Life Is Not A Disney Movie

I recently read an article from The Atlantic. It was titled: You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids' Movie Reinforce The Cult of Self-Esteem?

The author points out that modern animated films have largely fallen a predictive rut:

"anthropomorphized outcast who must overcome the restrictions of their societies or even species to realize their impossible dreams."

These movies tell us that it's believing in one's self, that allows a fat panda to become a Kung Fu master,a to rat become an accomplished chef and an unscary monser to become a top-notch scarer - after only a bare minimum of training and essentially no experience.

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

The author makes a connection between this narrative device and the rise of the cult of self-esteem among young children. I want to take it into a different direction.

These plots are similar to popular conversations about career planning. The career guides tell us that the key to an amazing life is to be true to your inner passion and ignore the haters as you pursue your dream.

For example here is a quote from such a guide:

"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."

It's easy to imagine these quotes out of the mouth of an anthropomorphized rat or kindly fluffy panda bear.

"Follow your passion" is bad advice.

There are 2 main reasons why this is true:

  • The first reason is that most people don't have a pre-defined passion to follow. This is especially true if you consider young people who are just starting to be on their own for the first time. The advice to "follow your passion" is frustratingly meaningless if, like many people, you don't have a passion to follow.

  • The second reason is that we don't have much evidence that matching your job to a pre-existing interest makes you more likely to find that work satisfying.

Following your passion is not a bad thing. "Follow your passion" as an advice is bad. My philosophy is that if you want to end up loving your working life, the choice of what you do is a minor piece in this puzzle. It's how you do what you do, not pre-existing trait or passion, that matter.

These 2 points are detailed in Cal Newport's talk: Follow your passion is bad advice.

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. I'm not saying the opposite, "don't chase your dreams, you're not capable", because that would seem like an even worse message.

Chasing a dream is a trade-off. And contextual. If you're and 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, then sure, it might better to just do Y. Most people fall in between. You just need to determine whether the work is worth it.

If you study real people who build amazing lives in the real world, you will find that their paths are more nuanced, more complicated, and usually a bit more interesting. These paths tend to involve quite a bit of hard work, much of it conventional, and doesn't tend to involve a lot of bold resistance to the status quo. It turns out that society doesn't care what you do for a living, but rather about how well you do what you do.

I am not blaming Disney movies. That would be unnecessary and foolish. Kids movies are supposed to be fun - we can't place such explanations on them. At the same time this strengthens my argument here. If you're career thinking matches what's spouted in a fun, light, kids movies... you need more advanced career thinking!

In other words, it's time for our taste in career advice to mature alongside our taste in movies.