8 Lessons from Disney’s 'Mulan' on Overcoming Obstacles and Reaching Professional Goals

Last updated: Mar 20, 2020

Let’s get down to business to achieve your career goals. You must be swift as the coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon, with all the strength of a raging fire, mysterious as the dark side of the moon. You can bet before we’re through, we’ll make a pro out of you.

 

If you sang along to our cheesy take on “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” then congratulations – you must be a ‘90s kid. We grew up on Disney’s animated musical Mulan. For those of us who identify as female, Fa Mulan’s journey was particularly inspirational. She showed us that we can defy gender expectations, achieve the extraordinary, and have a best friend who is a tiny, witty dragon. Work goals!

 

Sure, most of us won’t be asked to save our country or engage in a musical training number with a shirtless, square-jawed captain. But the messages in Mulan are still relevant to our work lives. Here are eight lessons from Disney’s Mulan on overcoming obstacles and reaching professional goals.

 

Wait, What’s Mulan?

OK, so apparently, you’re not a ‘90s kid. In another blog post, we will need to explain to you the importance of The Lion King, VHS tapes, scented markers, Polly Pockets, Tamogotchis, and The Oregon Trail. For now, here’s the summary of Mulan, but imagine more singing:

 

After her ill father is conscripted to fight the invading Huns, Fa Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) disguises herself as a man and takes his place. Through her courage and strategic thinking, she defeats the Hun army and saves the Emperor’s life. The film is based on a Chinese legend but features plenty of Disneyfication (including a dragon sidekick named Mushu, voiced by Eddie Murphy).

 

The live-action adaptation is set to be released on March 27, so now you have a great excuse to watch the original. Please do so with some appropriate ‘90s food, like fruit roll-ups or Pixy Stix.

 

Now, onto the lessons.

animated Mulan training with other warriors

8. Know Your Goal

You must be “tranquil as the forest, but on fire within,” Captain Li Shang (BD Wong) commands his troops. “Once you find your center, you are sure to win.” Mulan may not be the physically strongest recruit, but she burns with an inner fire of passion and determination. Unlike the others, she’s in the Imperial Army by choice – and this empowers her to achieve success.

 

What passion fuels you to go to work every Monday? What goals and values help you stay centered?

  • Your goal is what you hope to accomplish. (Mulan’s goal is to be a good warrior.)
  • Your value clarifies why you hope to accomplish it. (Mulan’s value is to protect and honor her family.)

 

As she advances through her new military career, Mulan ensures each decision aligns with her values. The Emperor offers her a prestigious job as his advisor – but she turns it down, because she knows it would not fulfill her. Her inner fire does more than give her strength; it also illuminates her path.

 

Knowing what you want from your profession – “the values, capabilities, and expertise you want to exemplify in your work” – will help you create a “personal navigation system for your career,” explains this Harvard Business Review article.

Mulan picking up Mushu

7. Find a Supportive Coworker

Step One: Know your goal.

Step Two: Befriend a dragon who can help you achieve it.

 

OK, Mushu’s advice wasn’t always great (contrary to the mini-dragon’s belief, men do not say hello by punching each other). But he was always there to support Mulan – from cooking her smiley-face porridge to reminding her of her goals.

 

Can’t find a travel-size dragon? Befriend a human coworker. Women who have a best friend at their jobs are “more than twice as likely to be engaged” with their work, according to Gallup.

  • Don’t let fear of rejection keep you from making new friends. “Channel the action-oriented, judgment-free way you made friends as a child in your adult life,” explains this NBC News article. Silence negative self-talk and reach out to a colleague. They’re lucky to know you!
  • Be vulnerable and authentic. “Getting close to someone requires talking about more than work with your work friends,” says this Washington Post article. That doesn’t mean you have to launch into your darkest secrets over lunch. You can start by sharing your values or discussing your experiences.
  • Show that you’re a good friend to have. If a colleague tells you they’re overwhelmed, ask what you can do to help.
  • Be a bright presence. A Business Insider article advises that you have “five positive discussions” for every negative conversation.

Mulan with one side of her face painted in makeup and the other half in her natural state

6. Defy Gender Expectations (and Embrace Your True Identity)

By cross-dressing as a man, Mulan not only defies gender expectations, she also represents the fluidity of gender itself. It’s important to note that Mulan is not portrayed as transgender. However, her story has been inspirational to people of diverse identities and journeys, including some members of the LGBTQ+ community. “Mulan expanded my view of the self,” says this poet. “Mulan helped me understand my identity as a transgender woman.”

 

Mulan begins the film uncomfortable with the ultra-feminine role she is expected to perform. “When will my reflection show who I am inside?” she asks. It is only when she embraces her true identity – which challenges the male/female binary – that she finds success. “She finally bests her archetypal male foe with a clever fusion of the masculine and the feminine, demonizing neither in the process,” explains one article, “How Disney's Mulan Brazenly Challenges Gender and Sexuality.”

 

Whether we interpret Mulan as a gender-bending feminist or someone who is gender-fluid, her acceptance of her identity is core to her story arc. And the message is clear: Embrace your own identity. Defy what society expects. Present your true self to the world.

 

(And if you’re in a supervisory role, here’s how you can make employees feel comfortable doing this.)

Mulan training with a bow and arrow

5. Defeat Imposter Syndrome

Most of us haven’t marched into boot camp disguised in our father’s uniform, but all of us can relate to Mulan’s worry: “Who am I fooling?” This is called Imposter Syndrome. And it’s time you silence it:

  • Understand that it’s very common. (Heck, even the Lucky Cricket bursts into chirpy tears because he thinks he’s not really lucky.)
  • Write down 10 reasons why you are qualified for the position, says a New York Times article. You can also practice visualizing your success: “Imagine yourself killing the job interview, nailing the presentation, or kicking the winning goal.”
  • Have a conversation with a trusted colleague. “The most sure-fire way to combat imposter syndrome is to talk about it,” explains this TED-Ed video.

Mulan talking with the captain

4. Display Emotional Intelligence

When Mulan first steps into boot camp, she tries to project a “tough guy” persona. Captain Shang is unimpressed by her attempts at spitting and punching. But when she displays empathy and gentleness – skills lacking in her fellow soldiers – she wins his approval. She is the one who reminds Shang that he’s a great captain, even when he suffers a career setback. She is the one who comforts him after his father’s death. She is the one who honors the loss of civilian life during their military campaign. Each action portrays her emotional intelligence, and Shang takes note. 

 

Emotional intelligence is prized by employers, and women score higher than men in nearly every EQ category. Think of how you can embrace, and display, the following EQ competencies:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Empathy
  • Relationship skills

Mulan riding on a horse through the town

3. Make Your Voice Heard

At the climax of the film, Mulan – dressed as a woman once more – tries to warn her former commanding officer, her fellow soldiers, and even random civilians that the Hun army has infiltrated the city. “No one will listen!” she exclaims in shock. Mushu reminds her, “You’re a girl again, remember?”

 

Female professionals, can you relate? How many times have you been talked over during meetings? “Academic studies and countless anecdotes make it clear that being interrupted, talked over, shut down or penalized for speaking out is nearly a universal experience for women when they are outnumbered by men,” explains this New York Times article. But Mulan doesn’t allow herself to be silenced, and neither should you. Here’s what to do:

  • Display confidence. Speak “with a steady voice and an even tone,” says this Forbes article, and avoid self-deprecating phrases like, “This may be a stupid question.” You have something to say, so say it proudly.
  • Prepare for a meeting by writing down (and even rehearsing) what you plan to say.
  • Don’t be afraid to advocate for your expertise, suggests the article “What to Do When You’re the Only Woman in the Room.” For example, “If it feels awkward to say ‘I was the top sales performer last month,’ then practice saying it in the third person: ‘Dolly was the top sales performer last month.’ Say it 10 times like you mean it. Now switch back to ‘I.’”

Mulan with her horse

2. Take Risks

During the musical number “Honor to Us All,” women advise Mulan that “men want girls with good taste / Calm / Obedient / Who work fast-paced / With good breeding / And a tiny waist.” To honor her family, she must be a “perfect porcelain doll.”

 

Like Mulan, women are told we must be perfect. We internalize society’s standards, waiting for the moment when we  finally will be perfect enough to be leaders – a moment that never comes, because perfection is unattainable. In her TED talk “Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection,” author and activist Reshma Saujani explains that boys are socialized to be brave, while “most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure.” This hinders our career growth.

 

Mulan broke the rules and reaped the rewards. As the Emperor tells her, “You stole your father’s armor, ran away from home, impersonated a soldier, deceived your commanding officer, dishonored the Chinese army, destroyed my palace – and you have saved us all.”

 

We must follow Mulan’s example and take risks. That doesn’t mean we have to single-handedly defeat an invading army. But it might mean applying for a leadership position, interviewing for a job that’s outside our comfort zone, or tackling a dream project – even if we aren’t sure we will succeed.

Mulan riding her horse

1. Know Your Power

Sometimes, it’s hard to take risks because we forget that the world needs our contributions. We think someone else will lead our team to success, or create that great work of art, or invent that app, or run for that city council position, or save all of China from an invading army. But as the Emperor says, “A single grain of rice can tip the scale. One man [or woman, Emperor!] may be the difference between victory and defeat.” That one person might just be you. And we’re here to help you unleash your potential.

 

Explore professional development programs through USF’s Office of Corporate Training and Professional Education, or contact us at 813-974-0950.