The Tao of Innovation

Insights for the modern business samurai

The Secret of Life by Walter Mitty

An unique and beautiful film that offers wisdom to an attention deficit world

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the new version that features the acting and directing talent of Ben Stiller, is a rare, unique, and truly beautiful film. Other film critics have remarked that it lacks in deeper thematic points and plotting, but its understated acting and pacing insures a clarity and simplicity that few over-the-top award season films can match. American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street aim to be bigger than life, but this film shows that the reality of life is plenty big enough all on its own.

More important, this is a spiritual film—not religious, yet deeply spiritual—because it quietly celebrates the pronounced joy and healing nature of being fully present. A Zen master or cognitive behavioral psychologist (see PT blogs by Ellen Langer or Tara Brach) could not have made a better movie to explain how beautiful and resilient and overwhelming the present moment can be, once we open ourselves up to it. In fact, the film is so spiritual that the protagonist even has to climb a mountain in the Himalayas to meet his master.

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This film is also exceptional in that it is superior to its predecessor, a film adaptation of James Thurber’s short story, made in 1947 and starring Danny Kaye and adhering more closely to the original story. And it’s also better than the short story, in my opinion. Instead of a main character who is intrinsically weak and emasculated by shrill female caricatures, Stiller instead examines the life of a man with great potential who has sacrificed his dreams to support his family after the death of his bankrupt father. From “Tuesday to Thursday,” he cut his hair, got a job, and shrank into a shadow of his true self. Also, the new antagonist is the dreaded layoff consultant, zealfully portrayed by Adam Scott (Parks & Recreation) as an absolute kneebiter. Thankfully, the female roles are now positively portrayed, by Shirley MacLaine as Mitty’s loving mother, and Kristen Wiig, as his adorable love interest.

The new story follows Mitty’s journey of awakening, with an interesting plot device involving Life Magazine being bought out and ending its print run (which actually happened in 1972) happening now in 2013 and being downsized into an online business. The final issue needs the perfect cover photo by a famous photographer, rendered drolly by Sean Penn—but it has somehow been misplaced. Under the threat of getting laid off, Mitty attempts to recover the photo by flying all over the world and back to seek out this photographer, involving a number of perilous and adventurous situations.

Here’s where the fun begins. Our protagonist ends up jumping out of a helicopter into the ocean, survives a shark attack, bikes up and longboards down the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland before it erupts, rides in a bus with chickens in Afghanistan, receives a mountain blessing by a Sherpa before climbing Noshaq Mountain in the Himalayas, and manages to catch a rare glimpse of an elusive snow leopard in the wilderness. I don’t know about jumping from a helicopter into gale force waters—known as a “free release”—but oh, to witness the fury and majesty of a volcano exploding with your own eyes, or to see the blue eyes of snow leopard cub…this would be living fully. At the very least, riding in a bus with chickens in some desolate corner of the globe should be on your bucket list. My favorite moment in the film is when Mitty is biking up to the volcano, and he witnesses a murmuration—a flock of starlings swarming in nature’s dance. However, the instant he stops being present, the universe knocks him on his ass, as if to say, “Wake up! You’re missing it!”

In a pivotal plot point when Mitty finally meets the photographer cum guru, it is not what he says but how he experiences that particular transcendent moment, that irrevocably transforms Mitty and helps him turn his life around. Of course, to reveal what happens would spoil it for you, so I'll simply note that the true beauty of the film is revealed not by cinematic excess, but by capturing the raw emotional expression of actors simply being present in an genuine way. Stiller, as director, consistently encourages his actors to achieve a state of remarkable authenticity, so you can see the story through nuanced reaction shots instead of your typical flashbacks. These are emotional reactions to not a line of dialog, but to the magnificence of the present moment.

Yes, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty provides plenty of fun and laughs, but also, it is a singular film in that it offers meaningful perspectives on the nature of awareness, along with an unassuming lead performance you’ll end up rooting for. Especially when finally he gives the downsizing kneebiter his comeuppance. If you’re looking for an enlightening film that’s different from the rest of the pack, this is definitely a must-see film. It’s a cinematic escape that’s really all about learning how not to escape. It’s a terrific film that offers the kind of charm and character, and wisdom, the world is hungry for. Great acting all around too!

One last thing, a few critics have dinged the film because it used so many promotional placements—Papa John Pizza, Cinnabon, eHarmony—but with a production budget of $90 million and nervous investors, it’s something to be forgiven. With luck and a couple of Oscar nods, those investors should be feel much better about backing something just as risky and creative and promising next time. Yeah! Betting the ranch on creativity…this is living!

Finally, this brings us back to the subject of this blog... so what does this film have to do with innovation or business? It’s simple. Most companies fail to meet their potential because they become Mittyesque—so concerned about quarterly earnings that they forget to take risks and grow, and slowly and imperceptibly shrink into shadows of themselves. And like Walter Mitty, instead of being present and seeing the real and unarticulated needs of their customers, they fantasize by appointing yet another committee to explore the future or kick off yet another innovation contest, like ritual offerings to appease the innovation gods. But rarely do they seriously commit to change, rarely do they open their awareness to listen deeply, rarely can they find the courage to jump off the helicopter and into gale force waters…but you know, that’s exactly where blue water innovation happens.

Anyway, back to the film. There’s a soup dish in Hong Kong called “Buddha jumped over the wall,” meaning that it’s so delicious that even the emotionally detached Gautama Buddha himself could not resist the aroma of it and jumped over the wall to have some. That’s how I rate this film: It’s Buddha jumped over the wall good!

Oh, and if you've never had the dish before, tasting it at Huajia Yiyuan Restaurant in Beijing should be on your bucket list!

Moses Ma, a partner at Next Gen Ventures, is co-author of the forthcoming book Agile Innovation.

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