Saturday, April 26, 2014

Practically Perfect and Probably Painful in Every Way

In 1888, the Santa Fe Railroad had a line from Kansas City to Chicago which ran generally east and north, thru what is still some of the most rural parts of America.  If you wanted to visit this part of the country today, you'd take Highway 24 east out of Kansas City, past Independence, then north on 65 to Carrolton, east again and then north on 24 to Marceline, then north east again, past Mark Twain Lake, into Monroe City, over to I-72 into Springfield and north again into Chicago.  It was a lot easier, and more direct, in 1915 to just take the train.

The Chicago Santa Fe line pulled east out of Kansas City, following the Missouri River, and then turned north, with stops at Hardin, Carrolton, Newcomb, Bosworth, Mendon, Rothville and then Marceline.  Eight stops further on was Rutledge.  Mark Twain's boyhood home of Hannibal is just a few miles east and Springfield, the birthplace of Route 66, lays beyond that.  This is the cultural heartland of America.

I mention Rutledge because my grandparents, William Preston Francis and Lottie Ethel Tull, both grew up and were living there in 1910 when Walt Disney was living in Marceline. Even today, Rutledge is considered just a village, with a population of only about 100 people. By comparison, Marceline is huge; roughly twenty times the size.

When I was a boy, my family would pile into the car and head out to visit our Missouri cousins in the summer, so when I read about Walt's boyhood on the farm, its very easy for me to imagine what it was like for him. All my aunts and uncles were farmers, who ate their big meal at noon and worked very hard, pulling a living out of the soil.

With so much simplicity and bucolic bliss, you'd think Walt would have had a stress-free childhood, and in some ways he did.  His biographers write of happy times wandering the countryside by himself or with his Uncle Ed, but they also tell of the sometimes harsh realities of life on a farm with a father who had a temper and very high standards of behavior and performance.  I mention this because it sheds light on some of Walt's key traits which ultimately contributed to his unique success.

Anyone who has grown up with a perfectionistic adult figure knows the drill. Everything has to be done just so and their way. If you fall short of their expectations, there is often hell to pay.  At the same time it can plant seeds of discipline and order which can lead to expertise and mastery in the skills needed to succeed in life and business - depending on how you choose to respond to the influence.

The core human reactions to stress vary in a range psychologists bracket between fight or flight. The Darwinian  explanation is that anciently we expected one of two outcomes when confronted with a deadly threat; eat or be eaten. The biological response may tell the tale a little better; Our brains have two parallel paths which process input. One is automatic and the other rational. The automatic side has the edge, timing wise. It gets us ready to fight or flee ASAP.  At the same time, the rational path considers the bigger picture, compares it with memories and then supports or overrides the automatic, fight or flight, response.

The result is that our adult reactions to stress or surprise are a shifting blend of rational and emotional. Things we are repeatedly exposed to can become part of our firmware. Our initial, unconscious, responses are automatic and by the time we realize there may be other available paths, it is often too late to undo the damage, both to ourselves and others.

I see this scenario playing out in Walt's experience with renegotiating the contract for distribution of the Alice Adventures.  Charles Mintz was clearly an adversary, seeking the advantage over the younger, less experienced Disney.  When the attack is launched, Walt's first response is to fight - "I'll rebuild" and then flight - Walt quits, leaving nearly everything behind.

A similar scenario played out in the life of another iconic figure; Steve Jobs.  In 1985, he lost the battle for control of Apple, when John Scully and the board of directors forced him out.  Another interesting Jobs-Disney parallel is their mutual commitment to excellence.  Both Walt and Jobs had a reputation for ignoring costs in the pursuit of perfection early in their careers. They also both bounced back and ultimately succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations.

I'm not in the psychiatric trade, so I can't speak to this professionally, but over the years I've had a lot of experience with perfectionists.  It is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it drives people to incredible acts of creativity and achievement. On the other hand, it can cause immense misery and suffering when forcibly imposed on others.  That is the main difference I see between Disney and Jobs.  Although both were driven to excellence, Walt managed to keep his humanity about him almost all of the time.  Diane Disney one said of her father; "He only got mad when he felt hurt." Sometimes, our anger is a way to scare someone off who you are afraid may hurt you.

Other people's feelings were extremely important to Disney, probably in part because he was in touch and comfortable with his own. He had empathy for nearly everyone he ever met.  Walt was a private and simple man, one with roots in the heartland of America.  He understood the pain of feeling not good enough and the relief of being somewhere that was open and easy to understand. Somewhere like a small town with a main street where everyone knows your name and wants you to succeed.


Image from Tours Departing Daily - which is beyond a doubt the best collection of HDR Disney images on earth.

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