Anyone who has ever visited Disneyland has probably read or heard the quote from Walt Disney that “It all started with a mouse.” I’ll admit it, I was raised on a steady diet of Disney. We took family trips to Disneyland; the Disney Channel was the first cable channel I remember. My husband, who was raised in Anaheim, was even more immersed. Yet, until this past weekend, I didn’t realize that the mouse would never have come into existence if his creator had not first failed.
Mike and I recently visited the Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio on an anniversary trip to San Francisco. In the museum lobby, visitors are confronted with an impressive, and intimidating, array of awards – an entire case of Oscars, the French Legion d’Honneur, and a polyglot mosaic of certificates medals, and trophies. By any fraction of these awards, the bearer would be judged a success. However, as we entered the museum exhibits and wandered chronologically through the life of Walter Elias Disney, the thing that struck me over and over was not the mind-boggling success, but how often the man had failed.
We aren’t talking small, niggling failures. His first animation company went bankrupt – the papers are posted in the exhibit. In recorded interviews played near the exhibit, Walt says that when he arrived in California, he and his brother Roy (recently discharged from the VA Hospital) had more than brotherhood in common. “We were both unemployed. So we decided to start our own business.” This second company, for which Walt and Roy encouraged friends from Missouri to relocate to California, flourished for a while – until some unfortunate business dealings with a distributor. One letter from that distributor contained sentences like dagger thrusts. The “gentleman” wrote that his company had seen no financial returns from any of the films Disney had sent them. He then followed with the excoriating phrase “you should be heartily ashamed.” Words to make most of us curl under the covers and hide, words to make us flee from that which we had failed. Yet, Disney kept making films. Ultimately, this distributor wrested away the rights to Disney’s main character, a rabbit named Oswald.
Disney and his wife traveled back to the east coast in an attempt to retain the rights to Oswald. On the train trip back to California, after their efforts had failed, he didn’t drink himself into a stupor, apparently didn’t moan to Lilly about his failures. Instead, he started to think about mice. Mice were “cute and could do anything” and until then had been supporting characters in animated work. Walt began to sketch and soon developed a little guy he called Mortimer, a name his wife declared “terrible” and that was soon changed to …yes, you know.
Disney’s success may have started with Mickey, but it didn’t continue along a golden path from there. There were other setbacks, other unscrupulous business colleagues, a union strike that bitterly divided the Disney studios, the second World War, films that were less than successful.
But the resonating theme of the museum was the extraordinary optimism of a man able to retain vision, ambition, and creativity in the face of failure and defeat. That sort of optimism requires not naiveté, not simple-mindedness, not calculation, but raw courage.
We saw another offshoot of the Disney machine this weekend – the Disney/Pixar movie Brave. For once, we saw a princess not only unwilling to submit to her fate, but one who chooses to change her fate herself. Merida recognizes the damage caused by her mistakes and, rather than waiting for someone to save her, works to right the wrongs herself. In the end, she says of fate that it lies inside us, “you only have to be brave enough to look for it.”
Too often we see our failures and mistakes as negatives, as reasons to quit, as indications that we are “on the wrong path.” We expect success to be golden and smooth, the soul-crushing patches to be magically edited out. We envy the “luck” of those who appear to have achieved success easily or completely. But, finding and fulfilling our destiny depends less upon luck than it does upon resilience and courage – and those are available to anyone.