Thursday, January 19, 2012

What Walt Taught Me

It seems appropriate to pause for reflection after my review of The Jungle Book. As you may know, TJB was the last film to be produced by Walt Disney. I expect that there will be a noticeable difference in the films from here on out.

Since December I've been reading a Walt Disney biography I received as a Secret Santa gift and I finished it just this week. It was surprisingly engaging, albeit a little overly detailed (I got lost sometimes when there was too much talk about business deals and money.) But on the whole, I was very inspired by Walt Disney's life, as told by author Bob Thomas. It would be difficult to summarize the biography in any kind of eloquent way, so I will do what I do best: write a list. Here are eight things about Walt Disney that inspire me.
thanks to Disney wikia for the photo
1. Walt Disney failed.
You've probably never heard of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit because he's overshadowed by the now iconic Mickey Mouse. But Oswald was actually Walt Disney's first animated cartoon character. He was mildly popular in the 1920s, but due to a shady business deal, the rights to Oswald were taken from Disney. In those early years, Walt Disney tried a lot of different things, such as Oswald, and was often unsuccessful. But his failures actually seemed to energize him, spurring him on to try something new. Even after the success of Mickey Mouse and then Snow White (the first animated feature length film), many of his projects didn't work out. It took 30 years for the Disney company to actually start making a profit. Despite that, he never stopped innovating.

2. Walt Disney was not motivated by money or fame. 
Although both came to him over the years, I get the sense that neither ever meant a lot to Walt. At one point he mentioned that having money only meant that he was able to do more and create more. He was extremely driven, but only by his desire to bring entertainment to the masses and to make people happy. He also had a high standard of excellence and quality. He was unfazed by the fame and wealth that came with the success he achieved.

3. Walt Disney cared about his audience.
He spent a great deal of time finding out what 'the public' liked, didn't like, wanted, didn't want. Especially later on as he worked on Disneyland and Disney World (which he did not live to see completed), he made it his business to know how the public was responding. He would base decisions solely on what he knew from this research, no matter the cost or time involved. Walt Disney would often talk about the public as if they were his friends, his confidantes, his partners. It is no wonder that so many people resonate with the world that Disney created through his films and theme parks. 

4. Walt Disney was forward thinking. 
The ability to envision a better future is a common characteristic among the greatest influential figures in history. Walt started out with short humorous cartoons, which led him to feature length animation, portraying characters with lifelike movement and complex emotions. That in itself was a huge step forward in the entertainment industry. But after that, he expanded the company to include live action films, television series, Disneyland, and then Disney World/Epcot (the "City of Tomorrow"). While some people like to find what they're good at and stick with it, Walt Disney thrived on venturing out into what had never been done before. As was mentioned, he was not always successful. But his forward thinking mostly brought him a vast spectrum of creative achievement.

5. Walt Disney was an expert at branding.
The name "Walt Disney" is now so familiar that I sometimes forget he was just a person. The brand has come to represent so much more than just one man who created Mickey Mouse. We now know Walt Disney to mean fun family entertainment, warm fuzzy happy endings, and dreams coming true. How did this happen? It was because Walt Disney, the man, planned it this way. From the get-go, he was adamant that all of their products have his name on it, not because of ego, but to enforce brand recognition in everything the company created. This led to decisions about what to include or not include in story elements of a film, down to how clean and proper the theme parks should be kept. Disney has become one of the most powerful and recognized brands today.

6. Walt Disney was intentional. 
To list his many accomplishments would take a long time. Even the biography couldn't fully describe everything he did. It seems that Walt made the most of every moment in his 65 years of life. While he worked very hard, he also had hobbies, babysat his grandkids, and traveled. He was never idle, and even his leisure time was spent thinking of new ideas for Disneyland rides, or finding out how things worked (he was especially fond of trains). While I'm sure that his busy life contributed to his early death, I also think he was purposeful and intentional with his time. I would love to look back at the end of my life and be able to say I used every moment I had for a purpose. This is surely how Disney lived.

7. Walt Disney was a leader.
I remember that in one of my business classes in college there was book about Walt Disney's leadership model. I don't think I actually read the book. But now I can see why there would be books about his leadership. Walt wasn't particularly adept at business or even drawing and animation. But he knew how to find people who had gifts in those areas, and challenge them to rise to the standard of excellence he sought. With persuasive and compelling words, Walt gave his employees excitement and passion for their work. He knew how to assign artists to various parts of a project based on their strengths. When he wanted to figure out something new, Walt looked for experts in that field to do the job. Everyone who worked with Walt Disney was completely on board with his vision (not without some arguments, of course); they respected him and looked to him to guide the process.Without his ability to lead well, Walt Disney would not have been able to accomplish all that he did.

8. Walt Disney was a storyteller.
What Walt Disney was best known for was his uncanny gift of telling stories. It's true, most of the stories he told were unoriginal; he adapted many fairy tales and other pieces of classic literature. But there is a reason why the Disney versions have become the most recognized. Walt Disney knew how to portray admirable heroes, endearing sidekicks, and dynamic villains. He knew how to incorporate music in a way that gave the story more meaning and feeling. He knew how to include just the right amount of fantasy and magic that took the audience to places only their imagination thought possible. His stories strike at the heart of who we are; they remind us of the good that humanity was meant for. Walt Disney's gift of storytelling has placed him among the most influential people of his generation, and for many generations to come.

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