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.


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.

Life isn’t about 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.


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


This article was written to help people understand how to take control over their lives and stop being slaves to a work wage or a dying industry. I argued that Sean O’Connel, the consummate artist, was the true hero of the film. However, the comments helped me see that there can be beauty and value in small moments for people who choose to work full-time jobs.

Not everyone wants to work online, become a digital nomad and travel the world.

 The “horrible hidden truth” of the movie was that most people are Walters, stuck in jobs they hate, feeling broke and powerless – being replaced by quickly changing technologies that leave their special skill set obsolete. The solution, for some people, is to create their own wealth by building a platform and a side hustle that generates income (that’s the path I’m on).

For other people, the truth of the movie might just be that we need to take more chances in life or appreciate the opportunities we’ve been given. It’s about slowing down and being grateful.

What ever path you’re on, you’re exactly where you need to be.

But if you feel a yearning to live your adventure, connect on a deeper level, and produce a massive amount of value that gives you the freedom to live anywhere and spend 100% of your time doing what you love, I hope you’ll stick around.

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.


  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.



    • 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

      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