Notes on Walter Mitty and Leading Innovation
Let’s begin with a confession. For the past five minutes I was staring off into space; checked out; thinking of nothing in particular. The most productive result I can claim is that I was testing my internal sense of time passing to see how closely it matched up to the clock. I thought, “three minutes have passed.” My hope was to look at the clock and receive confirmation that my internal clock is every bit as good as Jack Reacher’s (Lee Child fans will know what I’m talking about). Actually a little more than five minutes had passed.
So basically, I just wasted time—flagrantly. I’m not worried about that. Even though there are pressing deadlines looming today—including finishing this blog. You see I know that (a) daydreaming is perfectly normal and (b) it can facilitate creativity, innovation and problem solving. In a wonderful article by Josie Glaususz entitled “Living in an Imaginary World,” published by Scientific American, we learn that most people spend between 30 and 47% of their waking day “spacing out.” Most of us have patterns in our behavior where we know we can check out—even for a few seconds—on the elevator or in line at the coffee shop. That’s why we sometimes get irked when a friend says, “Hey I could grab some coffee too!” Now you have to be civil, pay attention, and lose those cherished moments where you can be a little more “off line.”
If you are paying attention—even a little bit—you have heard of the new movie out for the holidays called “Mitty” starring (and directed by) Ben Stiller. The movie is a loose play on a fantastic short story by James Thurber called “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” published in 1939. Thurber’s short story is fantastic. It is powerful, funny, engaging, and a little sad. Check it out for yourself . It will take you five minutes to read it. Even if you did read it back in the day, go read it again. It stands up to the 21st century just fine. I haven’t seen Stiller’s adaptation, and based on what I saw in the trailer, I probably won’t. It seems Hollywood has trashed another piece of great American Literature.
In Thurber’s story, we meet Walter Mitty; a hen-pecked and boring person with an incredibly rich inner fantasy life. To the extent that Mitty thinks about positive visions of the future and himself, he is engaging in “positive/constructive” daydreaming. If he is thinking about some failure—or tragic occurrence, he is engaging in “dysphoric” daydreaming. This is all run down quite nicely in a book called The Inner World of Daydreaming by Yale professor Jerome Singer. Most of us daydream in a blended way—some good and some bad thoughts. For Thurber’s character, the only real escape is back into his fantasy life as the real world holds less and less attraction. That is the sad thing…but a legitimate commentary on the existential realities of modern living.
For Ben Stiller’s “Mitty,” we see the character make a giant leap (which could have been very cool). We see him becoming aware of his fantasy life; seeing at as an abstraction; appreciating what and why he is fantasizing in the first place. The scientists call this “meta-awareness” and it is showing up again and again in research on confidence, decision science, leadership development, learning theory, even medical recovery processes. Unfortunately this amazing turn shows up in the movie as an excuse for a barrage of wild special effects—at the expense of an actual plot and story arch.
But for us, in the real world, we have a glimpse at the real key behind harnessing the hidden power of our daydreaming lives. We need to keep one part of our mind switched on to the fact that we are daydreaming, drifting, worrying, planning, fretting, or anticipating. This mental sentinel can capture breakthrough ideas that bubble up from the subconscious and it can see patterns that emerge in your “off line” life. For example, I have noticed that I go through a 12 hour “dark period” where my thoughts are more negative than usual the day before I leave for a business trip. Once I am on the road—those feelings go away, and I usually enjoy the work and the trip. Now I see that feeling as “normal” and I am taking more time to look at what specifically bugs me about preparing to travel. I have also observed that some of my best creative thinking happens in that weird Zen half-sleep stupor that occurs on long airline flights. I find it the perfect state of mind to be “free” but still observant.
In our book Evolutionaries Carmen and I identify the ability to “live in the future” as a key characteristic of evolutionary leaders. These leaders are daydreamers and they have figured out how to use this important cognitive real estate to look at all kinds of options for realities that don’t currently exist. But these leaders are anything but flakey, pie-in-the-sky, naïve dreamers. They are able to look at their own mental processes with a reality-based discerning eye and connect their creative thoughts with the problems they are trying to solve. What’s more, they are able to accurately assess the value of their inner life experiences. It is this ability to monitor and realistically assess the relationship between your mind and reality that is the key to powerful change leadership (and mental well-being).
So, dream on! Gaze out the window! Let your mind wander as you toil away on the treadmill (either literally or figuratively). Give yourself permission to develop articulated and positive visions of your world. Let problems bubble away and deconstruct situations to see if there is a solution hiding somewhere. The key is to notice and guide these processes with gentle intention.
- Take notes when you come out of a good daydream
- Notice the difference between brainstorming and daydreaming
- When you are in a negative spiral—take note, let it go, and carry on. Look for patterns.
- Don’t try to fix everything; it is sufficient to simply notice what you are thinking
- As much as you allow yourself to daydream, find time to really focus, pay attention, deeply listen
Wow. Look at those clouds….hmmmm….