Lessons from Walter Mitty

The secret life of a CCL volunteer

By Jon Clark

A couple of weeks ago I went to the movies to see “The secret life of Walter Mitty” with my wife and have been thinking a lot about what we as CCL’ers can learn from it ever since.  Spoiler Alert, I talk a bit about the movie here so if you haven’t seen it yet, go see it right now and come back to finish the rest of this. Ben Stiller’s main character “Walter” is a negative assets manager for Life magazine.  He is the guy that processes the photos that come in from photographers in the field.   He leads what many would call a no risk life, taking no chances on anything.  He’s a day dreamer that lives vicariously through the photographers that send him pictures of far off exotic lands.  Sean Penn plays Sean O’Connell, the exact opposite of Walter, playing an adventurous spirit; an extreme photographer who does whatever it takes to get the shot.  He’s old school, a film shooter and is one of the best in his field.

Here’s where things go bad.  The movie takes place at the end of Life magazines printing days.  The magazine decides to end producing a print copy and transition to an internet based publication. They bring in a manager to decide who stays and who goes.  So Sean O’Connell mails in a package of negatives for the magazines final edition, only the negative that Sean calls the “Quintessence of Life” is not there.   With his manager breathing down his neck for this cover photo, Walter is pressured to come up with the shot, or lose not only his job, but the pride he takes in doing his job as well.  He desperately tries to contact Sean to find out where the negative is with no luck.  Sean is out shooting in the field.  So Walter does some detective work to find out where Sean is out shooting and track him down.  Here’s where lesson #1 for us comes in.  Walter does something he’s never done before.  He hops on a plane and travels to Greenland to find Sean.  Here he has a major life changing moment when he’s given the option to fly out on a helicopter to the middle of the ocean to find a ship where he may find Sean.  He steps outside his comfort zone and amazing things start to happen.  This is a major takeaway for me as a CCL volunteer because I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone many times as a volunteer.  I am not one to like being the center of attention, particularly in front of large groups.  But I’ve stepped outside of my comfort zone several times to speak in front of audiences.  I’m now a trainer for CCL, with a few group starts under my belt.  I’ve spoken in front of what I consider to be a very large crowd and good things have come from it.  I can’t say I’m comfortable with this yet, but it gets easier every time I do it.  Another fear I’ve faced is being arrested in non-violent civil disobedience.  I always worried about how it would negatively affect my life.  I’m one, I’m guessing like many of us, who considers the climate crisis so serious that we need to be doing just about whatever we can to veer us off our current course.  So I decided that I would take a stand and risk my personal freedom.  Having been to many events where people like Dr. James Hansen and Tim DeChristopher have given me inspiration made it much easier to make this decision after seeing them take the same risk.  I have to say I am glad I made the decision to risk arrest twice in opposition to the Keystone XL and will likely do so again for our fight.  Anyway back to the movie.

So finally Walter tracks down Sean way up in the Himalayans where he finds him photographing a beautiful and rare snow leopard.  Sean has the cat in his viewfinder and tells Walter to take a look to experience the thrill of being in the moment behind the lens.   Here’s where lesson #2 comes into play for us.  He doesn’t take the shot.  Sean instead soaks in the moment and reminds himself why he does what he does.  He decides to keep the shot to himself and Walter. He had the perfect shot lined up but instead turned his long lens to look far below at the guides that brought him there, seeing them kicking a ball around and decides “that looks like fun.”  That takeaway for me is to have fun, don’t let what you do turn into a grind.  I think we have a serious job here to do, but I think we need to remind ourselves why we are doing it.  It’s a lesson I need to work on myself.  As a photographer myself I can identify with being out in the field and focusing too much on getting the shot.  I think I have some really good photos I took years ago but cannot remember taking them or even where I was. To me the really spectacular shots are the ones where I was enjoying the moment, the ones that have a story behind the scene or where I was enjoying being with my wife or friends.  The “mental” shots in nature are some of the best.  Twice I’ve had birds land on me from just being still out in nature.  I’ve had a curious raccoon walk right up to my feet while just sitting and watching a stream.  Neither time did I have a camera and that’s ok with me.   These moments are many for me and I think they help me to bring a real passion for what I’m doing with CCL.  I think these lessons will help us to get to our happy ending.    So here is your “to do” list.


1.        See “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” because I think it’s a really good inspirational story- and fun too!  Already saw it?  See it again.  I’m going to.

2.       Get out there and start doing things outside of your comfort zone.  I think 9 times out of 10 something amazing may come of it.  If you hate public speaking like me, try it with small groups first.  If you feel you are not a good letter writer, you have to start somewhere-looking back I know my first was terrible, but I like to think I’ve improved.  And how awesome was it at the time to get my first letter published!   Nervous about meeting with your Representative?  Try sitting in on a meeting at first with CCL veterans just to get the feel of what it’s like.

3.       Remember to get out there and enjoy nature.  Have an adventure and remind yourself what we are fighting for.  I think it makes us more effective.


Jon Clark is the Mid-Atlantic Regional Coordinator for Citizens Climate Lobby.