Anyone who spent time daydreaming as a kid – and that means all of us – knows that there is a hero inside everyone waiting to get out. So all you daydreamers out there, here’s a kick-in-the-pants list of life lessons from the latest movie version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
A HERO will be imagined until made real. Or conversely, if the hero is not made real, he will be imagined. Walter Mitty is a daydreamer on an epic – some might say pathological – scale. It’s his default setting and kicks in when he wants to approach a girl, for example, or make a powerful statement to his work colleagues. Just as he’s about to open his mouth, he “zones out”. Instead of making his move, he freezes while his mind concocts some great superhero fantasy instead – a fantasy in which the hero does way more than is needed to actually impress and connect with the girl or challenge the colleague in real life.
When the movie opens we find a timid, grey man who works as a filing clerk, managing the negatives for Life magazine. Life is about to print its last issue before it goes digital. Our man gets mocked by his arrogant new bosses for his flights into fantasy. Luckily for him the girl he’s after sees blithely past it and talks to the real person – the hero – that we know is hidden inside him. Of course, this prompts his inner hero to awaken, and the way it happens reflects some deep truths about how life works, about how we can break free and what happens when we do.
Here are seven life truths reflected in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
WARNING! MOVIE SPOILERS!
1. Life is always giving you what you need, so trust the challenges it presents
Walter’s heroic journey, when it comes, appears to be forced on him by life circumstances – or, we could say, for the sake of a pun, by Life Magazine circumstances: in order to save his job he has to go on a quest to find the negative of the image that has been chosen for the final cover of the magazine, which appears to have been lost.
To decipher the cryptic clues he has, Walter decides to go to the source who provided them (and who provided the negative): the photojournalist Sean O’Connell, played by Sean Penn. However, O’Connell spends his time in remote and dangerous corners of the world and is hard to trace. In other words, the journey Walter has to go on is about as far from his current life as it would be possible to go. He could easily say, “No, this is not for me.” He could easily withdraw, give up and get punished instead. After all, he’s likely to lose his job anyway, so what’s there to fight for? In his case it’s honour – and a little bit to impress the girl.
By embracing your difficulties you grow outwardly to become the hero that you know yourself inwardly to be
However, if we look deeper, we see that the threatening boss and the girl whom he wants to impress have both only recently joined the company, so they’re new to his world. They’ve come in like a hurricane and turned everything upside down. We often say that, “People come into our lives for a reason”; or, “When the pupil is ready the teacher appears”. In this case, when the adventurer is ready, the boss and the girl – and the crisis of the lost negative – appears. You get the sense that whatever sparks his journey has been growing in him for some time and now it suddenly erupts as outer circumstances. This points to the natural law best summed up by the early 20th Century self-help writer James Allen: “Difficulties do not spring into existence arbitrarily and accidentally; they have their causes, and are called forth by the law of evolution itself, by the growing necessities of a man’s being.”
In other words, the crises in our lives are in fact challenges being issued by our own subconscious in order to bring to the surface some hitherto unrecognised part of ourselves – our inner hero.
So rejoice when life gives you difficulties. They’re created out of your own subconscious anyway, so they’re part of you, they’re not separate from you. By embracing them and understanding them, you grow outwardly to become the hero that you know yourself inwardly to be.
2. Decide, and act, without hesitation
There is always this point at the beginning of a hero’s journey, when the hero can say no. It’s almost de rigueur that life will test you; you will hesitate, and with your decision to go forward – or not – you will prove yourself worthy of the journey – or not. This decision is usually made under a lot of pressure. There are usually a lot of good reasons to turn back – and there is usually not a lot of time for the decision: a situation will arise where it must be made on the spot.
In the beginning stages of his adventure, Walter is called upon several times to act immediately or lose the chance. The first of these is when he realises he might have to take a dangerous flight out to sea with a drunk helicopter pilot. Our man zones out, but instead of performing a heroic act in his daydream, he is acted upon: the girl of his dreams steps up onto the karaoke stage and sings to him. The song she chooses is David Bowie’s Major Tom, which was used derogatorily by his new boss, but which she has pointed out is about a man being called upon to step beyond his own limitations. Hearing the song, Walter takes the chance and jumps aboard the helicopter. He survives, only to get challenged again to act without hesitation when he gets ordered to jump out of the helicopter and into the boat. He gets this horribly wrong – yet still survives. A third challenge arises (the bicycle) where he gets it right, and so on.
The helping hand of fate is invoked at the moment of choice, and that choice must be followed by action
Paulo Coelho wrote in The Alchemist about “beginner’s luck”, that there will always a be little helping hand at the start of a journey to one’s destiny. Shakespeare said it thus: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” What neither man pointed out was that this helping hand of fate is invoked at that moment of choice, and that the choice must be followed by action. As Tony Robbins famously says, “I never leave the scene of a decision without taking one significant action.”
The German philosopher Goethe said that, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” Author Napoleon Hill puts it even more bluntly: “Life is a draughts board, and the player opposite you is time. If you hesitate before moving, or neglect to move promptly, your draughts will be wiped off the board by time. You are playing against a partner who will not tolerate indecision!” P.T Barnum in The Art of Money Getting, said, “If you hesitate, some bolder hand will stretch out before you and get the prize.”
You get the point, just as Walter does.
3. Nothing is ever a problem – the road is always rising to meet you
We notice how the road rises up to meet the hero when he is in action, even when things go wrong. In fact, sometimes a solution flows precisely from the event preceding it having apparently gone wrong. When Walter messes up – for example, when he jumps out of the helicopter and lands in the water instead of the boat and loses the radio components – things still work out. In fact the lost radio components mean they have to stop in at a port. It turns out that very port is the next place he needs to be anyway. Admittedly it’s scripted, but we could say that the script is smart and reflects reality, that it reflects the ways in which everything is always working out for the best. “All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred,” said Everest explorer W. H. Murray when talking about the flow that arises out of a commitment to a certain course of action.
Another example: in the first scene of the movie, the “wink” button on the dating website doesn’t work when Walter clicks on it. This problem puts him in contact with the tech support person for that website, and later in the movie that same guy saves Walter from a difficult situation. Once again, an apparent problem has the seeds of the ultimate solution wrapped up in it. Nothing is ever wrong.
4. Focus your attention outward
Walter’s luck, and his life, changes when he stops trying to solve his own problem – of connectedness and trying to get the girl – and attempts to solve a very real problem out there in the world. He has to find the missing negative for the magazine’s last cover before it goes digital. And when he does that, then everything happens for him. While he was stuck in fantasy he couldn’t get any flow. For example, the “wink” button not working on the dating website. Whereas later on, when he is in flow, his mother turns up with his wallet, which he had thrown away but which we find has become rather crucial.
5. Do more than is asked of you
Walter goes way beyond the call of duty. He does what Wallace D. Wattles, author of The Science of Getting Rich, called “efficient action”, by which he meant you should “more than fill your space”. In other words, doing more than is required of you in any given situation. According to Wattles, the process of achieving your goals is driven by having a vision which you write down and refer to perhaps once a day. Perhaps you pray about it or visualize it. Then you put it away and return to your current daily activities, and while doing them, you “more than fill your space”. You do more than is asked of you. You give your very best and then some. In this way you expand your energy field. You become a magnet for that thing that you have envisioned. Of course, you still have to take action for it. You still have to look for the job, put out your CV, whatever is required, but your chances of attracting what you have expressed in your vision are greatly increased when you expand your energy field by taking “efficient action”.
6. Be present, and surrendered to life
Naturally Walter finds Sean O’Connell, the photographer. It’s a beautiful scene, set high in the Himalayas. O’Connell has found a snow leopard, an extremely rare occurrence, and he has the creature lined up in his telephoto lens. However, O’Connell doesn’t take the shot that he’s climbed the Himalayas and spent days waiting for. First he shares the sight through the lens with Walter, then when Walter asks if he’s going to take the picture he says no, the moment itself is too perfect and he just wants to be a part of it. Instead he leaves his camera and goes off and plays soccer with some locals.
This scene with O’Connell is a beautiful, artful and subtle expression of how he just lets the current of life carry him and is utterly present in the moment. He is available to experience joy and to be swept up by it. He’s not worried about losing, only about living, and so the message seems to be that he does what he does for the experience first, and the great photographs come almost as a by-product. If he was worried about losing, instead of living, he would probably not be the great photographer that he is. Earlier we had seen him – we presume it’s him – standing on the wings of a biplane photographing a volcano as it erupted, an incredible feat of trust and surrender and we presume without ego, just doing what he does. In the movie The Bang Bang Club a young photographer tries to join the so-called “club” of photojournalists who cover the township violence. He gets killed on his first day. You get the sense that this young guy was there for ego reasons, to prove or be part of something, and that that is how life treats such actions. You get the sense, too, that O’Connell, like the other photographers in The Bang Bang Club, is not there for his ego’s sake. He is surrendered to the process of life. He trusts life, and trusts that things will happen for him the way they need to – and, judging by his success, they seem to.
Flow happens when we are in the egoless state
This is the lesson that Walter is learning. In fact, just when things seem to be going for Walter, he loses presence and wipes out his bicycle – another illustration of how the moment of flow gets destroyed when you become aware of yourself in any situation. The saying “pride comes before a fall” points to this phenomenon. Flow happens when we are in the egoless state. You could say that O’Connell spends his life mostly in that state and this is confirmed when you finally get to see the cover shot he has chosen for the last issue: his choice reflects a humble appreciation for people.
7. Reality is messy – and it’s where miracles happen
The standout theme of the movie is that of fantasy versus reality. Fantasy happens in the inner mental realm; reality is “out there”. We all read that thought is so powerful and how you can “manifest your dreams” and yet we see that stuff that happens in the mental realm, if it is not accompanied by action, has no effect on reality. While he is dreaming, Walter is not moving, not present, not available to reality at all. Nothing happens – except that he gets laughed at. His actions, when they eventually happen, produce results and move him forward, physically and psychologically.
Extreme withdrawal of Walter’s kind is indicative of a psychological problem, but we are all somewhere on the continuum from this kind of dreaming to unconsidered action. We dream about doing stuff that we never do, and we avoid the challenges that life throws at us. Watching sport on TV, for example, is the modern way of being stuck in fantasy – we unconsciously project ourselves into the performance and become over-identified with the outcome, while we sit on a couch doing nothing.
In fantasy we can experience the world as perfect, whereas in reality it’s messy. Things never work out quite how we had planned them. In fantasy your team always wins; in reality, not. Mostly, we anticipate that things will work out worse, and that’s the reason for the fantasy in the first place: it’s a way to avoid the outcomes we imagine and fear; it’s a way of not discovering our own finite limitations.
The real world is marvellous precisely because it is so unpredictable, unmanageable and imperfect
Ironically, if you get stuck in fantasy for long enough – in other words if you avoid discovering your limitations for long enough – your limitations will find you. Your chips will be wiped off the board as Napoleon Hill suggests. Then your reality becomes worse than the reality you tried to avoid. At that point you can either go deeper into fantasy – and that will ultimately point you to the ideal world of heaven, which death can take you to – or it can spit you out into the real world, the world of action and imperfection, which is where Walter finds himself.
The real world is marvellous precisely because it is so unpredictable, unmanageable and imperfect. It’s only in that environment that moments of awe can arise, like the snow leopard sighting in the Himalayas, which is so wonderful precisely because it is so rare and achieved with such difficulty.
As Walter discovers, the hero made real is in some ways more mundane than the imagined version – he can’t fly, for example, but has to ride a bicycle – and yet is more greatly heroic precisely because he overcomes his earthly limitations. The real world is perfect too, just more challenging. Ultimately things flow and work out.
What’s your Walter Mitty adventure?
The question arises, What would be your Walter Mitty adventure? It doesn’t have to be literally jumping out of a plane into Arctic waters, but it would be something where you extend yourself, commit yourself, and then are forced to take whatever steps are necessary to move forward. Put yourself into an “impossible”, no-way-out situation where you risk everything and make it work from there. Think about just “hitting the road”, whatever that means for you; solving a real problem that exists out there in the world, and trusting that you will always have somewhere to lay your head, and that each problem that arises might just contain the seed of the next solution.