Walt Disney: How to Love What You Do
In 1939, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the highest-grossing sound film ever.
It was the first full-length traditional animation feature, and despite the world suffering from the effects of the Great Depression, its commercial success created a new media giant.
Although The Walt Disney Company would continue to see many ups and downs over the next few decades, it had managed to infect the cultural consciousness. Animation wasn’t just for children. It became a timeless way to communicate the most basic of our human values.
The person behind all of this was an eccentric man who had grown up drawing cartoons.
The name Walt Disney is now synonymous with iconic film characters and the world-famous theme parks that bear his name, but in the early days, he was just a man with an artistic itch. He wanted to show the world what happens when you mix elements of fantasy with reality.
The term artisan is often used to describe a craftsperson. Someone who makes things with their hands. However, it also connotes the idea of a job done with care for its own sake.
While a case can be made that Disney’s success was attributed to his craftsmanship, the more interesting observation about his life and his work is the level of satisfaction he derived from his career by simply treating it as a craft. He was practically infatuated with his job.
What you do for a living takes up a big part of your life, and it should be more than just work. It should be a craft. Disney was the prime example of an artisan, and his story illustrates this to its core. Let’s steal a few lessons.
1. No Separation Between Work and Life
One of the most common discussions regarding careers is one concerning work-life balance.
We all have limited time, and naturally, it makes sense that we want to spread it across the different responsibilities in our life without falling into the trap of over-committing to any one.
While the idea of having a balance is important, the distinction that is often created in such discussions is not. It separates your life from work when the goal should be integration.
If you think about how much time the average person spends working (approximately 80,000 hours, or 9 full years, by some estimates), it becomes clear that there isn’t really a way to separate work from life. Even if we compartmentalize, that’s only a psychological distinction.
We eventually become what we do. The daily actions you take as a part of your job become ingrained in you as habits, which shape your identity. This affects you in a substantial way.
Walt Disney famously came up with the idea for the first Disneyland while watching his two daughters ride a carousel. He wanted to create an environment where families could come together to enjoy each other’s company just as he was in that moment with his children.
Even when he wasn’t working, his work augmented who he was at home. Similarly, when he was at home, his family life inspired what he built and created for other families at his work.
While boundaries are key, being an artisan isn’t just about having a work identity. It’s about aligning who you are as a result of work into a larger, holistic way of operating as a person.
If you’re an artist, you are an artist outside of your studio. If you are an entrepreneur, you are an entrepreneur outside of the office. This is true regardless of whether you think that way.
We are what we do. It’s on us to make what we do something we’re proud of outside of that.
2. Progress Is in the Details, Not the Image
Between 1931 and 1968, Disney was nominated for 59 Academy Awards, winning 22 of them. That’s the second most nominations out of anybody else and the most wins ever.
As he inspired the creation of more and more animation films as a producer, he received more and more acclaim from the world. He went from being a simple animator in his early days to a man better described as an industrialist. His company became a force of nature.
Yet, by all evidence, it appears that Disney was more concerned with details than image.
His goal was always to mold the impossible in with the possible, and he defined his progress more by how each individual felt and reacted to his creations than by general perception.
In most work, there is always an ever-present conflict between what you have to do to win over external praise and what you have to do to feel a sense of internal accomplishment.
Often, these are interconnected. Sometimes, if you don’t win over the external praise, you may no longer have a job. That said, just as often, the external praise we seek is a product of satisfying the ego and not born out of necessity. That’s where things tend to go wrong.
It may be gratifying to hear praise and to gain status or prestige in the moment, but at the end of the day, that’s not the kind of progress that really counts. That’s not what truly fulfills.
Artisans do things for their own sake. They do things to learn and to master. To challenge and to be challenged. The goal is to be a little bit better today than you were yesterday, and that metric isn’t defined by some outside committee, but it’s determined by your product.
You love what you invest in, but the best investment is found in the details. And the beauty is that, if you focus on simply learning, mastering, and improving, the image takes care of itself.
3. Reward of Good Work Is More Work
The core intention we have for doing something shapes every subsequent choice we make.
If your core motivation is success and fame and riches, then even if you consider yourself an artisan in your mind, your behavior won’t reflect what it is that you tell yourself about work.
If you focus on mastery and have an intrinsically motivated definition of progress, however, then the only reward of going through the process of work is more work. It’s the luxury to do what you’re already doing in a more complex environment or on a more impactful scale.
No matter how big The Walt Disney Company got, there was one thing that Disney would always remind people of. Profits were important, and necessary, but they didn’t come first.
“Do a good job. You don’t have to worry about the money; it will take care of itself. Just do your best work — then try to trump it.”
It’s a very subtle distinction, but making that clear changed everything from the projects they picked to who they partnered with to the kind of characters they choose to develop.
If treated the right way, work can be one of the most rewarding gifts that life has to offer.
Humans are creative and productive, to some extent, by nature. We make things, we build things, and we create on top of what we have already made and built. If a task is aligned with whatever drives our inner nature, we thrive on adding more complexity to our work.
While there is a prevailing narrative in our culture that sees work as something to be done until you don’t need to do it anymore, the truth is that, if you truly respect and value whatever your work is, the real benefit of working is actually the ability to continue to do more of it.
Waking up and feeling truly grateful to do what you do is the reward. That can’t be bought.
All You Need to Know
Due to individual circumstances, not everyone can aspire to the kind of work that brings out the artisan in them, but anyone can at least try to adjust their mindset with what they have.
Walt Disney is one of the enduring cultural icons of the past few generations, and much of both his success and his level of fulfillment can be traced back to his craftsmanship at work.
Most of us have careers that last between 30 to 50 years. That’s a significant part of life, and the only way to ensure they mean something is to treat what you do with the right intention.
There’s an artisan in all of us. Whether or not it shows through depends on our daily choices.