3 Inspiring Life Lessons From “The Truman Show”

Posted In Inner Truth
On 10th November, 2022

Whenever I watch The Truman Show, it puts me into a trance.

This film is an absolute masterpiece. Packed with multiple layers of symbolism and meaning, it only feels more relevant as the years go by. And the journey of our titular hero – Truman Burbank – only seems more profound.

In this post, I’ll explain why The Truman Show strikes such a chord with me. And in the process, we’ll unpack 3 powerful moral lessons.

Brief Synopsis

Major spoilers ahead!

The Truman Show picks up with just another day in the life of Truman Burbank. Living on the picture-perfect island of Seahaven, he seems to have it all: stable job as an insurance salesman, gorgeous house, beautiful wife, and so on.

On the outside, Truman seems upbeat. But the film wastes no time in developing his character: he also yearns for adventure. Having never left the island, he longs to visit the exotic islands of Fiji.

Midway through the film, cracks start to appear in Truman’s reality. He enters a period of deep questioning. Why does he always seem to be at the centre of strange coincidences? Is he living in some kind of dream? Are his loved ones really on his side?

Wanting to know the truth, he interrogates his wife Meryll. But she dismisses him, which only makes Truman more paranoid. Unsatisfied, he digs even deeper. An explorer at heart, Truman won’t drop his hunt for answers.

As the audience, we then discover those answers: Truman has been living within the confines of an artificial dome since birth. The unwitting star of a global reality TV show, his every waking moment is being broadcast to billions.

Everyone around him is an actor hired by a giant corporation to maintain a facade. This corporation, run by the enigmatic director Cristof, even controls the weather.

In the end, Truman becomes spooked enough to attempt a bold escape. All he can think to do is set sail, despite his intense fear of the water. In an attempt to make Truman turn back, Christof generates a deadly storm, almost drowning him live on TV. But Truman prevails.

In the surreal final scene, his boat collides with the wall of the dome, which is painted to resemble the sky. He walks along the edge, reaching an exit door.

Christof now speaks to Truman directly, his voice booming from the sky. He lays out a choice: Truman can return to the safe, fabricated version of reality created just for him. Alternatively, he can head into the real world (which earlier in the film, he calls “the sick place”).

So, what does Truman do? In a triumphant, courageous moment, he leaves it all behind and steps into the unknown.

3 Life Lessons from The Truman Show

Now let’s dive into the weighty moral lessons presented by The Truman Show.

While it’s easy to get distracted by the film’s “Big Brother” theme, I think it has much more to say.

In some way, shape, or form, each of us is Truman Burbank. Like Truman, for instance, our indoctrination begins from birth – we’re told who to be, what to think, how to act, what to pursue, and what we’re capable of.

Consider these potential parallels between you and Truman:

  • Like Truman, you face enormous pressure to conform to values you didn’t consciously or authentically choose
  • Like Truman, you were conditioned to perceive only a wafer-thin slice of reality, with the truth hidden from sight
  • Like Truman, you’ll have to confront your demons if you want to start discovering who you are (and seeing reality for what it is)

Perhaps these parallels explain why the film always chimes with me. Even with the movie’s fanciful premise, there’s something so relatable about Truman’s journey.

That said, here are 3 life lessons from The Truman Show that continue to inspire me.

Truman Show Lessons, Truman show moral lesson, image of Truman pointing at camera

Lesson 1: Beware The Tyranny of Conformity

From one angle, The Truman Show pays homage to the philosophy of humanism. It illustrates the powerful human drive to pursue truth, authenticity, and meaning. As Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor Viktor Frankl documented in Man’s Search For Meaning, this drive is unstoppable – even when the outside world tries to subdue it.

I’m talking about the “self-actualising tendency” – our impulse to become who we’re meant to be, and mature into fully realised human beings. This is a lifelong process with no definitive end.

For that to begin, we must outgrow our conditioning. This leads to turbulence: on one hand, we yearn to develop personal values congruent with our true nature. But on the other, we’re seduced by the potent (and often antagonistic) drive to conform.

Truman’s world portrays this dynamic to the extreme, with the pressure to conform most clearly represented by modern Western values – materialism chief among them.

In an early scene, for example, Truman discloses to Marlon a deep desire: he wants to “get out”. Out of his job, out of the city, and off the island. But in response, Marlon chides him: “Out of your job? What the hell is wrong with your job? You have a great job, Truman. You have a desk job. I’d kill for a desk job.”

Later scenes follow the same pattern: Truman expresses an authentic desire, which the cast and crew act to suppress. In one scene, when Truman brings up the idea of going to Fiji, Meryll condescendingly brushes him off as an idealistic teenager.

Developmentally, Truman sort of is a teenager. And not by accident – at every turn, the show has actively hindered his self-discovery. In turn, Truman seems to be disconnected with his life, with no solid sense of who he is. His life rings hollow because it’s a life he has been conditioned to value, with conformity being the main weapon of control.

Our world isn’t so different. If we’re to grow, there comes a point when we must override our drive to conform. This is no easy feat, especially with powerful entities (governments, corporations, elites) hell-bent on chaining us to self-serving narratives.

But to set ourselves free, we must stray from the perceived safety of the pack. To avoid this inner call is to usher in a form of death. Not literal death, but a slow and steady disintegration of the self. Truman recognised this risk and acted instinctively.

Here’s the lesson: beware the tyranny of conformity. On our deathbeds, we won’t wish we had been more obedient, more cautious, or more inhibited. We’ll wish we had ventured out more, spoken up at the right moment, and stepped outside the status quo.

Lesson 2: To Find Your Soul, Lose Your Mind

You probably haven’t heard of “drapetomania”. That’s a good thing.

Coined in 1851 by American physician Samuel Cartwright, this “mental illness” was put forward to explain why enslaved people kept trying to flee their captors. Cartwright judged the life of a slave to be such an improvement, that to reject it signalled madness.

Even at the time, drapetomania was recognised as hogwash. And today, it rings out as nothing less than absurd. But this practice – of relegating understandable suffering to the land of “illness” – lives on in society, albeit in less overt forms. In short, the line between sanity and insanity is an arbitrary one.

Take the experience we call “depression”. In a world obsessed with economic growth, it isn’t surprising that depression is medicalised. That’s largely because it doesn’t align with the economic imperatives of the day – to always be “busy” and “productive”, no matter the personal, social, and emotional cost. But perhaps the suffering of depression has a purpose. For example, to make us aware of how sick society is, so we can take action.

“It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

In the same way, Truman’s suffering has a purpose: it compels him to discover the truth.

We observe perhaps his first dance with that truth in a flashback, where he meets Sylvia/Lauren Garland. Their connection is instant, spontaneous, and undeniably real. This is juxtaposed with Meryll, who represents all that is forced and false in Truman’s world.

Although Sylvia is swiftly removed by her so-called father – and written off as “psychotic” – it’s too late: the seeds of truth have been sown. From then on, the only thing that really nourishes Truman is his dream of escaping to Fiji, where he believes Sylvia to be. Sylvia symbolises the truth.

Midway through the film, Truman’s disillusionment gathers momentum. More and more cracks appear in his fabricated, controlled reality. Why, for instance, is the man with flowers walking around and around his block on autopilot? And why did Meryll cross her fingers in their wedding photo?

As the illusion begins to falter, Truman enters a period of necessary breakdown. I mean that quite literally – his perception of reality is breaking down. Unable to piece together the fragments, however, Truman cycles through fear, loneliness, dejection, paranoia, and confusion.

This culminates in Truman taking Meryll for a joyride to Atlantic City. In one of my favourite scenes, he circles the roundabout shouting “somebody help me, I’m being spontaneous!” out the car window.

Predictably, Meryll frames this behaviour as Truman being “unwell”. In reality, of course, his spontaneity signals an impending awakening. As the audience, we rejoice knowing that the grip of conformity is starting to weaken. Truman is coming alive.

Finally, Truman leaves everything behind to pursue the truth. On his boat, we see him cradle an image of Sylvia, an image he has painstakingly recreated through trial and error. This marks the onset of Truman’s quest for the truth – the fragments of reality are beginning to coalesce.

How easy would it have been for Truman to collapse under the weight of his disorientation and suffering? Instead, he embraces his pain and heeds its call. There’s an important lesson here. When glimmers of truth appear through cracks in the status quo – and we suffer as a result – do we validate our discontent? Or do we seek refuge in the more culturally palatable idea – that we’re deranged, deluded, broken?

Following the inner call to self-actualise might be the high road, but that doesn’t mean it looks pretty. As the saying goes, you have to break some eggs to make an omelette – breakdowns can be a necessary stage on the path to living with purpose, authenticity and integrity.

As Alexander Lowen said, “despair is the only cure for illusion.”

Lesson 3: Embrace The Unknown

Truman show lessons, Truman show moral lesson, image of Truman walking through black door at top of stairs.

When Truman is blocked from leaving Seahaven via land and air, only one option remains. Despite his intense fear of water – triggered by the trauma of losing his father at sea – Truman takes to the open ocean.

Whenever I watch The Truman Show, these final scenes fill me with hope. In order to discover the truth, and liberate himself, Truman musters the courage to face his greatest fear. In the same way, if we’re to reinvent ourselves, or even simply to thrive, each of us must face the music.

I love the scene where Cristof spots Truman’s boat and a crew member exclaims, “How can he sail? He’s in insurance!” I smile realising that Truman was likely nudged towards a career in insurance to make him risk-averse. This makes his renunciation of that manufactured identity all the more climactic.

If we’re to effectively navigate our fear, we must dance with the unknown. And in The Truman Show, the “unknown” is symbolised by the ocean. Not only does the ocean represent the formless and the unfathomable, but it also stands for the endless interplay between creation and destruction. After all, the ocean is thought to be the original source of life itself. But it also has the power to silently and unforgivingly sweep life away, just as it did to Truman’s father.

This makes his voyage all the more poignant, with Truman’s rebirth forged in the crucible of oceanic chaos. In fact, he literally drowns on camera before coming back to life. At this point, we breathe a sigh of relief knowing Truman has pierced through the great unknown and triumphed over his fear. He is now free to reemerge as someone else; to recreate his life anew. When the time is right, all Truman has to do is choose.

And that moment of choice rushes up to greet Truman when his boat smashes into the wall of the dome. He comes to an exit door. But just as Truman is about to leave, Cristof talks to him, and he says “Listen to me, Truman. There is no more truth out there than there is in the world I created for you. The same lies. The same deceit. But in my world, you have nothing to fear.”

It’s here that we understand Cristof – Cristof has been acting out a distorted form of parental love all along (here’s a great article on this). By trying to protect him from the harsh winds of reality, Cristof has stifled Truman’s growth to the extreme. Truman must now decide whether or not to disentangle from Cristof’s warped vision of truth. And that’s exactly what he does. Truman exercises the ultimate human freedom – the freedom to choose.

Wouldn’t you be tempted to turn back? I know I would. Remember, Truman had zero knowledge of the reality beyond Seahaven. It would take serious guts to put your entire life on the line in order to be true to yourself. Yet Truman embraces the unknown without hesitation. He leaves the comfortable, safe mould created for him, accepting the inevitable pain and suffering this will bring.

I always enjoy the decision to portray the exit door as a black void. Consider the difference if the writers had instead hinted at bright, sunny skies ahead for Truman. Rather, blackness conveys a more realistic message: choosing freedom, authenticity and growth are daunting precisely because they ask us to embrace the unknown and the unknowable.

That said, here’s a question to reflect on: where in your life is there a “Truman door”, waiting for you to step through?

Final Words

Truman’s existential situation isn’t so different to yours or mine – in ways big and small, we all confront forks in the road.

One road is the direction of truth and understanding, while the other road perpetuates our unconscious delusion. One road leads to enlargement of the self, while the other stifles and constricts us.

Leaving medicine to change careers was one of those forks in the road for me. It was difficult, painful, and nerve-racking to walk away. I also wondered if I was insane to do so. And at the time, I had no idea what would happen next (in fact, I still don’t).

But I’m glad I made that choice. By departing from the “known” and stepping into ambiguity, I somehow feel more… myself. Just like Truman’s voyage across the ocean, I have a sense that although I don’t know where I’m going, I do know I’m heading in the right direction.

If you’re up for it, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Did you interpret The Truman Show differently? What life lessons did you draw?

As always, thanks for reading.

And in case I don’t see ya – good afternoon, good evening, and good night.

Truman waving, from Truman show lessons post
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Hey, I'm Oliver 👋

I write about personal growth, and the art of living with purpose. By sharing my insights, I aim to support you in cultivating (and unleashing) your purpose. Learn more.

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