Words Matter

“In diversity there is beauty and there is strength. We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of that tapestry are equal in value no matter their color.” —Maya Angelou

How do you visualize?  If you close your eyes and think about home, family and friends, can you see them in your mind’s eye?  I remember having an in-depth conversation with Ed Catmull who confessed that he can’t visualize mental images at all.  Most people can close their eyes and conjure up images.  But that’s right, Ed Catmull, the scientist who revolutionized computer 3D graphics and co-founded Pixar, has a blind mind’s eye.  It’s a condition called aphantasia.  Ed conducted a survey of artist and production teams across the studio and discovered he was not alone.  In fact, some of the world’s best animators have aphantasia as well.  Glen Keane, who created Ariel (The Little Mermaid), also has no visual imagery.  

How we represent our world in our minds does vary, person to person.  Some of us visualize, some of us don’t.  But we all model the world around us in a way that helps us interact with each other, relate to things and make decisions.  Over time, we construct mental models that help us filter what we see, hear and feel. We build synaptic short cuts that prevent us from being overwhelmed with sensory experiences and our daily work.  We enter our mind palace, even if it can’t be seen, and think about concepts, plan projects, solve problems and even practice interactions with each other.  How do we do that?  Have you noticed?  Well, similar to you reading this today, we do that through “words”.  Now maybe those words are symbols, lists or concepts, but they are a collection of mental Lego blocks that we use to construct our mental reality. How many of those atomic units we have collected and what they are, makes up our mental vocabulary. 

When I was learning Spanish in high school, I remember the moment when I had gained enough understanding of the language to begin creating mental models in Spanish. Up till that point, I realized my mental models were all in English and I was passing all of those models through a “translation function” in my mind instead of thinking natively in Spanish.  “Gran mesa roja” became atomic in my representation of a big red table. I never achieved full model (immersive thinking in Spanish) but it gave me the insight into how we think.  Words and patterns of words are the building blocks of how we see and interact with the world around us.

Words matter.  Because words make up our perception of the world, the words we use affect us and those around us.  How we think, evaluate and relate with things is shaped by our words.  Sometimes the words and phrases that we collect and use to build mental models can be harmful.  For example, technological phrases like “blacklist” and “whitelist” are often used to denote things that should be denied or allowed.  While the connotation of “whitelist” is generally positive, something that you want included and accepted, the inference of “blacklist” is predominately negative, something that should be shunned, blocked or denied.  The general concepts make sense, but the words used can subconsciously create a mental association that anything “black” is bad, negative, a threat or an object that should be denied or avoided.  Tragically, this can shape our model such that a “black person” is unintentionally connected with the same connotation.  This is the danger.  Words shape our reality and words can project unintended meaning or reality onto others just by simple association.

I’m proud to say that as part of our inclusive efforts, Disney technology leadership is taking on this issue so that we can level up.  Technical words and phrases that are culturally insensitive or can threaten our inclusive efforts will be replaced with more inclusive terms.  In many cases, these are actually better descriptors for the intended concepts anyway.  Using phrases like “allow-list” or “deny-list” not only encapsulates the concept but describes it as well.  Now, to be fair, I know this isn’t an easy transition.  A lot of these words are deeply ingrained in the industry and our mental models.  But it is the right thing to do.  We don’t want unintended association to negatively impact us or any of our fellow team members.  Everyone is a welcome member of our human family and we are willing to reshape our language and mental models to help enforce that love for each other.

Join me in helping raise awareness on this issue.  Call me out if I accidentally use words that are non-inclusive.  To reshape tomorrow, we need to challenge each other, our teams, our vendors and ourselves to use this more inclusive language.  If you have any ideas that might help, please let me know.  We can create a better more inclusive world.  Sometimes it is as easy as changing one word at a time.

Pursue Your Dreams

“Even though I worked hard at times, it was always magical. I have to confess I enjoyed every minute of it. Even the down times I enjoyed, because we were creating something that would make people smile and lift their hearts. You can’t think of a better job than that.” – Floyd Norman

A tall skinny young man passed through the gates of the Walt Disney Studios.  He was on his way to meet Ken Seiling in the Personnel Department.  As he looked around the campus, he must have thought back to his childhood.  He had been so inspired by Walt Disney cartoons and animated features.  He loved drawing.  He often found canvases to adorn with his art.  That included, much to his parent’s dismay, even the walls of his house as a young child.  Growing up he had dreamed of being part of Walt Disney’s magic factory.  His dream motivated him to reach out to Disney and was eventually connected with Ken.  Ken agreed to meet with him after he graduated from High School.  Today was that day.

His dream was happening before his eyes.  He was inside the Disney creative factory speaking with Ken.  Ken offered him a job in Traffic.  But understanding the young man’s passion he quickly added, the wise choice would be going back to school.  “Go back to school,” may have been disappointing to hear.  It would have been tempting to take the easier path and just settle for the Traffic job.  However, that is not what happened.  The young man took the advice and went back to school.  Three years later in February 1956, he, along with other starry-eyed youngsters reported to work at 500 South Buena Vista Avenue to start their careers in the cartoon business.  He later reflected, “like Alice, we had entered Wonderland.” 

That young man was none other than Floyd Norman who went on to become a Disney Legend, spending over 60 years in animation. He is credited on many familiar titles including Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, Mulan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc.

Like Floyd, we all have dreams. But how do we act on them?  Do we settle or do we keep pursuing?  Hopefully, like me, you are inspired by Floyd’s story to keep running after your dreams, don’t be afraid to reach out and try.  But also, don’t be afraid to pivot, learn and try again.  We may not all become Disney Legends like Floyd, but we can all run after our dreams and make a difference.  It begins with us.  Keep trying, keep the faith.

PS – Check out Floyd’s story in this great documentary on his life: Floyd Norman: An Animated Life

Floyd Norman
Floyd Norman

Creativity, Inc.

creativity-incCreativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration Hardcover

by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

 

Disney War

Author, James B. Stewart, provides a chronological account of the Walt Disney Company during the Eisner 20-year tenure.  This book of nearly 600 pages dives in to the details of the events, players, tragedies and successes that surrounded the on-boarding of Michael Eisner, his career as Chairman and CEO, and the drama surrounding his departure. 

The book is divided into three sections: The Wonderful World of Disney, The Disenchanted Kingdom, and Disney War. 

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler (2006).

While I haven’t read every biography of this famous visionary, this book about Walt Disney has to be one of the most comprehensive studies of his life.  The attention to detail and depth of research and investigation are exceptional.  The references, notes and bibliography comprise around 100 pages of the 880 page, 2.8 pound volume.

Animation is creating the illusion or alternate reality of life (see the Wikipedia article Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life).   Gabler describes how Walt had an insatiable desire to bring a perfect alternate reality to life.  This steered his passions and energy throughout his life.  Through animation, Walt could project joy, hope, struggles, persistence and emotion onto the two dimensional world of the silver screen.  His desire for perfection demanded quality and innovation.  From the early shorts where he pioneered new levels of animation and synchronized sound (Steamboat Willie) to the realism of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first American animated feature film in movie history, Walt wanted to bring a new level of entertainment to the masses.  He was shaping a reality that would stir people, cause them to laugh and to cry, to enjoy and to aspire. 

Walt was never happy with status-quo.  With the success of Snow White fueling his dreams, he built the Burbank studio to bring to life something even greater.  With Walt pushing for greater realism in animation, Pinnochio and Bambi were trying to exceed Snow White.  But his heart was always leaning toward something grander.  Consistently Walt would become bored with what he had mastered and would need to push through some new wall.  After Snow White, that would be Fantasia.  He wanted to bring music to life on the animated screen.  This new feature would pioneer an early stereophonic technology called Fantasound, making Fantasia the first commercial film with multichannel sound.  The film opened to mixed critical reaction and failed to generate a large commercial audience, which left Walt in financial straits, something that characterized most of his life, at least until Disneyland.  Author, Neal Gabler comments about this in a Q&A session on Amazon.com:

It is astonishing that Walt Disney was always–and I do mean always–in dire financial straits until the opening of Disneyland. The primary reason wasn’t that his cartoons weren’t making money, because they were–at least until the war in Europe when the loss of that market meant disaster for the features. But even as they were making money, the studio was losing money because Walt was constitutionally incapable of cutting corners, enforcing economies, laying off staff. The only thing about which Walt Disney cared was quality. He thought that quality was the way to maintain his preeminence, though quality also had the psychological advantage of letting him perfect his world. The problem was that quality was expensive. To cite just one example, Walt spent more than a hundred thousand dollars setting up a training program for would-be animators, though even then the return was small because Walt was so picky that very few of the candidates actually qualified to work at the studio. Money meant very little to Walt Disney. It was only a means to an end, never an end in itself.

After Fantasia, Walt needed something new but instead found himself trying to manage and sustain his studio.  The creative “family” he had created over the years turned on him with a strike and the unrelenting creditors demands soon steered him toward survival mode.  Walt and his brother Roy managed to keep the studio together, but at a cost of quality.  Economically produced features like Dumbo and a long string of government sponsored shorts and educational films helped float the studio through hard financial times.  Walt was unhappy in his new role.  Instead of inventing something new, Walt invested in new hobbies, backyard railroad and minatures (from Wikipedia):

During 1949, Disney and his family moved to a new home on a large piece of property in the Holmby Hills district of Los Angeles, California. With the help of his friends Ward and Betty Kimball, owners of their own backyard railroad, Disney developed blueprints and immediately set to work on creating a miniature live steam railroad for his backyard. The name of the railroad, Carolwood Pacific Railroad, originated from the address of his home that was located on Carolwood Drive.

Walt’s passion for the railroad and building miniatures was intertwined with his next great adventure in creating a new reality:  Disneyland.  To dislocate from the now mundane pressures at the Studio, Walt poured renewed energy into his newly formed WED Enterprises to dream and create Disneyland.  This would occupy his focused interest for several years of planning, financing, constructing and operating (with Walt taking personal attention to details and continually “plussing” the park).   Walt loved to meet a challenge and financing Disneyland was definitely a challenge.  However, he had a solution:  Television.   Walt led the charge to bridge the gap between film studios and television.  He has been fascinated with the new medium and his Disneyland idea propelled his desire to enter this new world.  Using a series called Disneyland  and later after the opening of the park, Walt Disney Presents that aired on ABC, Walt would personally host the show that consisted of cartoons, live-action features, and documentaries.  Much of the material was designed to create awareness for Disneyland but was also used to promote upcoming studio feature films.  The show later moved to NBC and taking advantage of the new color television changed its name to Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.

When he did finally pull away from the operations of the park, it was only to focus his attention on a new form of animation, this time in three-plus dimensions: audio animatronics.  Among other things, Walt was focused on creating a believable moving human model in the “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” exhibit for the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair.   After the success of the Mr. Lincoln exhibit, this and other attractions created for the fair (“It’s a Small World” and “Progressland”) were relocated to Disneyland.

Community planning became the next focus on Walt’s life.  He wanted to take the clean and controlled environment that he had been able to create at Disneyland and expand that to a scale of a city.  He invested time and energy researching city planning.  He wanted to bring an idealized community to life through his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT).  This began his search for land that eventually ended up in Florida and became the plans for Disneyworld, now the largest and most visited theme park in the world.  Sadly, he would die on December 15, 1966, prior to realizing the next step in his dream. The night before Walt died, Roy had visited the hospital room and said that he was staring at the ceiling and pointing to where everything was going to be located at EPCOT, including the entrance and exit roads.   With Roy’s leadership of the company, Disneyworld did open but Walt’s community of tomorrow would not be realized.  Instead, a world’s fair, theme park version of his ideas would open in 1982 and be named EPCOT.