Book Review — Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination

Walt Disney was not a trust fund kid. He grew up lower-middle class-ish, I think. I’m not sure how to classify a family in the early 1900’s that goes from a modest dwelling in Chicago, to a pretty nice farm in Missouri (that totally failed after a few years), to a decent house in Kansas City.

During Walt’s formative years his dad had a steady job. But early 1900’s dads are gonna early 1900’s dad, so of course Walt had to get up at 4am and deliver papers starting at age 9 and turn all the money over to his father to avoid beatings.

If you squint, you can see an upbringing of child labor and overall harshness that was downright Dickensian.

Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination does a wonderful job of diving in to all those details. But it’s over 600 pages long and I lost interest after his early years, so this will review Walt’s life from the beginning through the creation Snow White.

Despite his rough start, Walt was able to break into superstardom through a combo of work ethic, talent, and an inhuman level of risk tolerance.

Work Ethic

Let’s talk about this mf’ing paper route. When I was 9, I played a lot of basketball and video games. When Walt was 9, his dad bought a paper route in Kansas City and seemingly thought to himself, “I may be older and kind of sickly, but that’s no problem, because I have a pre-teen boy I can work like a draft mule!”

I think it’s worth a couple long block quotes to get a feel for the misery:

Only nine years old, Walt was nevertheless tethered to the route. On weekdays he would rise early, in the darkness, to get his allotment of fifty papers and deliver them. He returned home at five-thirty or six, took a short nap, and then woke up and ate his breakfast. He had to leave school a half hour early to pick up the papers for the afternoon run. On Saturdays, in addition to delivering the papers, he collected the fees. And on Sundays, he had the double load.

It was worst, of course, in winter, when Walt had to trudge through the cold and snow, slipping on the icy steps, often crying at the knives of frost he said he endured. Some of the drifts into which he waded were so deep he sank to his neck. At times the cold and his tiredness would conspire, and Walt would fall asleep, curled inside his sack of papers or in the warm foyer of an apartment house to which he had delivered, and he would awaken to discover it was daylight and he had to race to finish the route.”

But he at least took time off, right? Ha!

“In six years on the route he missed only 5 weeks — two with severe cold, a third on a visit to his Aunt, and two more in 1916 when he kicked a piece of ice with a new boot and was stabbed by a nail hidden in the chunk. He screamed for help but had to wait twenty minutes before a deliveryman stopped, chopped the ice loose, and took him to a doctor, who pulled the nail out with pliers and gave him a tetanus shot.”

To pour salt in this tiny boy’s real wounds, he could not keep the money from the route. It all went to dad. So Walt took on even more jobs to make some money of his own, which…how? How did he have the energy?

Are the most successful people the ones with the most energy? Economics Professor Robin Hanson has commented on the overlooked importance of energy when it comes to success, and I think it’s important to consider.

Walt is clearly standard deviations above the norm, energy wise. I think this effect is understudied.

I also wonder about the extent to which the routes built character and work ethic and the extent to which they acted as a drag. Walt later said the route helped forge his character, but we don’t have the counterfactual. And I don’t think he was building much character when he was bleeding out in a snowbank in the early morning hours.

How much earlier could he have blossomed if he’d been allowed to spend more time with his art? Or would he merely have wasted his time in a less productive fashion if he wasn’t constantly at work?

I’m all for giving kids autonomy and responsibility, but I have issue with writers such as Simon Sarris, who wrote a piece about famous people who held jobs at a young age. He concludes:

In my examples the individuals were all doing from a young age, as opposed to merely schooling. And while they may not have wanted to work, the work was nonetheless something that both they and society felt was useful: something purposeful and appreciated. In a sense they had useful childhoods.

Sure, he was doing “useful” work in a sense. People need papers. The question is whether it was a net positive for young Walt.

Disney himself is conflicted on the issue.

Later in life, Walt would talk about how the route built character. He said he “developed an appreciation of what spare time I did have and used it to great advantage in my hobbies.” There’s something to that.

But he also admitted to having nightmares about the route long into his adulthood, waking up in sweats. There’s some deep trauma there.

I think the route was a big reason why Walt refused to send his parents money until well after he was one of the most famous people in the country. His Dad took the wrong side of the gamble when deciding to take his pre-pubescent son’s paper route earnings or build good will for the future.

Whatever the case, Walt kept up a prodigious work ethic the rest of his life. He made art non-stop in his free time, he took night classes at art institutes, and he did twice what was expected of him when he finally landed a job drawing for an ad studio in Kansas City.

Still, he was laid off after 6 weeks due to budget cuts. Rather than mope, he started his own business and then went to work for a company making promotional ads that ran in movie theaters.

This is where he got his first taste of animation, and he went all in. He borrowed equipment from work and set up a studio in his garage to practice on his own. His schedule became very focucsed:

He would repair to the garage after work each day, emerge for dinner, then return to his camera stand. “When he’d come home and long after everybody else was in bed, Roy remembered, “Walt was out there still, puttering away, working away, experimenting, trying this and that, drawing, and so on.”

Because he was skilled and a hard worker, Walt probably felt more comfortable than most taking big swings with his career. This was an advantage, but damn, what a wild ride it became.

Talent

Around age 7, Walt discovered a love for drawing. Shoutout to the Aunt that encouraged him early on, leading Walt to say “She used to make me think that I was really a boy wonder!”

Another neighbor, Doc Sherwood, recognized Walt’s skills and asked him to draw his horse. Walt did a good job and Doc praised him. This brought young Walt to near ecstasy.

The drawing became, in his brother Roy’s hyperbolic words, “the highlight of Walt’s life.”

Walt’s talent would grow from there until he was known at his school as the art kid and was good enough to trade his pictures for free haircuts at a barbershop in Kansas City. The proprietor hung the pictures in his shop, thrilling young Walt. He was still writing to this barber 30 years later telling him how important his recognition was.

It’s fun to wonder about if these same people hadn’t encouraged him, Walt might have ended up working in a factory or delivering papers his whole life.

Later on he’d develop thick skin, but how would he have reacted if people squashed his dreams early on? You have to imagine that he really was exceptional, but still, how many hardscrabble midwesterners from 1910 took the time to care about a boy making art? I mean, Walt’s own best friend admitted that “It was kind of sissy for a guy to draw.”

So if you see a kid with talent, make sure to let them know! If you have an animal they can draw, or a barbershop you can display their work in, even better.

Early Walt drawing from his time with the Red Cross in WWI

Betting on himself

Two early Walt creations, Mickey and Oswald, interacting

Walt’s schooling ended in 7th grade, and he barely scraped by to make it that far. It’s hard not to fall asleep in class when you work day and night on a paper route designed by the villain from Saw.

7th grade dropouts with very little real work experience are not supposed to look around after a year at a company and think, “I’m not so into this whole working for other people thing. I think I’ll build an animation empire.”

But Walt went for it. He started making animated fairy tales on the side that attracted some positive reviews, but he failed when he went wide trying to sell them.

He was undeterred. This quote sums up Walt’s attitudes toward this failure and all subsequent ones:

Walt was far from defeated. On the contrary, he seemed strangely elated, certain that his fairy tales would find a distributor and that he would soon be running his own studio full time.

He was like freaking Rocky. Always getting up after being knocked down, always drumming up more money, learning more about his cameras, working more hours, spending all his money and a lot of other people’s money. Grinding.

He eventually left his stable job and started his own studio but it didn’t work and he went bankrupt.

Walt didn’t even think about using the bankruptcy as a sign that he should hang it up. There was no talk of joining his Dad and getting a job at the jello factory. Instead, he got on a train to LA and started the grind all over again.

He had a personality type built for the harsh realities of entrepreneurship.

A coworker through these trying times remarked on Walt’s unending optimism:

I never once heard Walt say anything that would sound like defeat. He was always optimistic about his ability and about the value of his ideas and about the possibilities of cartoons in the entertainment field. Never once did I hear him express anything except determination to go ahead.

Once in LA he proceeded to build Disney into a productive animation studio with a marketable star (Oswald the Rabbit) only to have everything come crashing down. The majority of his staff went behind his back to take their main project and start a competing studio, leaving him without his only piece of marketable material and like, two loyal workers, one of which was his brother.

But he just kept moving forward. If he could no longer legally make Oswald the Rabbit cartoons, he’d just think of something better. He made Mickey Mouse.

This mentality is so impressive. It would have been easy to wallow in pity. Walt is more like Giannis, who face setbacks with equanimity.

But thinking up Mickey was not enough. His studio needed money to make the cartoon, and they had none. Some might have been tentative to take on too much risk, given all the recent setbacks. That’s not how Walt rolls. He sent an all caps telegram to his brother about how to get the money for the Mickey pilot:

MORTGAGE EVERYTHING

The Disney’s took loans from any friend, family member, or former co-worker who still saw their potential.

Obviously it worked, as we all know Mickey became a world wide hit, as did his next big character, Donald Duck. This put Disney on the map and made him an international celebrity, but it didn’t improve his financial situation as much as you might think.

Walt was bogged down in bad contracts and shady distribution deals, and there was never much profit to speak of. Whatever they did make was poured right back into the business, which actually helped them ride out the great depression better than a lot of businesses that were investing in the markets.

In typical Walt fashion, he rounded up every resource he had and plowed it into a new project: the first full length animated feature film, Snow White.

And we’re talking every resource. He put almost all of his 500 or so employees on the project and he personally oversaw almost every aspect of the production.

Then, when he needed an infusion of funding to keep the production of Snow White afloat, what does he do? Of course he takes out the equivalent of $20 million worth of loans in 2021 dollars, plus he mortgages the future earnings of his hit shorts. As Walt put it, in order to make Snow White:

I had to mortgage everything I owned, including Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and everybody else.

Snow White made a gazillion dollars and was met with critical acclaim and Walt could finally relax with the whole “bet everything I own and much that I don’t” on animation projects. That must have felt good.

Lessons

From my read, the talent, the homies, and the work ethic were all key components to his success. But I think you could have turned the knobs down on those from a 10 to an 8 and still have churned out a Walt Disney. What I don’t think can be compromised on was the ability to calmly and repeatedly make risky bets, and keep making them even if the first few didn’t work out.

How many talented people quit after hitting their first roadblock? How many people reach a local maxima of success and are okay with that, rather than pushing forward? (e.g. making Mickey shorts forever and not doing risky full length features) How many people have Walt’s level self confidence and swing for the fences mentality? How many people can stare down financial catastrophe over and over and yet keep increasing the size of their bets? All that feels more rare than having work ethic and talent, though I don’t have supporting data.

My takeaway is that it would be quite awesome to follow the Disney blueprint, and many modern tech entrepreneurs do. But I also think I’ll be okay at slightly lower rungs of success that don’t require me to repeatedly bet literally everything I own in order to get where I want to go.

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