Not long ago I watched an episode of American Experience on Walt Disney. I’ve always meant to read a biography on Disney, but never got around to it. Now under pressure from a family member, who had already seen it, I flipped on the tube. A year or two ago I read Walter Jacobson’s Steve Job’s biography, and watched a few mini-bios on TV. As I watched the American Experience documentary my mind kept turning to Steve Jobs, and I began counting up the similarities.
The most obvious thing they have in common is they made their fortunes in California, and in uniquely west coast industries. And though Walt Disney was born in Chicago, he seems more Californian than almost any native, certainly Steve Jobs. They both nearly single-handedly created entire industries while having little or no post-high school education. During times, decades, that are emblematic of their companies. (It’s hard to imagine Disney’s focus on wholesome story-telling revolutionizing the entertainment industry today.) Interestingly story-telling is where their legacies intersect. Disney bought Pixar in 2006.
Both only briefly worked for other people, and as different as their public images were ( cultivated assiduously by the best PR) Disney as the lovable uncle; Steve Jobs the boy genius. Both embodied their companies and were nearly as recognizable, and cast themselves accordingly. Jobs at his product roll-outs, and Disney’s in his iconic TV program, The Wonderful World of Disney.
As captains of industry they and rode ups and downs of corporate warfare. Most notably board room take-overs (won and lost) for Jobs, and unsuccessful union busting for Disney. Uncle Walt wasn’t always the warm-hearted, kindly gentlemen American’s welcomed into their living rooms on Sunday evenings. He mirrored Jobs in his reluctance to give compliments, and credit to his employees.
Both were the products of blue-collar homes, and struggled in grade school. Both had ‘complicated’ ‘families of origin,’ as they say.
The PBS documentary had little to say about Disney’s relationship with his father, other than he was strict and unyielding when it came to discipline, and that Disney had feelings of being an outsider in his own family. (Both men are described as loners throughout their lives.) Jobs was famously adopted and ultimately wanted nothing to do with his biological father. Though Jobs loved and respected his adoptive father, Paul Jobs, they had little in common concerning Steve’s tech interests and personal ambitions. Yet both entrepreneurs learned the critical lessons from their fathers. Job’s the importance of quality and craftsmanship, and Disney a breath-taking work ethic, and perhaps the preciousness of a childhood lost.
The pair died at relatively young ages, and of cancer. While both men hid their illnesses from the public and many friends, it left them time to wrestle with their mortality and legacies. During this time their focus became designing and planning dream facilities. Disney pouring his time into Disney World, and Job’s into the state-of-the-art Apple Campus. Both were family men with long-lasting marriages. Though Job’s had a notorious and ugly relationship with the mother of his first child, he transformed into a remarkably settled family man with his wife of twenty years and their three children.
“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths”.