Your Career is Not a Disney Movie


Believe in Your (Animated) Self

A reader recently sent me an article from The Atlantic. It was titled (quite descriptively): You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids’ Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?

The writer, Luke Epplin, points out that modern animated kids films have largely fallen into a formulaic rut:

“[The protagonists are] anthropomorphized outcasts who must overcome the restrictions of their societies or even species to realize their impossible dreams.”

In these movies, explains Epplin:

“[I]t’s the naysaying authority figures who need to be enlightened about the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community…Following one’s dreams necessarily entrails the pursuit of the extraordinary in these films. The protagonists  sneer at the mundane, repetitive work performed by their unimaginative peers.”

It’s believing in one’s self, for example, that allows a fat panda to become a Kung Fu master, a to rat become an accomplished chef, and a creaky crop duster to become a world class racer — after only a bare minimum of training and essentially no experience.

The fools in these movies are those poor suckers who wasted their time practicing when all they really needed was a pep talk.

G-Rated Career Thinking

Epplin draws a connection between this narrative device and the rise of the cult of self-esteem among young children. I’m interested, however, in a different (and equally disturbing) connection.

These (literally) childish plot devices are eerily similar to the popular conversations surrounding career planning. The passion culture tells us that the key to an extraordinary life is to look deep, be true to your inner passion, and courageously ignore the naysayers as you pursue your dream.

Here’s a quote, for example, from a popular career guide:

“You see, I believe you already have everything you need inside of you. You are good enough the way you are. You’ve simply learned ideas that keep you from living up to your full potential.”

Here’s another quote, this one from one of the growing number of lifestyle design blogs:

“[D]eep down in the chambers of your heart where your personal legend lives, you know you were meant to change the world.”

It’s easy to imagine these quips coming out of the mouth of an anthropomorphized panda bear or kindly puffer fish in a Disney movie.

And this is a problem.

These similarities, once pointed out, emphasize an important and distressing reality: The ubiquitous suggestion that you must find your passion and overcome naysayers is not deep wisdom. It is, instead, the plot of a kiddie movie.

If you study real people who build remarkable lives in the real world, you find their paths are more nuanced, more complicated, and usually quite a bit more interesting. These paths tend to involve quite a bit of hard work — much of it conventional — and don’t tend to involve a lot of bold resistance to the status quo. (Society, it turns out, doesn’t care what you do for a living. It cares more about how well you do what you do.)

It’s time, in other words, for our taste in career advice to mature alongside our taste in movies.

30 thoughts on “Your Career is Not a Disney Movie”

  1. Agreed: The fault of kid movies is that they gloss over the nuance and complications of reality.

    The fault of the review of kid movies is that it glosses over the nuance and complications of kid movies. (Where’s the cross-section analysis of kid movies?)

    Agreed: Don’t buy the fungible “Esteem Yourself, Today!” books.

    Instead, buy your book because it’s more better?

    Is this blog an analysis or an advertisement?

    Either way, does that matter?

    Also, Palahnuik on beauty: “You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”

    That, dear readers, is beautiful.

  2. I’ve actually been thinking about this recently as someone who just graduated from college in May. Whenever you watch a movie about an underdog (animated or with real people but still geared towards a young audience), they have this five or ten minute montage of all their “hard work” and then they’re suddenly amazing and then the idea of “if you just work hard then you’ll be successful” gets perpetuated.

    I’m in the middle of revising my novel and it’s difficult. I know many of my friends who want to write a novel but get easily discouraged because it is a LOT of work so they either never start or never finish even a single piece of writing. But unlike my friends, I’ve basically geared my entire life towards writing and finding as many opportunities as possible to do so. But obviously (creative) writing isn’t really a lucrative career, so I’ve had to adjust and go towards technical writing which is why I’m lucky enough to have a job. I’m not ~*passionate*~ about technical writing but it’s been given me the opportunities to figure out how to combine my writing and technical skills to get a job while I work on my creative stuff on the side.

    Also, I think Monsters University is one Disney movie that might be different? One of the main characters, Mike Wazowski, is in love with the idea of becoming a very specific/highly competitive scaring major when he gets to college. Except throughout the entire movie he’s told by professors and students alike that he doesn’t have the qualities to succeed and towards the end of the movie, he realizes that everyone else had been and he was wrong. I was actually really surprised that the movie creators had taken that approach, but it was refreshing to see the hero realize that there are other paths and he shouldn’t hold onto dead end goals out of sheer stubbornness.

  3. In monsters inc they show the same mike guy as the assistant of the best scarer and ultimately they reform the whole monsters world.Just saying.
    And the fact that career wisdom might generate from the Disney movies in early 80-90’s might be really true because as far as I see almost all the kids around this age still have some anime movies as their most favorite anime of all time.
    Japanese manga series are more realistic in this approach.They always have to go through different levels.Earn points.And proceed to the next level of power and stuff.And they always try to be the best.So I guess second generation career advice will be different.It’s interesting how changing some little things in the beginning can make huge leaps afterwards.Butterfly effect.

  4. I read a great book title that sums up Cal’s ideas nicely, “It’s not about how good you are, It’s how good you want to become”.

    I think the most dangerous career advice today is that reaching the apex of any profession requires little hard work and education. Most people believe that the secret is to find the career that “matches” with their genetic makeup and follow that route. They think it will be easy and “it will come naturally to them”. This is a BIG mistake.

  5. While I do agree you need to put in the work, I always took the classic childhood lesson as exactly that. “You can do anything. But you need to put in the work to get there.” Some movies demonstrate this better than others. But saying the opposite, “don’t chase your dreams, you’re not capable” seems like an even worse message. At least in the blind attempt to chase them, you learn something about yourself. (Which would be “this is too much work for me,” not “I could *ever do this.”)

    A better follow-your-passion movie that doesn’t undermine the amount of work it takes is October Sky. Sure, the autobiography is less dramatic, but the lesson remains. You can achieve success in something you’re passionate about–and in this case, fight the status quo–just so long as you consistently put in the work. Perhaps Disney movies just need to put more weight on their “hard work” transition scenes.

    Chasing a dream is a trade-off. And contextual. If you’re an extreme case like Homer with a miserable default, there’s nothing to lose in chasing the near-impossible. On the other hand, if your out-of-reach dream is X, but you’re almost as happy doing Y, them sure, it might be better to just to do Y. Most people fall in between. You just need to determine whether the work is worth it.

  6. Planes is actually a much better movie in this regard. He practices after work every day, gets coaching first from a friend and then an experienced fliers, practices difficult (and not fun) technique drills, undergoes modifications to his engine and structure, and ends up a decent racer. He succeeds b using his limitations in a way that other planes could not follow, an gains allies along the way. It’s a surprisingly good representation of achieving greatness. More like Larry Bird than some creaky crop duster.

    But yes, Kung Fu Panda sucked.

  7. Kids need to watch old school educational television; i.e., “Tennessee Tuxedo.” Nearly every episode features the battle cry “Tennessee Tuxedo will not fail” followed later on by failure — because he didn’t listen to instruction long enough.

    Ah, the days when the sugary sweet cereal companies educated our youth…

  8. I grew up watching sci fi and wanted to be an astronaut. When I told my family and other adults what I wanted to be all they said was that I was a dreamer and find a real job. Well I’m a secretary now, but studying science, 30 years later. They still think I’m a dreamer and will never amount to anything. I know that I won’t be an astronaut, but I can still study science and then see where I’ll go with it. Sometimes going the other way is just as detrimental.

  9. Hey Cal, this is my second comment on your blog. While I agree that adults should be more realistic about career planning, I think it is unnecessary and foolish for Epplin to blame Disney movies. Because animated movies are usually about one and half hour you have to keep the details as short as possible, plus the recipe has been working since Odysseus: hero goes on to a long journey, overcomes the obstacles and defeats the antagonist. If Epplin has a better story arc that could be applied to a 90 minutes movie then he should not miss a second to write a movie script and rake in millions. So I don’t think it is fair and sensible to blame kid’s movies for the larger sociocultural phenomenon, and even if all movies were like Karate Kid, I don’t think the phenomenon would change. If anything we would have an even larger number of bad movies.

  10. Hi Cal,

    I once saw Eric Ries who has written a lot about success for entrepreneurs. He talks about how in movies about business success there is always a montage where the main character goes from being a regular guy with dreams to a successful businessman. Very similar to the Disney movie problem:

    “First, we see the plucky protagonist having an epiphany, hatching a great new idea. We learn about his or her character or personality, how he or she came to be in the right place at the right time, and how he or she took the dramatic leap to start a business. Then the photo montage begins. It’s usually short, just a few minutes of time-lapse photography or narrative.”

    “Unfortunately, the real work that determines the success of startups happens during the photo montage. It doesn’t make the cut in terms of the big story because it is too boring.”

  11. So I noticed on your bio, you are now 31 years old? Maybe I missed when this actually changed or you updated it past your birthday but in any case, happy birthday!

  12. Granted, life’s not a Disney movie. But, society still cares much more about what you do than how well you do it. Why? Because even though life isn’t a Disney movie, we sure as hell want it to be.

  13. It is simply stupid to compare the real and fictional world. The old moaning about bad effects of movies and similar stuff seems to continue – in 90’s adults spoke about action movies, that taught violence, as a method of achieving the goal, now Disney is next to blame. There is a certain misunderstanding here. Kids believe in fairy-tales, but only to a limited degree, and this goes for movies also. Their function is not to instruct, but to inspire, and there is nothing more freaking dull, than instructional kid movie. I agree, that inspiration is overvalued nowadays, but technically speaking it is a way to believe that any success at all is possible. Without that belief the hard work brings only burn-out, since, basically it is considered as pointless. As a therapist, I see people, that work hard, but fail to gather the fruits of their labor. They are not inspired, working just to support their vital functions or out of fear. I remember the story of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the youngest Mr. Olympia. He worked hard. Everybody did. He ate steroid. Everybody did. He dreamt about winning, like no one, and he won, many times, building the prominent career. Without hard work he would be a dreamer, without dreams he would be another pumped macho-boy. As a follower of Milton Erickson I believe that dreams are a method of managint your relationships with subconscious mind. Dreams do not exist on a level of goals and tasks, they are about values, and values are essential for well-timed development of human psyche. Dreams are always fiction, since they are never become real the way they were dreamed and this is good.

  14. Hey Cal, I quite agree but you just choosed some examples. What about The princess and the frog from DIsney. The main character works to jobs to get the money for her restaurant, and during the whole picture, she keeps saying that hard work is very important.

  15. Hi Cal,

    Thanks for the post, nicely says stuff i’ve suspected…. Also, the book you’ve linked to looks very interesting. Wondering why it doesn’t have a kindle edition?

  16. “You can do anything. But you need to put in the work to get there.” Some movies demonstrate this better than others. But saying the opposite, “don’t chase your dreams, you’re not capable” seems like an even worse message.

    That would be a worse message. Good thing I’m not suggesting it. My philosophy is that if you want to end up loving your working life, the choice of what you do is a minor piece (at best) in this puzzle. It’s how you do what you do, not pre-existing traits or passion, that matter.

    I think it is unnecessary and foolish for Epplin to blame Disney movies.

    I sort of agree. Kids movies are supposed to be fun — we can’t place such expectations on them. At the same time, this bolsters my argument here. If you’re career thinking matches what’s spouted in a fun, light, kids movies…you need more advanced career thinking!

    So I noticed on your bio, you are now 31 years old?

    June 23rd!

    It is simply stupid to compare the real and fictional world. The old moaning about bad effects of movies and similar stuff seems to continue

    I’m not claiming that kids movies affect how we think about our careers. I’m saying it’s a bad sign if your career thinking shares the same level of sophistication as a kids movie.

    Hey Cal, I quite agree but you just choosed some examples. What about The princess and the frog from DIsney.

    Let’s not over think this…

  17. June 23rd!

    Happy super belated birthday!

    I’m not claiming that kids movies affect how we think about our careers. I’m saying it’s a bad sign if your career thinking shares the same level of sophistication as a kids movie.

    It’s more common than you think, especially on college campuses. I know a few people, in their twenties, who still believe Disney’s “if you can dream it, you can do it!” mantra is the ONLY approach to school and work. Like you said, kiddie movies are supposed to be fun, and thinking of being able to do something means it’s do-able — like you said here — but a more sophisticated approach is required as we get older.

  18. I really like this post, and I would apply its criticisms to even adult movies that follow a “damn the naysayers” arc.

    For instance, the movie Moneyball. Fantastic story! Even better book. And the protagonist (Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane) certainly DID defy the naysayers…but what the movie leaves out (probably because it’s less exciting) is all of the tedious, painstaking research, analysis, and scouting that contributed to the “Moneyball” approach. Baseball-savvy viewers know that a man named Bill James self-published books about baseball statistics in relative obscurity, for no money, for decades before MLB teams caught wind of his radical ideas.

    Instead of showing all of that, the movie portrays Beane as simply “having” this wisdom, with the only problem being to defend his vision against the critics. In doing so, they ignored all of the admirable and thankless effort that created that vision in the first place.

  19. And let’s not forget the damage that the passion culture does to people who don’t have any particular passion – the scorn, the judgments, the dismissals.
    It’s as if the passion culture wants to make those who don’t have any particular passion believe that they are somehow internally and permanently deficient, basket cases, worthless.

  20. I agree with you in this post, but would like to add a gendered perspective I’ve noticed in society. I am female, was raised on “follow your dreams” and “reach for a star, you might not get there, but you will go farther than if you never reached at all”. Crap. Well into adulthood I observed that my male counterparts were getting places and I wasn’t. I think it’s a language thing. Boys are talks to with more concrete language. Replace the word “dream” with “goal” and suddenly you’ve got a structure with steps and a means of reaching that goal. An actual ladder to climb. I’m 45 and finally getting somewhere in my career since I have discarded all of the fluffy pep talks I heard as a kid and replaced them with real goals and real steps. Your blog has helped! Thanks.


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