This is Part 1 of a two-part post about two life lessons I learned from one of my all-time favorite movies, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
Spoiler Alert. If you haven’t seen the movie, I will give away some of the plot here. I recommend watching the movie before reading this.
In the movie, Walter Mitty (played by Ben Stiller) is a quiet film developer for LIFE magazine. He has spent his career in this monotonous and thankless job, sitting in a dark basement developing film for the widely-read magazine. Fortunately, despite his career (and his life) being quite boring, Walter has the pride of developing the photos of world-renowned photographer Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn).
O’Connell is fascinating. He is like a mix between Bruce Willis in Die Hard and The Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis beer commercials. His cover photos for LIFE are even more impressive. But when the magazine decides to discontinue their print magazines and move to 100% online content, Walter’s job becomes at-risk, and he is forced to find the perfect photo for the final edition, which he believes O’Connell has in his possession. Mitty sets out in an unplanned trip around the world to find O’Connell and the photo. After many trials and multiple weeks spent searching, Walter finally finds O’Connell, thousands of feet into the Himalayans. He is out of breath, cold, and bewildered. O’Connell is sitting calmly behind a camera.
Watch the clip. It’s much better than my play by play. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=S8c4KinQdgg
O’Connell: “Take your time, settle in, try to be real still OK?”
Mitty looks in the direction where O’Connell’s camera lens is pointed.
O’Connell: “There’s a snow leopard in this ridge. So we have to try to be very very very still… They call the snow leopard the ghost cat. Never lets itself be seen.”
Mitty: “Ghost cat?”
O’Connell: “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”
The snow leopard appears. We only see it through O’Connell’s lens. It is an elusive, beautiful animal. Both Mitty and O’Connell stare in amazement. The scene is silent, except for the wind whistling through mountains. Mitty, turns to O’Connell, waiting for him to take the photo.
I remember sitting in the movie theater three years ago and this scene hitting me like a ton of bricks. Two things caught my attention and stuck with me. I will explain the first part here, and the second in the next post.
Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.
Do I ask for attention?
And, am I “beautiful?”
The word beautiful here doesn’t mean handsome, pretty, sexy, or physically attractive. No, the word beautiful refers to the heart, soul, and mind. It refers to the genuine individuality of someone or something. It seeks to describe a uniqueness that brings blessings to others.
So then, am I beautiful? If so, then do I ask for attention? And, if I am not beautiful, then what can I do about it? Is it as simple as to stop asking for attention? Does that automatically make me unique, special, and genuine?
Here is what I mean by “asking for attention:”
- Complaining and venting as a reflex, not to solve a problem
- Being needy or overly sensitive
- Getting offended, or taking myself too seriously
- Thinking I am the most important person (in the room, conversation, subject, event, etc)
- Saying “how are you?” and not hearing the other person’s response
- Interrupting or talking instead of listening
- Thinking about myself instead of others
- Making excuses
- Being self-righteous and believing I know everything
- Attempting to display status through title, material items, association, etc (buying fancy clothes and name dropping)
The list goes on.
When I first saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and especially this scene, I immediately began striving to stop asking for attention, to become a better listener, be more caring, less self-serving, less of a complainer, and less credit-starved. I would argue that, for a short minute, I became closer to “beauty.”
However, I am no snow leopard, and this is something I still wrestle with. I have to remind myself, “if I believe I am unique, genuine, important, special… then stop asking for attention. Instead, be humble, be quietly confident, be real, and be meek.”
Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.