The horrible hidden truth behind the Secret Life of Walter Mitty that’s keeping you from your dreams.

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.

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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.

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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).

Ben Stiller in a still from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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:

  • photography
  • art
  • writing
  • teaching
  • consulting
  • coaching
  • training
  • 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?

You can.

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.

 

 

About Derek Murphy

Hey there! I'm a philosophy dropout and book cover designer with a PhD in Literature. After spending a decade as a starving artist, I vowed to create the life of freedom my restless spirit demands. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write young adult fantasy novels and do a few editorial critiques to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles. FREE GUIDE: Book Marketing is Dead.

10 comments

  1. Hi Derek.

    I just watched Walter Mitty for the second time, and stumbled upon your article after attempting to clarify that the motto for the Life Magazine in the movie wasn’t actually the motto for the real Life Magazine. Thought I’d let you know I found your site first, because It’s always good to know where your traffic is coming from, right?

    At first, I just started skimming through your article to find my answer. But something caught my eye, so I went back to the beginning to actually read it. I was quite enjoying your writing style, and reading your opinions of the movie, and then I read this:

    “But routine quickly numbs your senses. Work kills your soul. Having a boss is emotionally crippling.”

    I had to read it twice. Just to make sure I hadn’t misread what you’d written, and turned it into my beliefs.

    From that point on that I was not only enjoying your writing, but felt like it was written especially for me. Like a sign from the universe saying “Don’t give up. You’re on the right track.”

    Because in July 2012, after years of being taken for granted in my profession & over 2 years without holidays, I made a few spur of the moment decisions. I quit my job as Manager. I broke up with my girlfriend. I sold my car. I arranged to break my lease. I organized my first passport. And bought myself a plane ticket to Europe. And I’m happy to say that the journey completely changed my life.

    Once I got back home, I noticed that there was a niche market of hostels around the world that didn’t have a dedicated website. There was a couple of crappy blogs, and a few online articles and posts, but no online ‘home’. And I was always taught that if you find a gap in the market, and you can work out a way to fill that gap, there will always be ways to make money.

    So on Boxing Day 2012 I bought the domain name. Then I spent the next 2 months researching these hostels around the world, and then the next 6 months teaching myself about building websites, uploading to servers & and redirecting domains, and Analytics & Adwords, and SEO & affiliate marketing, and elance & Fiverr. Finally, after long days of hard work and a fair bit of luck &/or trail & error, on July 20th 2013, I launched my website.

    I’m proud to say that after only a couple of weeks, my site moved up the rankings to #1 on google searches & has been there ever since, my number of Social Media followers are growing, new & returning traffic numbers are constantly increasing, plus visitors are staying on the site for over 6 minutes on average and viewing 5-10 pages, and I’m actually making money. Sure… it may not be enough to live on just yet, but every month I’m getting more clicks than the last!

    So, if you’ve actually read this far, I just wanted to say thank you… for reminding me that the decisions I’ve made to get here, were the right ones. And that I’m not the only person who believes that “routine quickly numbs your senses, that work kills your soul, and that having a boss is emotionally crippling.”

    Good luck in all your future endeavors, both income-related and travel adventures.

    Cheers,

    Kristian
    http://www.partyhostels.net

    • That’s great, I’ll have to come stay in your hostel sometime.

      I don’t want to come across as saying you must start your own business, quit everything – I know some people who have jobs, houses and the whole package who are very happy. I only meant that, if you aren’t happy, or if you aren’t secure in your job, or if you’re worried about getting fired, you certainly can sell everything and move somewhere cheap and start a business.

    • great idea , good for you!

  2. Agree to disagree. Competent and intelligent people make great worker bees. Nothing wrong with people who prefer stability and an income. They can be excellent workers. But they depend on people like me for jobs. In today’s economy, being very good at your job isn’t good enough. Life is hard. Times are tight. Accidents happen. More and more people are getting screwed. My point in this article is to remind people to take control of their lives; have adventures now; create your own income instead of working for other people. I think my advice is a thousand times more valuable than the feel good, passion-driven enthusiasm the movie promotes. Movies like this, I think I say in the article though I wrote it a long time ago, make people feel good. So they stay in their jobs and live boring lives. It’s opium for the masses. Want to go to Iceland? Start a business, quit your job and move their. Don’t just watch inspirational movies.

    • Hello Derek,

      This is what you get for trying to help. Unreal. You
      can state your intention over and over and people still wont get it.
      They are more interested in trying to win a point than understand. The
      hard truth is life is hard. And if you dont line things up in a smart
      way those beautiful moments Walter experienced will be a very small
      consolation prize for a life that’s a lot longer than a 2 week
      adventure.

      I found you because I was trying to find the Life
      Magazine quote to read it again. As a coincidence..or maybe not, you
      addressed this issue of true freedom that is a central mission in my
      life right now. Im in a pretty desperate situation and I need some
      skills or a vehicle to earn this freedom.

      I have looked into
      online businesses and been thru the mill. If I see one more product that
      sells for 27, 47, 197 Im gonna puke. Everytime I see the price end in 7
      it makes me think “Internet marketing scam”. It may work for most but
      not me. You seem to actually offer some real information and dont sell
      this get rich quick garbage. There’s no fooling search engines or using
      copied content with a different name anymore.

      How can I email you? Either Im blind or its not there anywhere…

  3. Taking a big adventure, a big risk, is tempting for people who have never done it. I’ve been living abroad and traveling for two decades. After years and years of passion-seeking adventure, I realized I was ultimately being selfish. It’s selfish to travel, work just as much as you need to, and have adventures all the time. Fun, yes. You do learn a lot about yourself. For awhile. Then you know yourself and you’re just chasing pleasure. It’s a good beginning; it’s the “Fool” card of the Tarot Deck, heading off for an adventure with one foot stepping off a cliff he can’t see. It’s naïve. If you’ve had a job your whole life and never had any adventures – sure, go have one. Spend your savings. Figure out yourself and what you want to do with your life. Almost certainly – even if you learn about yourself, you’ll have no idea how to make money, and you’ll need to go get a job again (only now that you’ve tasted freedom, you’ll be less happy than ever). As to having the message of the film “all wrong” – I’m on top of the mountain looking down, and you’re at the bottom looking up. I understand that my viewpoint and interpretation of the movie isn’t the standard reading, because my view is vastly different from what you can see. My life is vastly different from typical people who have regular jobs. I start businesses. I employ dozens of people. I help thousands of people publish books, sell art and follow their dreams. I’m choosing to give back, to make an impact, to focus on helping people, instead of just trying to “Find Myself” by having great adventures. I’ve done that. I was Walter Mitty when I was 16 and moved to Argentina, or when I was 18 and moved to Malta, or when I was 23 and moved to Taiwan. I’m older and wiser now. I could live very comfortably on 50K a year, but I couldn’t have the amount of influence I want. With 50K a year, I can help myself and my family – and that’s what most people do. I want 500K a year; 50 for me and 450 so I can do huge things and help tons of people, and build a legacy, and solve problems, and improve the world. So Walter Mitty isn’t my hero – he’s a boring guy who had one great adventure. He represents the dreams of everybody stuck in a boring life and chasing freedom, but it’s an unsustainable dream.

  4. I agree with everything you said, so I’m not sure how you “completely disagree” with my article unless you didn’t read it closely (or maybe I haven’t read it closely, it’s been awhile since I wrote it).
    Agree: travel is a good thing to do, you learn most about yourself from putting yourself in different/challenging situations, but you don’t need to travel to find yourself or enjoy your life.
    Agree: most people are comfortable in their boring jobs.
    Disagree about Walter being able to find other employment – he has one very specialized skill that isn’t relevant anymore. Lots of heart, nice guy, but I can’t think of anything I would hire him for; he would interview very poorly. He doesn’t have an entrepreneurial spirit (the ability to predict future trends and see business opportunities; the necessary technical abilities like making websites and social media; the necessary funding to start something). He might become an artist and move to Vietnam and live cheaply… but no I really don’t expect big things from him. One grand adventure opens your eyes, but doesn’t give you any practical knowledge.

  5. I appreciate your comments, well articulated points. I think my point was, most people who have jobs are too busy to slow down and appreciate things, or don’t have time to. Sure, you can, but it’s easier when you have lots of time and when you’re doing something different/interesting like traveling.

    I had to re-read my article, as I don’t think I would have said people who work in regular jobs are meaningless… and I didn’t.

    I said “Their identities became meaningless” – as in, the magazine putting a picture of their valued employees on the cover doesn’t celebrate or reward their unique achievements or accomplishments, especially as they are getting fired. Their identities don’t matter. Their contributions to the company don’t matter (because all people will ever see is the final product). Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, but can you name the hundreds of employees who put them there, and what they did individually? I’m not saying that their lives are meaningless (they can find meaning in their own lives, as can the people who love them). But their identities are unknown to everyone else: thus, meaningless identities.

    In the same way, I hire people for my companies, to do the things I need them to do. But I can replace them with somebody else to get the same things done. They get a paycheck, but when they finish, they’ll need to find another boss. They don’t get to keep any of the value they produce. The point of this article – the main thing I’m trying to recommend – is that you create you own value for yourself and control your own time and finances. I’m not sure why that’s such a difficult message for people to accept. It seems really obvious to me. Everybody else I know is struggling paycheck to paycheck and worried about being laid off. And they’re tired because they work all the time. If that’s the lifestyle you choose, that’s fine. Whatever makes you happy. It didn’t make me happy, so I chose to learn how to make my own income from anywhere. Now I’m trying to help others who want to do the same thing. I don’t think that makes me jaded, or depressed, or cynical.

  6. Walter is the ghost cat. A thing of beauty that doesn’t seek attention. He works behinds the scene and gets the job done. We go through great lengths to find something beautiful and in the end we realize that that beauty is within us all along