Walt Disney

Walt Disney 1946.JPG
I picked up the book, Walt Disney by Neil Gabler, after Marc Andreessen recommended it. The book is good, but it’s thick.

I’m only partially through the book, but entirely through Disney’s early career. Disney, like other noted people, has a lot of lessons from early in his career. Let’s see what they are.

1/ Disney was a grinder. “(The paper route) developed an appreciation of what spare time I did have and used it to great advantage in my hobbies.” – Walt “When he’d come home and long after everybody else was (in) bed, Walt was out there still puttering away, working away, experimenting.” – Roy Disney

Most biographers credit Disney’s work ethic to his demanding father, who worked on farms and factories. Disney was a relentless worker when it came to drawing cartoons, performing on stage, or filming movies. He did what Gary Vaynerchuk suggested:

“The people that win with my content are the ones who suck out everything I say for a year or two, then put their head down for 18 hours a day and then pop back up 3 years later and start reading more content from me because they’ve taken the first step and now they’re looking how to get from 1K to 1M.”

That’s what Walt did.

A girlfriend of an early animator who worked for Disney said, “he had the drive and ambition of ten million men.” Later on, when he married, Disney and his wife would go to the studio. She would take a nap while he worked, but as she slept he would turn the clock back an hour. Then, when she woke, he would point out that the time was still early and they could stay longer.

But you can’t be busy for the sake of business. You have to build up a valuable toolbox.

2/ Disney built up a skill toolbox.  “I found out that the inside and outside of an ambulance is as good a place to draw as any.”

Disney’s military service was sort, but valuable (see #3). He never gave up drawing when he was there. After he returned he started a cartooning business, and then film and animation. With each medium he built up valuable skills. He took art classes, checked out library books, and talked to the people who did the best work. 

The modern day example of this process might be Louis C.K.. He compared stocking his toolbox to the Matrix:

Louis C.K.: You know, like what’s the movie, “Matrix.”

Charlie Rose: “Matrix,” yes.

Louis C.K.: When there is a helicopter and he says to her, you know how to play helicopter. And she goes wait a minute and she loads the program. Now I do. Well, anyone can do that. It just takes longer. You can just load a program. So, now I know how to create a multi camera drama and mount it the same week that I shot it. And how to direct many great actors which I had never done before.

Malcolm Gladwell said you can built up a writer’s toolbox working for a newspaper. “It used to take me ages to write,” said Gladwell, “then I worked at a newspaper for ten years and I was cured of that.”

3/ Travel is a net positive. “(France was) a lifetime of experience in one package.”

Disney loved his time aboard. Jamie Foxx and Tim Ferriss both said travel affected them on a spiritual level (Africa and Japan).

Travel lets you see the world. Elizabeth Gilbert started to travel because she heard to write what you know but admitted she didn’t know anything.

Travel is much better than reading a book about a place said Tyler Cowen.

4/ **Barter as a starter.” “I got to be a little celebrity in the thing.”

Disney said that after he sold an early animation to a distributor for what it cost him to make, leaving no profit. The publicity he earned though was probably worth more. Another instance was when he traded work for office space, drawing cartoons for a newspaper. 

5/ Constraints help creativity. “The first Mickey Mouse was made by twelve people, after hours, in a garage.”

Disney created other successful characters, but lost them through legal poaching. One to a distributor, another to an early partner. Mickey Mouse was his third creation, and he only came up with it because he had to. It had to be something they could animate quickly. It would be an animal. It couldn’t be a cat.

Each constraint chipped away at the range of choices until Disney could only do so much, and out came Mickey Mouse.

Donald Campbell said, “the greatest thing about being Scottish is that you’ve got something to push against.” Jason Fried said “fewer official working hours helps squeeze the fat out of the typical workweek.” Terry Gross said she’s glad her show isn’t longer because it forces her to squeeze in a good conversation.

Constraints help us be more creative.

6/ Flyting. “We voice our opinions and sometimes have good old fashioned scraps, but in the end things get ironed out and we have something we’re all proud of.”

Though Walt may have had the last word, there was a lot of back and forth before he ruled.

Wilbur Wright said friend of the family George Spratt “was always ready to oppose an idea expressed by anybody…ready to jump into an argument with both sleeves rolled up.”

True, said Wilbur, but “a good scrap….brought out new ways of looking at things…helped round the corners.”

Flyting is a marker of places of genius. Ancient Greece had the symposia, Florence had workshops, Edinburgh had flyting (15th century rap battles), and Calcutta had the adda.

7/ You are never ready. “Everything’s fine. When I get back we’re going to make a big start…but he really didn’t have anything. And then on the train he sketched out some plans.” Roy Disney

Walt and Roy Disney learned their lessons the hard way. They oscillated between success and bankruptcy. They got scammed and taken. They hustled and were hustled. They were never ready for the business until they were ready.

The modern equivalent is the story of Nike that Phil Knight tells in Shoe Dog. Knight, like Disney, is never ready for the next thing.


8/ Want more than money.  “If you want to know the real secret of Walt’s success, it’s that he never tried to make money. He was always trying to make something that he could have fun with or be proud of.” Ward Kimball, Animator

Money is nothing more than fuel. Nicholas Megalis comared it to gasoline. Phil Knight compared it to blood in the body. Robert Kurson found that treasure hunters wanted to find treasure to fund their next treasure hunt.

Money, said Tim Ferriss is “wampum.” It’s the thing that leads to the THING.

9/ Home field advantage.

Part of the reason the Disney’s lost their intellectual property (#5) was they didn’t know the rules of the game. Walt especially was too trusting of early partners and Roy’s role grew as he had to keep Walt from making too many errors.

Walt’s domain of expertise was in creating art, not negotiating distribution. He was a skilled basketball player who sometimes mistakenly dabbled, on a baseball field.

Actual baseball players, the Chicago Black Soxs made the same mistake. They had no gambling experience (or plan) when they threw the 1919 World Series. They failed to win, and failed to get well paid.

Napoleon Bonaparte often created home field advantage. When he didn’t, he faced the worst loses; Waterloo, Spain, Russia.

Warren Buffett said, “we don’t look at something like that (Amazon.com) and try to beat them at their own game. They’re better than we are at that, and we aren’t going to try to out Bezos Bezos.”


Thanks for reading. Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter. The podcast version of this blog (with different stories) is available wherever podcasts are posted; https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/mikes-notes/id1055386383, https://soundcloud.com/mikesnotes, https://overcast.fm/itunes1055386383/mikes-notes.


6 thoughts on “Walt Disney”

  1. […] Walt Disney was relentless. The girlfriend of an early animator said Disney “had the drive and ambition of ten million men.” Later on, when he married, Disney and his wife would go for a drive through the country that always ended at his studio. She would take a nap while he worked, but as she slept he would turn the clock back an hour. Then, when she woke, he would point out that it was still early and they could stay longer. […]


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