Be Authentic

Being authentic has become a very important part of doing business, everyone talks about it. But what does that mean for your training? Being authentic is about delivering on your promises, in relation to your employees and your customers. It’s about defining your brand, mission and goals so that they will connect with all your stakeholders.

Rustin Hanks, the CEO of TapInfluence says authenticity works because:

  • It elevates your business above the competition
  • It builds your identity and image into something influential
  • It gives substance to your business, services, and products
  • It enables people to relate to your business
  • It helps people understand how what you offer is of benefit to them
  • It tells people that what you offer is of high quality
  • It marks you out as a reliable, trustworthy company
  • It encourages engagement and can turn audiences into advocates

(Faulkner, J. Beyond the Binge: 4 Business Lessons from Stranger Things)

If you’ve read our point about tapping into emotion, you’ll remember that nostalgia is an important part of the show, and authenticity is a critical part of getting it just right. One example of its authenticity is the set of the show which is truly authentic using real props from the 80’s.  This level of authenticity helps deepen the emotional connection viewers have with Stranger Things. It evokes feelings of respect and admiration for the show for committing to this level of authenticity and for treating the viewers’ memories with such care and attention to detail.

Success in business is all about people, with its people as its biggest competitive advantage. Internal branding is about connecting your people with your external brand. It’s about aligning them to the brand to ensure they understand and live the company mission. Authenticity, or being ‘real’ reinforces your brand among your employees, which is the best way to engage them and nurture their passion and success. Be real, be genuine and you’ll get to keep their attention and earn their trust.

Lesson 11: You Don’t Have to be Big to be Mighty

“It’s not the CIA, or the cops, or the adults who save the day in Stranger Things. It’s the kids. Yes, the adults get involved later on but really, it’s the kids who figure out there’s something very wrong in Hawkins and are very determined to start putting plans into action. And then there’s Eleven, a small, young, waifish girl who wields incredibly strong and special powers. But nobody would know by looking at her.” (Faulkner, J)

Relating this example to creating a great training program, you really don’t have to be Big to be Mighty. You’ll just need to be goal-oriented and purposeful to effectively gain learning goals and outcomes.

Some training and development projects can be complex with multi-dimensional learning needs. When you do the puzzle work and put the pieces together to create seamless, organized and easy-to-use training software. Training programs can be workable across departments and applicable to various situations. You can turn your complex instructional needs into effortless, simple, seamless, user-friendly solutions through strategic planning and development. There is great eLearning software to solve complex problems and facilitate learning, to maximize results for both learners and training managers. (Faulkner, J.)

Lesson 12: Normalcy is Overrated

It’s okay not to be normal. Normalcy is overrated and never got us anywhere.  The lovable, strange and often nerdy characters of Stranger things are shining examples of how to bring just the right amount of outlandish heart to the personality of your training. Each training program comes with its unique set of challenges and needs. With the help of L&D partners, your businesses’ own unique character and experiences equip you for solving training problems within your organization’s parameters. The competitive advantage of being different is differentiation.

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently.”  – Steve Jobs

“This could well have been written with her character in mind. She’s quirky, uber-talented and somewhat scary at times but she is also undeniably brave.” (Blackman, S.)

Lesson 13: You Always Need to be Prepared

“You still have that bat?… The one with the nails?”- Dustin

Like Steve Harrington, you always need to be prepared. (Chapman, H.) The likelihood of success at any obstacle is directly correlated to how prepared you are, your team’s strength, its management and the strength of the leader. We see this as the “human element” which is the core to successful projects including. The show truly depicts how the humans and their ‘human elements’, their emotions, their empathy, their skills, their ability for reflection and learning, are what help them triumph over the monsters. All pivotal to being ready for D-Day (Demogorgan/Day One?) or in L&D, Day One Readiness. How can L&D managers prepare for day one? Here are some ideas:

  • Organizational Change Management
  • Preceptors (Train-the-Trainers, Superusers)
  • Logistics, User-centric Content
  • Deliberate Practice
  • Digital Delivery Platforms
  • Realtime On-the-job Support.

Lesson 14: Move Beyond the Binary

“Collective journey tells us that the struggle of good against evil is too highly contrasted to describe the myriad shades of grey that is the actual world in which most of us live. What’s right and what’s wrong? Who’s beliefs are virtuous?” The cast of Stranger Things show us that victory is about doing what’s right, not about being right. Joyce realizes that people will think she’s crazy when she discovers her son Will is in the Upside Down. But she doesn’t focus on convincing people she’s right, she just does it. The kids of show don’t even bother explaining their findings about the Eleven and the Upside Down to the grownups, because they know their disbelief or opinions will be a new obstacle to their cause. They just know what they right thing to do is and do it.

There are many alternative perspectives to problems and there isn’t always a singular answer. As Jeff Gomez says, “Systemic challenges cannot truly be resolved by one side soundly defeating all others, or by one side solving the crisis by themselves.”  If we are to affect change in our people or work environment, we need to come together. The more people look to battle a singular villain (or issue), the longer it will take us to achieve real change. Instead of taking a position that claims to be “on the right side of history”, L&D managers should direct their energies into creating a better present for their people and communities they have the power to impact. (Saint, C.)

For more training lessons from Star Wars, read ‘Epic Lessons Trainers Can Derive from the Force’


Chapman, H. Netflix’s Stranger Things: 5 Recruitment Lessons:

Faulkner, J. Beyond the Binge: 4 Business Lessons from Stranger Things,

Martel, J.F. Reality is Analog: Philosophizing with Stranger Things / Part Three

Blackman, S. 6 Must-Know Lessons We Can All Learn From ‘Stranger Things’:

Chichester, L.  Five lessons marketers can learn from Stranger Things Two:

Saint, C. A Few Lessons For Entrepreneurs From Stranger Things:

Wren, C. 3 Brand Lessons From Stranger Things:

Hollom, B. Stranger Things – Content Marketing Lessons From The Upside Down:

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    Dina El Kharouf

    Comments 6

    1. Great article, great research!

      • Thanks, Indresh!

    2. Dina, this is a great insight and very relevant for all L&D professionals.. Thanks for sharing!

      • My pleasure, Sachin! This was a very fun write 🙂

    3. This is one of the most amazing reads of mine till date,i am a huge fan of Stranger Things and this just adds up to the big picture of how to make learning fun.Thanks for delivering it so nicely.

      • Thank you for the great comment Arushi! Glad you enjoyed the read 🙂

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