How Walt Disney Found His Calling
The Story You’ve Never Heard of How America’s Most Beloved Storyteller Became a Cartoonist
WALT DISNEY DID HIS BEST not to ask his parents for much. Elias and Flora Disney raised a frugal family in the Midwest, first as failed farmers and later as struggling business owners. But when he spot- ted a pair of leather boots with metal toes, young Walt had to have them. They were a practical gift, he reasoned, and would help with his job of delivering newspapers — especially when it snowed.
In a rare instance of indulgence, his parents caved. That year at Christmas, lying beneath the tree, was a pair of leather boots waiting for Walt. He wore them every day and could often be seen tramping around downtown Kansas City in them, as any proud kid with a new prized possession would do. He also kept his promise, wearing them morning and night to deliver the paper.
One spring day, just after finishing his route, Walt crossed the street to join some friends at the local soda fountain. As he did, he noticed a piece of ice lying in the middle of the street and couldn’t resist the temptation to kick it.
As Walt’s foot collided with the block of ice, something sharp struck his boot, and a surge of pain raced up the boy’s leg. Looking down to see a horseshoe nail sticking out of his boot, he screamed. The nail had penetrated the leather exterior and drove straight into his big toe, freezing his foot fast to the block of ice.
For twenty minutes, Walt cried for help — he screamed — but no one came. Finally, a wagon driver stopped and came to his aid, chipping away at the ice and taking him to the doctor. After removing the nail with a pair of pliers and administering a tetanus shot, the doctor sent Walt home without any painkillers. He would be bedridden for two weeks.
During the days that ensued, young Walt Disney had a lot to consider, including what he might do with the rest of his life. At sixteen years old, a boy growing up in the early twentieth century didn’t have much time left to become a man. College was out of the question, given the Disneys’ lack of means. He would not be a lawyer or a doctor. Even if his parents did have money, Walt’s poor grades and inability to concentrate in school would have done him in.
His prospects were limited. Would he follow in his father’s footsteps or forge his own path as his elder brother Roy had done? The break from his regular routine allowed Walt to imagine the possibilities.
During those two weeks, he must have thought about many things. Perhaps he thought about his friendship with schoolmate Walter Pfeiffer, whose family had introduced him to the magic of the theater.
Maybe he thought about how he loved drawing and amusing classmates with cartoons. He may have thought of the time he and his sister, Ruth, were left home alone to discover a barrel of tar outside. Walt said it would make for excellent paint, but his sister protested. After he assured her it would come off, the two proceeded to decorate the side of the house with pictures of houses and black zigzags. It never came off.
We don’t know what Walt was thinking during those two weeks in bed. But what we do know, according to biographer Bob Thomas, is that by the time his foot healed and he returned to delivering papers, “he had decided to become a cartoonist.”
What was once a diversion was now a destiny.
WALT NEEDED SOMETHING TO DISRUPT his comfort, something painful to make him realize what was important. It wasn’t that the nail was good; it was just the means that forced him to listen. And as painful as it was, it worked.
At times, we all need moments that force us to wake up, that command our attention. These moments happen when we least expect, whether we want them to or not. Our job isn’t to wait for them or wonder why they occurred but rather to see the opportunity they provide.
Walt Disney used an injury to think about what he wanted to do when he grew up. And as you avail yourself of how your life may be speaking, you too must decide. Will you wallow in regret, wondering why such a thing has befallen you, or will you choose to act, making the most of your obstacle, and allow it to evolve into an opportunity?
Listening to our lives is where discovering what we’re meant to do begins. It’s an essential exercise that history’s greatest heroes have employed. But of course, it’s just the beginning of the story. Listening is where finding your calling starts, but it’s not where it ends.
Our ears can only take us so far before our hands have to do the rest of the work.
This was an excerpt from my new book, The Art of Work.