“This book is not a memoir”, reads one of the early chapters of Robert Iger’s new book, The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of The Walt Disney Company, who quickly goes on to write something that seems strikingly similar to a memoir, and a superb one at that. Iger’s new book is a wonderful recollection of his long-career at The Walt Disney Company that began after working his way through Cap Cities/ABC Television leading to the Disney purchase of the company, and beyond. Iger’s book is filled with emotion, depth, and spends a great deal of time dwelling on complex topics in personal life and business, and the intertwining mortality of the two. Iger’s book is both motivational and cautionary, tied together by his desire to portray his life lessons to the individual consumer, which works quite well.
What is fascinating about Iger’s book is the parallels between Ride of a Lifetime and Michael Eisner’s Work in Progress, published in 1998. It’s fascinating to read Iger’s own perspective of various topics discussed in Eisner’s book at the height of his success at The Walt Disney Company, including Eisner’s pursuit of Capital Cities that led Iger to Disney, the struggle that the company faced with the hiring of Michael Ovitz, and the spectacular failure of Walt Disney Animation Studios during the early 2000s, which Eisner ended his book looking ahead toward. While plenty of books have been written on the topic of Eisner’s final years at Disney, Iger’s is perhaps the most nuanced and leveled; taking a key understanding to seeing the various missteps that had gone wrong during Eisner’s last few years, but also acknowledging Eisner’s spectacular work during that era preceding it. This book does a wonderful job of doing a balancing act between showcasing the emotion and drama that surrounded that era, and the bitter ending it resulted in, leading the way to Iger’s role as CEO of the company.
Immediately, Ride of a Lifetime is truly an E-ticket ride of emotions. Iger’s preface of the book recounts one particular week in 2016 where the grand opening of Shanghai Disneyland, a personal project he had overseen since 1998, was finally set to occur. That week was anything but joyous for the Disney CEO, who was struggling with the news of a terrorist attack near Walt Disney World soil at the Pulse nightclub (affecting several Disney Cast Members and their family members) and an alligator attack on a young child on Disney property. Iger recounts breaking down in tears in his hotel room while personally dealing with the child’s parents and the safety of his Cast Members from thousands of miles away, all while attempting to put on a brave face to cut a ribbon on a personal project that should have been a monumental celebration.
Elsewhere are moments of beauty in The Ride of a Lifetime that often tie into one of the underlying themes within this memoir. On several occasions chronicled throughout Iger’s life, the book dwells upon themes of mortality; not simply between life and death, but perhaps separation from one’s own work. Ride of a Lifetime is a story about powerful individuals and their separation from their power, whether that be Michael Eisner, George Lucas, or Iger’s mentor at ABC, Roone Arledge. With gripping emotion, Iger recounts Eisner’s final days at the company, who, following twenty-one years of growth and success at the company, was finally being shown the door with a tarnished reputation. He shares what he imagines could have been going through Eisner’s head as he drove out of the studio lot for the very last time, meeting his own corporate mortality. Later in the book, Iger recounts instances in which Eisner attempted to sway opinions of the board within the company he once controlled, and his inability to finally let go of the legacy he once held. With Lucas, he remembers the emotional connection that the Star Wars creator had with his property and the clear difficult emotion it took for Lucas to sign on the dotted line on that fateful day in 2012 in which Disney purchased Lucasfilm for 4.4 billion dollars, and the life Lucas would live without the creative control he once held. Finally, Iger’s mentor Roone Arledge’s journey was met with physical and professional mortality, who from his very deathbed was still in an effort to continue with his impact at ABC-Television, even though the company and the industry had moved on without him. These emotional, and often heartbreaking, moments are what make Ride of a Lifetime a beautiful memoir chronicling some of the most fascinating eras of the company.
Throughout the book, Iger discusses his cherished and sometimes complicated, relationship with Apple and Pixar founder Steve Jobs. In an effort to repair the damaged relationship between Disney and Pixar at the end of the Michael Eisner era, Iger would eventually convince Jobs to sell the studio to Disney, which not only began a prosperous corporate relationship but a personal one between Iger and Jobs. After becoming the largest shareholder at Disney due to the Pixar buyout, Jobs would be a major advisor at Disney, often having a key role in the purchases of Marvel and Lucasfilm, and in other instances, the biggest critic of some of Disney’s other corporate decisions. In one instance, immediately after the purchase of Marvel Entertainment, Jobs called Iger to inform him he had just seen Iron Man 2 in theaters. His reaction; “it sucked”, as Iger remembers that particular phone call with his biggest shareholder. Iger spends much time sharing his fondest memories of Jobs in his friendship with the innovative leader, all the way to the speech he shared at Jobs’ burial service.
Perhaps where the book falters is in the elements that seem to be at a crossroads of its own identity. While it very much is a memoir, the author seems to attempt to make it a self-help book, or a leadership guide to be regarded in business circles. But it’s almost impossible to hide the fact that it is a memoir most among these elements, and it is within these moments that it loses a bit of momentum. By being somewhere in-between, there is either not enough of a memoir or not enough of a leadership guidebook for it to fully succeed.
After fifteen years of helming spectacular feature films and theme park experiences, Bob Iger has proven himself as a master storyteller, and Ride of a Lifetime is the beautiful, compelling recollection of a truly inspirational story. It’s a must-read for any Disney fan and is a perfect commentary on the past, present, and future of The Walt Disney Company.