I started out this series by saying that Walt Disney is one of my heroes. This is not to say that Walt was perfect, or even consistently admirable. There are plentiful rumors and tales of Walt’s anti-semitism, despotic management style, mercurial temperament or politically insensitive transgressions. The Disney Studio was far from the happiest place on earth. Disney animators unionized after promises of profit sharing on the hugely profitable Snow White vaporized and Walt subsequently scooped up all the credit for the amazing artistic and technical achievement of the studio team. Even longtime friend Ub Iwerks had a trial separation from Walt for 4 years after being constantly shoved out of the spotlight (although he subsequently returned and spent most of his remaining career with Disney). Yes, Walt had a monumental ego. Yes, he was a glory-hound. And yes, he could be a tyrant to work for.
But that’s not how we remember Walt.
We remember his as a visionary, an artistic pioneer, a maker of magic and possibly the most powerful entertainment icon of the 20th Century. His presence was so powerful that the company foundered for years after his death, trying to guide themselves with the management mantra: What Would Walt Do?
You see, the way we remember things is substantially different that the way things actually are. The same is true for people. Eulogies never inventory the deceased’s many faults (because we all have many faults). They memorialize their strengths, their gifts and their accomplishments.
Leveling and Sharpening
In order to jam things into our long term memory, we take facts and distill them into an idealized version of reality. It’s called “Leveling” and “Sharpening”. We “level” out the mediocre, the mundane and details we just don’t agree with, basically eliminating them as unnecessary “noise” from our memory. Then, we “sharpen” the extraordinary, whether it be extraordinarily good or extraordinarily bad. Finally, we pick one or the other. We tend not store diametrically opposed opinions of things or people. It creates too much cognitive conflict. We either like things (or people) or dislike them. If we like them, we filter out the negatives and build up the positives. If we dislike them, we do the reverse.
It’s this human tendency that I talked about before in Daniel Kahnemann’s exploration of remembered happiness vs experiential happiness. We level and flatten our lives as well, forever storing an idealized (or demonized) version of what actually happened.
So, for me, although I’m aware of Walt’s faults, that’s not really part of my “image” of the man. I focus on his accomplishments and many gifts. And as I inventory them, I am comfortable in calling him one of my heroes. Walt’s achievements were, by any measure, extraordinary. Perhaps they would be beyond the reach of someone less driven, less egotistical or less tyrannical. Perhaps, perhaps not. But that’s not really for me to judge. What is important to me is that Walt achieved them.
And there is my final lesson from Disney. It’s the extraordinary that will be remembered. It’s when we reach beyond our limits that we determine what we’ll be remembered for. The mundane details of our lives will get lost in the retelling, along with our mistakes and faults, if we strive to achieve something remarkable.