[Warning: If you are interested in a calm, comfortable life, this blog will be counterproductive for you.]

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

2 Ways the Biography of Walt Disney Impacted Me (book review)

Walt Disney shaped the imagination of the twentieth century. He was the first to actually tell a story with animation (rather than merely do slapstick jokes). He was the first to use sound with animation. He was the first to produce color animation. He was the first to do a full-length animated movie. His was the first movie studio to create shows for TV. He created animatronic robots to put on live shows. And Disneyland immersed us in an entirely new experience that’s still blowing our minds today.

Even more significant than technology were the themes of his stories. They inspired the dreams of millions across the world. Maybe even your own values were influenced with themes like: Believe in your dreams and they’ll come true. Be true to yourself. Don’t lose your childlike qualities. Sometimes, for the good of others, you have to make sacrifices (think Old Yeller).

I knew most of that. I was one of the kids raised with Disney cartoons and movies, from the classic animated movies to the black and white Zorro TV show. But I didn’t know much about him personally. What I learned challenged me—in more ways than one.

First, the image of the warm, gentle uncle who told great stories was only partly true. It was true that he loved stories and told them constantly. And he did dote on his children and grandchildren. But as a boss, he was unanimously described as a hard, autocratic taskmaster. He regularly (often daily) shouted at his employees—including foul language. He even had a practice during his later years of random firing and rehiring, to keep them from being complacent, he said.

Second, this was all driven by a passion—his obsession even—to create masterpieces. He literally wanted every project to change the industry forever. Money was no concern to him. If he had to go over budget by $2 million and 2 years, he did. (That happened making Snow White, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, etc.) 

Third, he hurt a lot of people because he couldn’t release control. Projects bottlenecked, waiting for him to approve details. People were fired for getting too influential (he saw them as a threat). And after a while some of his best people left to do great work at other studios. Looney Tunes and Mister Magoo were both created by ex-Disney animators who couldn’t stand working for Walt Disney any longer. 

The book was well written—I enjoyed reading it as a story. (Click the image above to link to the book on Amazon.) But the story of his life impacted me, deeply even, in two ways.

One, I have decided to spend my life trying to create masterpieces. His passion for greatness inspired and convicted me. There are a couple of personal creative projects I was planning to make good enough and then move on. It wasn’t a conscious choice as much as an unwillingness to pay the price great work requires. But when everyone around Walt Disney, including his brother, told him that he didn’t need to make every project a masterpiece, he went for it anyway. So, after thinking and praying a lot about it, I’m committing, right here and right now, to aim to create masterpieces. Oh, I’ll make mistakes and probably, like Disney, will turn out some flops. But I will at least aim for the best every time.

Two, I saw the cost of trying to reach greatness alone. You might get there, if you strive hard enough long enough. But you might end up like Disney: famous, but lonely. He died of lung cancer, after 50 years of chain-smoking. And aside from his wife and kids, he had no real friends. None.

Greatness is more than masterful art (or science or teaching or sales). So I’m also committed to creating masterpieces in collaboration with deep friends.

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