The secret to how Walt Disney made his dreams a reality


Walt Disney was one of the most influential people to shape the entertainment industry of the 20th century. From cartoons that became an integral part of millions of children worldwide to Disneyland, the world’s most famous amusement park, Disney was both a prolific dreamer and a savvy businessman who knew how to turn his vision into a reality.

So how did he achieve such a high level of proficiency in two areas of life that seem to run counter each other? Sure he was gifted, but was this gift something “supernatural” or was there a method, a process that he himself used in his projects?

In “Strategies of Genius: Volume 1″, Robert Dilts gives us a model that is based on an analysis of Disney’s life and other’s description of the man at work. Depending on whom you asked, you would get different descriptions of how he was: at times an idealistic dreamer, other times a shrewd businessman and other times a critic with a keen-eye who could evaluate his own work down to minute detail with complete detachment. So whom do we believe? Was he one or the other? Was he all of these characters?

According to Dilts, Walt had a process for becoming the dreamer, the businessman or the critic at will, depending on what was needed given the situation.

Before describing the strategy Disney used, let’s look at each separate type and see what its defining traits are.

The Dreamer – also known as the visionary, the dreamer has tremendous imagination and creative affinity. Being able to dream big is a prerequisite of any start-up founder, leader, politician, or for that matter, anyone that wants to change the world. Dreaming without restrictions isn’t something many people do. The representational system of dreamers is visual, which should give you a clue as to why we talk about having a grand “vision”. However a dreamer is useless without being paired with…

The Realist – also known as the man of action, the realist is the one responsible and most capable of implementing the vision of the dreamer. He is the one that comes up with a plan and sets to implementing it. The biggest and most successful companies in the world have a dreamer/realist duo at the helm usually reflected in the chairman/CEO positions: Page & Brin and Eric Schmidt at Google, Gates and Ballmer at Microsoft, Jobs and Cook at Apple. Realists are the people who are most likely in tune with their senses, having the ability to get a feel for a situation, sensing it’s direction and progress. Because of this, realists have the kinesthetic primary system.

The Critic – the one who sees the flaws in the plan of the realist and the vision of the dreamer. Often times the dreamers and realists are too engaged in their own work to be able to evaluate it clearly and without attachment. That’s why a critic is important to getting a project right. When it comes to entertainment, you want to check often to see that the project is heading in the direction of what you set out to do, making sure that the final product works with your audience. Critics have a strong internal dialogue which corresponds to the auditory representational system.

Getting all three into a room

Walt Disney could juggle with these roles almost on command, choosing each according to the situation. If he was about to create a new animation or he had an idea for a new venture, he would go into dreamer mode. When it came to balancing his art with business, he chose the realist. Lastly, he always knew that what he was doing was geared to a mass-market and mass-appeal which meant that he had to frequently step back into critic mode to self-evaluate his work.

How can we switch on these three different personalities in ourselves?

Here is the model that Dilts proposes.

  1. Select the problem or challenge you want to undertake. It can be of any level of difficulty. Don’t go into “solving” anything yet. Choose a space where you will have spots in front of you that you can step into. These three spots will correspond to aforementioned roles.
  2. Step into the Dreamer position. Think of a time when you were really creative, where you had full and unbounded cooperation of your creative genius. We are creating an anchor for your resources and strategy as a Dreamer to this place.
    If you’re having trouble with your creative part, try to come up with a metaphor for the challenge that you’re having. Or, if you know already know a creative dreamer, ask what he/she is doing to get into that creative state. Do this before continuing with the next step. Sometimes it is helpful to chunk down a problem into more manageable parts. Don’t let “reality” interfere with the process. Right now we just want a fun, playful state where everything is possible. Distracting your conscious mind with music, visuals or even physical activity is a good way to kick-start the process.
    When you’ve entered your dreamer state and you have enough material to work with, step out into your initial, neutral position.
  3. Step into the Realist position. Think of a time when you were really careful and had to implement a plan, either your own or someone else’s. Think of of a time when you had to be elegant and efficient, keeping a track of the flow of things and making sure that everything went smoothly. If you don’t have any personal experiences, think of someone who does. You can ask them directly or try to imagine how it would feel acting in their shoes. “If I were X, what would he/she say or do know? How would he go about solving this problem?”.
    When you are done thinking, feeling and visualizing, step back into the neutral position.
  4. The last step is to anchor the Critic state. Remember a time when you had observed a flaw in a plan, giving constructive criticism and looking at both the flaws and the strengths of a project. It could have been your own work or somebody else’s. Again, if you have difficulty with this step, ask or think of someone who is a good critic. When you have a reference experience, step into the third place you have delimited and relieve this experience. When you are done, step back to the initial position.

What we have done so far is that we’ve anchored the Critic, Dreamer and Realist to three different places. You can now use these places in your own working space, or you can use a separate room for each state. Each position will have different access cues. If you’re a musician, you can have one room filled with instruments and all kinds of noise-making devices for the Dreamer, another room can have a desk, computer and related paperwork for the Realist and another room can be filled with stacks of CDs, vinyls and a record player along with posters of famous musicians on the walls for the Critic. Use your creativity in coming up with something that works for you. You will also find that one position feels more natural than the others. Next thing we will do is actually tackle the problem that you’re having.

  1. Think about the challenge or outcome that you want to have. Step into the Dreamer position and let go of any beliefs, associations or any “realistic” ideas. For now, just dream. Operating in the dreamer position is very much like daydreaming. You have to be at ease and to allow your mind to go wherever it feels natural. Brainstorm. What would you do if there were no physical or emotional obstacles? A good phrase to sum up the Dreamer is “I wonder if…“.
    When you’ve spent enough time in this position and you’ve got enough ideas to work with, step back into the initial, neutral position.
  2. Now step into the Realist position and think about the dream you just conceived. Give structure to your vision. Make a plan. How can you make this dream a reality? What has to be done first? What is the next step after that? When you are satisfied with the answers you get, step back outside. “How can I do this?” would be the Realist’s key phrase.
  3. Step into the Critic position. Check and evaluate the plan you’ve come up with. What is missing? Do you need the assistance of other people? How can you convince them to work with you or what’s in it for them? What is your gain from all of this? Is this interesting? Will it be useful to your target market? The Critic always evaluates on the question of “What’s missing?… What’s in it for me?“.
  4. Final step is to go through each position again, as many times as necessary, taking into account all the info that the (your) others have said. Each position implies a different thinking mode, having different parts of the brain active so this step is done in order to make sure the plan is congruent with each person.

A final note is to have the Critic give constructive rather than destructive criticism. Instead of “this is bad…”, think about “here’s how we could improve this…”. The Critic is no more realistic than the Dreamer. The primary mode of thinking of the Critic is by noticing what is missing, subtractive, where as the Dreamer is additive. The Critic must be focused on the plan, not on the person.

Now some people already use this strategy intuitively in their work, whether they know it or not. They have a special spot they go to whenever they want to come up with something, essentially being an anchor for the Dreamer. There is another place for elaborating and implementing a plan and another one for evaluating and criticizing the work. If you can spatially separate these modes of thinking, each character will be able to operate without restriction.

Once you’re done with this process, you should have an idea that makes you ask “What else can I do beside this?” instead of “Is this doable?”. This is a balanced strategy that involves all three primary representational systems and is a good way to move forward with a project instead of going into an internal loop where nothing makes sense anymore.

Have you done this? What are your access cues in your work? How, when and where do you go when you want to enter Dreamer, Realist and Critic mode?

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