On the surface, the Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a movie with values I can get behind.
A boring photo-processor daydreams about epic adventures because he’s too scared and socially awkward to actually do anything.
He’s made fun of, ignored and taken for granted. He’s supporting his mom and his dead-beat actress sister; a duty he took on at 17 after the sudden death of his father. But when tragedy strikes (an important photo negative – the one chosen for the cover of Life Magazine – goes missing) Walter determines to track it down, and goes out and actually has some amazing experiences of his own – from shark attacks in Greenland to volcanic eruptions in Iceland to snow leopards in Afghanistan.
He meets his guru-like doppelganger, the famous photographer Sean O’Connell, who teaches him how to live in the moment of pure appreciation – perfect moments need to be appreciated fully, consciously, deliberately – not with a thought towards capturing and sharing via photography.
He fails his quest, because (spoiler alert) Sean mailed him the photo already, but put it inside a gift wallet meant for Walter… which has since been thrown away. So, just like in Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist – the thing you really need is the thing you already have, you just need to learn to take a closer look. You don’t need to travel around the world, you had what you wanted all the time.
Luckily, his mother kept the wallet and returns it to him. He’s able to challenge his ex-boss/nemesis – now sporting a fine beard of his own to symbolize his new found masculine assertiveness and power – return the photo and save the day.
The movie ends with the discovery that the photo was actually a picture of Walter at work, as a tribute to the workers who made Life possible. He and his romantic interest hold hands and walk towards the camera, for a bittersweet ending – demonstrating how much his confidence has grown, but that he’s got nowhere else to go.
The tragically depressing conclusion hiding in plain sight…
Part of what makes Walter so boring is that he keeps scrupulous accounts of his finances. This is a habit that doesn’t get discarded – he keeps it up in an Icelandic Papa John’s, but then seems to have a conversion experience or spiritual awakening. He needs to get outside because the cups were bothering him; the fake, superficial plasticity of an international food chain – which also happened to be his first job ever – makes him realize working for money and counting all your spendings and savings is stupid.
Life isn’t about such trivial financial concerns; it’s about adventure and feeling and relationships.
This message is reaffirmed through creative representation of the Life Magazine motto several times:
“To see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to, to draw closer, to see and be amazed.”
The Secret of Life of Walter Mitty takes the form of a hero’s quest, where the protagonist goes on an adventure to learn about himself and returns newly empowered, forever changed, a master of his own universe.
Except at the movie’s conclusion, Walter Mitty – with two dependents – has just been fired and picked up his final severance package. He’s unemployed and sitting in a coffee shop and working on his resume (it lists all his new adventures, which may help him get winks on a dating network but won’t actually land him a job).
He has a new girlfriend, with a son of her own, who also got fired.
Although he worked at Life for a long time, his role was obscure and his real-life film processing skills are unlikely to be needed now that everything is going digital.
And since he’s been showing us his finances, we know he just spent most of his savings on his life-fulfilling but unnecessary trip. He’s obviously broke – he paid thousands of dollars to move his mother into a bigger apartment that would fit her piano, but when he returns from his trip he’s forced to sell it!
He apologizes for failing his family – it was his responsibility as breadwinner but he screwed up.
It’s great that he’s found love and the meaning of life, but what’s he going to do now? With his resume, in this economy, he’ll be lucky to get a job working at Papa John’s again. He’ll need to work overtime, and if he saves really carefully maybe he can afford to travel somewhere exotic once a year (not likely, while he’s still supporting his family).
In short, Walter ends up just like the majority of people: chained to jobs they don’t love, fantasizing about adventures they can’t afford, and utterly stuck.
I predict he’ll start day-dreaming again real soon.
If you aren’t creating something new, you’re replaceable
Walter was lucky in the movie to somehow make an impression on Sean O’Connell. He’s a “partner” in Sean’s creative genius – by helping Sean show off his best awe-inspiring photography. This gives Walter purpose and meaning. Except he isn’t really a partner. He’s replaceable. Sean is the real talent, which is why Sean makes a lot of money, has total freedom, absolute power, and is really living the dream.
The Secret Life of Walter Moody seems to be saying, “There’s more to life than this! Go out and live your dreams!” but it also keeps your focus on the unhappy truth – you can’t, because you are living from paycheck to paycheck, and you need a job to survive.
The final Life cover featuring the “regular employees” like Walter who made the publication possible, is doubly sad because it also represents the loss of thousands of jobs when the magazine folded anyway, and all their hard work, all their beliefs and commitment, ultimately didn’t matter.
Their identities became meaningless. And in the real world, they would never have gotten the surprise thanks and appreciation Walter was rewarded with.
Walter took the moral high road in returning the negative even after he was fired, but the road leads him towards a life of poverty. Walter confronts his ex-boss by saying, I understand you need to come in here and do your job…. “but you don’t have to be a dick about it.” He could have said “I have the final photo – I demand $50,000.” He could have refused to play along with Life’s condescending tribute to him by destroying the negative (you fire me and then use me as a token example of how you appreciate your employees, even while laying off so many people? WTF?)
For me, Walter’s new romantic relationship feels like a half-hearted consolation prize in the face of absolutely tragic failure and sheer powerlessness.
The conclusion seems to say “You should go take a short adventure, so you can hurry up and get back here and keep working for The Man.”
Don’t be Walter Mitty, be Sean O’Connell
Sure you can learn to take mini vacations (although you’re not really experiencing foreign cultures or places if you only do tourist traps). Sure you can be happy through relationships and Cinnabons and memories of past experiences. But routine quickly numbs your senses. Work kills your soul. Having a boss is emotionally crippling.
To truly live life you need unexpected, extremely challenging situations – and this happens most often when traveling to new places (ideally on your own). Walter Mitty used some skateboarding skills to impress his girl and get down a mountain (which didn’t matter, because somebody with a car totally had to save his ass anyway). But then the trip ended and he was worse off than when he started.
When Life closed, Walter lost everything.
But how about Sean? He’ll find a new magazine to work with. Or sell a photography book himself. Or make an online photography course. He’ll keep courageously chasing the ghost cats of the world, playing soccer with locals and having an incredible life, because he’s built up a successful platform around his name and his work.
So Walter Mitty shouldn’t be your role model. Quitting your job and spending your savings traveling the world is a really dumb move.
What you need to be doing is developing a creative skill – something that produces something of value that other people want and appreciate. And then making a name for yourself with it.
Here are a few ideas:
- making websites
- graphic design
In fact, you don’t really need any skills at all; you can hire someone on fiverr.com or elance to make something for you. All you need is the idea.
It’s not so hard to start a business and make more money than you had with your day job, while enjoying absolute freedom in your schedule. I’ve doubled my income twice in the last three years. But you also can’t get very rich, and you have to work very hard.
It’s a much better idea to make something that can be scaled, like art prints or a book. You want to make a product that people can buy and receive without you having to actually deliver it to them. You want multiple streams of passive income.
How to get started living the life of your dreams
All it takes to start is an idea.
Set up a website explaining your idea and start charging. This lets you test whether your idea is really good enough to sell. You can also set up a Kickstarter project to test the demand. You’ll probably need to make a working prototype to show off before you get sales or backers.
Keep trying until you make some money – even just $20. Once you know you’ve got an idea that people will pay for, you can build it up, improve it, expand it, and systematize it so that you’ve got a life-saving stream of passive income coming in. Then you can quit you job and focus on building something else. Make more and more things and see your income grow – there’s really no limit.
You can start off backpacking in Thailand and end up living on a cruise ship in Greece (I did both last year, along with extended adventures in Mexico, China, Turkey and Poland).
What you can’t do is fulfill your fantasies through monthly inspirational movies like The Secret Life of Walter Smitty. In fact, if you quit watching TV and going to movies, and instead set the same amount of time and money away for building your own business, you’d have everything you need.
Let’s say that works out to 10 hours and $50/month.
That’s enough to get started on a business that gives your life passion, meaning and purpose.
Hire someone on fiverr.com to make business cards and a website header. Pay someone else to put together an ebook.
Put in the time and do the work; with those 10 hours a month, you’ll have 120 hours each year – more than enough time to finish a big project. And the $600 savings will be enough to give it a pretty solid launch.
Wouldn’t you like to start your own business and make your own passive income streams by the end of 2014?
But most people are too lazy and unimaginative. Most people are Walters. Being successful takes effort, and you must be willing to do the work.
PS) I’ve turned off comments from this post, because even though it’s several years old I get weekly hatemail from people who disagree and think I’m an asshole for writing this. I don’t need that in my life. This article was written to help people understand how to take control over their lives and stop being victims – if you had a different interpretation of the movie, great! You do you.