I am going to write about The Little Mermaid,
I told my friend on the phone. “I’m talking about the Disney version, not the …,” and before I could finish the sentence with “not the Hans Christian Andersen version,” my friend groaned. Many of the adults I know would groan, roll their eyes or sigh in exasperation at a mere mention of Disney princesses. Don’t you? Be honest. I do. I am a proud uncle who proactively “de-pinks” our nieces and introduces them to books like Jane Yolen’s Not All Princesses Dress in Pink, which ended up sitting on the bookshelf, collecting dust and being ignored by the little girls dressed in pink. I don’t know what it is about the Disney princesses that make some of us squirm. Yet, we all like Disney animations. Admit it, you have your favorites, and so do I. But maybe after hearing Let It Go a hundred times and seeing the princesses in unexpected places, like in the aisles at your grocery store, drugstore, and shopping mall, the magic wears off. While we can debate the strengths and flaws of these princess characters, many actually portray admirable qualities and values. What values do we find within these characters if we see beyond commercialization and let go of our judgment? An event in my professional life gave me a chance to reexamine one of these princesses through one of my favorite songs, “Part of Your World,” from the Disney The Little Mermaid (1989). After reading and rereading the lyrics a few times, I saw a new light in Ariel, the Little Mermaid. I didn’t see her as a princess. I saw her as leadership potential.
It all started with a thick binder that I had to read and lug around on my long subway commute. I was invited to be on the selection committee for the high potential leadership program at a large organization. The program attracted a lot of applicants, as evidenced by the thick binder with more than a few dozens of applications inside. It was our job as the selection committee to read the resumes, essays, and letters of recommendations, score the applications, debate and select those we thought were leadership potential to participate in the program.
The applications came in a wide variety. Many shined with stories of accomplishments, visions and aspirations, and moved me to be their advocate, while others left me unconvinced or even frustrated. What is it that made some applications stronger than others? How would an applicant signal to the decision makers that he or she was a potential leader? In this case, I was a decision maker, so what moved me? I didn’t realize that I had been mulling over these questions for so many days that they had seeped into my brain.
After another morning of reading applications on the subway, I started humming “Part of Your World” in my head. The song stuck, and I decided to look up the lyrics online. Reading a song gave a different perspective from singing it or listening to it. Without the melody, I focused on the words themselves, and that was when I realized that the song was my answer to the questions about leadership potential. In that song, Ariel describes a world beyond and her desire to get there. The words read like a resume and a cover letter. In my mind, really good ones. If she had been in my binder, I would have picked her.
The song opens with Ariel’s description of her treasures, or, if you will, her assets, her human capital, her skills and experience. Even though her human vocabulary is limited, she gives you specific details of what she has to offer, “gadgets,” “gizmos,” “whozits,” “whatzits,” and “thingamabobs.” She also quantifies them like the twenty thingamabobs she has. If you have done recruiting, I’m sure you share my appreciation when reading a resume that gets specific with actions and impacts and does its best to quantify those achievements.
Then, she asks us a rhetorical but leading question:
Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?
Wouldn’t you think I am the girl
The girl who has everything?
She makes you think that she has got it all as she asks “how many wonders can one cavern hold?” Then, she reveals her drive as she bursts out,
But who cares? No big deal. I want more.
She proceeds to lay out her vision, what wanting more entails. Her desired goals are specific. She doesn’t tell us that she just wants to get out of the ocean to go somewhere vaguely defined as better or more exciting. Instead, she helps us visualize specifically the end state: where she wants to go and what she will do when she gets there. She wants to be where the people are and wants to see them dancing. Her statement might sound simple to us humans, but for someone who hasn’t met a person or knows what a dance is, this vision is outside the box and yet specific at the same time. For those of us who have written college or graduate school applications or read ones, how many of us have struggled answering essay questions like: Describe your career goals in 500 words. Or, what do you want to get out of this program? Save the world, you say. But how strong is that statement if another applicant says, “I want to save the world, and here is how I envision the new world to look like and how I plan to get there”?
While Ariel’s vision is outside the box, it is grounded on reality. Her exposure to the world above comes from trinkets and objects that her seagull friend has brought her. They make her ask questions and spur her vision. Ariel reminds me of some of the potential leaders that I have encountered in my life. They might be young and inexperienced, but they have been exposed to other leaders, mentors or role models who have given them specific examples of what they want to have or whom they want to be in the future.
While her song is about aspiration, Ariel is humble and demonstrates her ability to self-reflect and identify skill gaps that she has yet to learn to fill. She recognizes her own limitation where she is and the potential of doing more if she has an opportunity to be up on land. She identifies what else she needs to accomplish what she wants to do:
Flippin’ your fins, you don’t get too far
Legs are required for jumping, dancing
She also recognizes that there are words and concepts she doesn’t know like street and legs. She wants to ask questions, learn and know. Her questions are specific like, “What is a fire and why does it … burn?”
She is saying: if I am given this opportunity, this is what I want to learn and this is what I can do.
Ariel sings this song with a tone of joy and hope. Such a tone draws in listeners. For those of us who know her story, she has just been reprimanded by her father right before she sings this song. While she is frustrated, she only briefly verbalizes her frustration. She does not linger on it, and turns that frustration into her positive driving force. She moves on by saying:
Bright young women sick of swimmin’
Ready to stand
This positive attitude reminds me of a piece of advice that someone shared with me. She said that when you want to do something, do it from a position of assets and not deficits. In other words, do not apply for a new job, a graduate school, or a training program because you are resentful with the status quo and want to get away. Do it because you want it given what you have. That is what Ariel is doing here. She turns her frustration, her knowledge and her desire into a vision with positive forces behind her.
That is how I rediscovered Ariel – the Disney version – in a new light, with newfound respect. If I had magical powers, I would give her legs, send her up to the shore, and even give her money for matches and dance lessons. Even though I don’t have magical powers in the realm of merfolk, I still have non-magical influences in the realm of humans. I can be a strong advocate to those who convince me of their accomplishments, visions and aspirations and help them to a path to realize their dreams, as I did with those strong applicants. And I can also say this: Girls (and boys and adults), wear pink if you want to. What is more important is to show the world your inner Little Mermaid. Paint a vision, be specific, be curious, dream big and be real, start your journey from a place of have and not a place of lack, and chase your dream with joy.