Happy (just not enough)

Walt Disney created and invited us to the “happiest place on earth.” Do you think he believed that the place itself – the castle and the rides and the well-manicured grounds – was the source of that happiness? Or do you think that he delighted in providing a backdrop, a scene onto which we could project our own visions of happiness with and around the people we love, the relationships that are the real source of our happiness?

Whatever Disney has become, I like the romantic idea that Walt attempted to live into the latter question, that he was simply creating a new environment, one never before imagined, within which we could stimulate and reenforce the best of ourselves and the best of those we love. That he could build an empire on that premise might have, but probably didn’t surprise him.

Walking down Main Street this morning, I carried a sense of opportunity that Walt and Mickey’s playground could and would provide that very stimulus for me and my family. That walk remains magical to me, a few moments of suspended reality and appreciation for an extraordinary vision superbly brought to life.

As the day advanced and the spring break crowd grew larger, I appreciated something else that Walt in all his genius could not possibly have imagined: that it wouldn’t be enough for us; that no matter how creative and fanciful, how daring and surprising, this island of fantasy and adventure could never stand up to the onslaught of the mobile device.

The happiest place on earth is real. The catch is that it only exists when and where we allow it to. And it seems, more and more, that we are not willing to do that. With every glance at the phone we are reminded of what and where and with whom we are not, rather than what and where and with whom we are. That kind of dissociation from the present moment, even at a place as remarkable as Disneyland, makes Disneyland less than remarkable.

Because it’s not about the place. It is always and only about the people. And when the people are present, curious and engaged with one another and their surroundings, that place – any place – feels magical. And when they are not, there is no amount of window dressing that can do a thing about it.

No one has taken the magic from us, we’ve done that to ourselves. And we alone will have to decide if we’re willing to take it back.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

On the Frontier

American mythology has long included the archetype of the “self-made man.” And no place is associated with that archetype quite like the American west. Think of covered wagons and remote outposts, think of cowboys and ranchers, think of miners and the Gold Rush. Think of the John Wayne/Clint Eastwood ethos. Think of Henry Ford, Ray Kroc, Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. For that matter, just think of Silicon Valley.

Pioneers, adventurers, trailblazers. Vigorous, steadfast and resilient. They set out to conquer some part of a vast, undeveloped territory and make it their own. The “self-made man” goes on a hero’s journey: he sets out to fulfill a vision, is forced to overcome both internal and external obstacles to achieve it, finds resources within himself that he didn’t realize he had and ultimately, against all odds, achieves his dream.

And he does it alone.

Here in the present day American west, and in the broader American culture, we still live in the shadow of this romantic legacy. We obsess over our jobs, our homes, our stuff. We carve out a small space – an eighth of an acre in most cases – and make it our castle. We preserve at great lengths the old story of individualism, what I alone can do, what I most dream of doing, in order to get our piece, our slice of the dream.

And this becomes the operating system of our neighborhoods, our “NIMBY” communities and our corporations most of all.

So many of our most prominent, influential corporations, through their failed performance management and reward systems, a relentless focus on short-term results, through lip service to vision and values, leadership development, social responsibility and employee engagement, are no more than temples of self-congratulation and self-worship. They are, all too often, simply a construct for the very few to accumulate as much as they possible can while the very many do the hard work to make that possible.

All of this you already know. What I hope you also know is that there are small and powerful exceptions. The inspiration for this post, in fact, came from the comments of a team member I worked with earlier in the week. We were in the midst of a conversation in which we were exploring the intersection of individual, team and corporate values. An expatriate from Brazil, he shared how much he appreciated this kind of interaction with his teammates because so much of his American experience is marked by the sort of individual compartmentalization described above. With typical Brazilian enthusiasm he described his desire to be more connected, to literally be closer to his colleagues, in a culture that seems to work so hard to avoid that kind of intimacy.

I believe that what he is asking for, what he is seeking is a new frontier. And it is there for us if we are willing to take the steps. This new frontier is marked by a more purposeful kind of interaction, one that preserves a focus on the individual but in the larger context of how she connects and contributes to the larger group of which she is a part. It is a frontier of deep and challenging conversations about why we are here, and what we are meant to achieve. It is a conversation that calls on us to recognize that our actions have an impact beyond ourselves and that we are responsible for those outcomes, good or bad.

It is a frontier that demands us to wake up to the truth that everything is connected, that how we honor the person in front of us is how we honor all things.

The “self-made man” is a myth for one simple reason: no one does it alone.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.