Are you leading a secret life? (what I learned from Walter Mitty)

Updated to Business on February 2, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

When I was a kid I had lots of heroes. There was my Dad who could out stare anyone, my oldest brother who could do anything, and of course Clint Eastwood who could out shoot everyone. 

It’s taken me a very long time to get on that list.

If you haven’t seen Ben Stiller’s remake of The secret life of Walter Mitty, you should. It was all about me.

Based on the classic novel by Paul Thurber, Stiller used the now defunct Life magazine as the backdrop for day dreamer Mitty to slip into his adventure fantasies. In the first third of the film we see Mitty enter a fanciful version of himself whenever life gets threatening or stressful. Rather than bumbling, halting, and insecure, he is leaping through windows to rescue a cat, climbing a mountain to rescue the girl, or bravely facing down his insensitive new boss.

His escapism is so frequent and normal to him he’s unaware he’s leaving reality.

I used to do that.

In tough times I had a little Mitty in me. It was easier to imagine the hero in me rescuing my business or dealing with the rude customer, then doing it myself. My alter-ego was always willing to swing in from a tree branch and rescue me.

The bummer was it never happened – real life was slower, more black and white. And it required more work. Ultimately, the results were up to me. I either did it, or I didn’t—no fantasy solutions.

It’s not that we don’t need our day-dreaming escapes. We do. The trick is to find a balance between dreaming about what could be and the step-by-step process of getting things done.

Do you ever do a Walter Mitty?

Maybe you’ve had fantasies like these:

  • you image the rude person in the office taking a ‘nice’ pill and leaving you alone.
  • tomorrow will be different—the tasks you’ve been putting off will be done
  • the book you’re writing will leap to New York Times best seller list
  • your new on-line course will be insanely popular and sell itself 
  • your latest blog post is Pulitzer material and finally you’ll be discovered

Whoa, Walter. Snap back to reality mister. Sure, miracles happen, but usually on the big screen. Making stuff happen in life is a little different.

The best of fantasy and real life

The brain can’t tell what is real. We know that. Watch a freaky horror movie and adrenalin pumps The-secret-life-of-Walter-Mitty-Short-Sleeve-T-Shirt-914.jpgthrough your veins, pupils dilate, and you’ll be gripping the theatre armrests in no time. That’s good news.

Just as you can imagine the worst (I’m not a big fan of being chased by a chainsaw), you can imagine the best. The brain is happy to participate.

When I create a goal, I want (and need) to imagine it happening. I DO want my book to be a best-seller. I DO want my keynote to bring the audience to their feet. And I DO want to be honest with people who have disappointed me (and who I love). 

Imagining the best results prepares me, both consciously and subconsciously, to make it happen. “Whatever the mind can conceive, and believe,” Napoleon Hill wrote some 80 years ago,  “the mind can achieve.”

And then there is the work

Once my mind is aligned and laser-focussed, it’s time to make the list and start stepping forward. This is when the “rubber meets the road”, as my Dad used to say. The good news is (as the proverb goes) “nothing succeeds like success.” In other words, when you make the phone call, put in 30 minutes of quality work (as Neil Fiore calls it in The Now Habit), or organize the planning meeting, you fuel more success. 

Just like an engine flywheel, once you get started you create momentum that is hard to stop. [Tweet this out] That’s how you create real results.

Are you ready to create real results and a rich life? Let’s get started.


“…there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” Morpheus