In 1964, at the premier of Mary Poppins, Walt Disney reached the pinnacle of his career.
A year after his death, in 1966 alone, 240 million people watched a Disney movie, over 100 million watched a Disney television show each week, 80 million read a Disney book, another 80 million bought Disney merchandise, and about 7 million visited Disneyland. 1
During his lifetime, Disney pioneered the animation industry, changed the shape of American recreation with Disneyland park, introduced motion picture to television, and built the first “modern multimedia corporation.”
Till date, Disney holds the record for the most Academy Awards won by an individual: a total of 22 Oscars.
His greatest legacy, however, is the impact on culture: no single figure has shaped American popular culture as much as Walt Disney.
Disney created the iconic characters that shaped the childhood of generations, including Mickey Mouse, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Cinderella and Bambi.
But long before Disney’s success, and the fairy-tale, ‘happily ever after’ Disney films, Disney lived a much less privileged life.
A life of poverty, adversity and failure.
Robbed Off A Childhood
At the tender age of nine years old, Disney was working seven days a week as a newspaper delivery boy for his father’s newspaper business. 2
Unlike other kids his age, Disney would wake up at 3.30 a.m. each day, deliver newspapers before heading to school and return back to work before the end of the school day.
The work was especially grueling during the winter. Oftentimes, Disney would fall asleep and curl up inside a sack of newspapers for warmth, wake up at daylight, and rush to finish his route.
To add salt to injury, Walt received no compensation, as his father, Elias, took all of the money earned.
For the next six years, Disney would rinse and repeat this tedious routine.
In Disney’s biography, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, historian, Neal Gabler, notes an interview where Walt Disney said, “I was working all the time… I never had any real play time.”
Whilst other normal kids spent their free time playing sports and socializing, Disney’s only playtime was playing with toys he saw on the porches where he delivered newspapers.
Worst of all, Walt had rocky relationship with his father, Elias.
Elias Disney was a hard, cold man, who never drank or swore, and took pride in imposing his authority as head of home, and the fear of God into his children.
Most notably, Elias had a volcanic temper, and as Walt grew older and Elias failed one business venture after another, Walt became the primary target of Elias’s increasing anger and physical abuse.
Walt Disney’s childhood experience was so traumatic, that forty years later, he often woke up to nightmares during which he’d fail to deliver newspapers to customers and his father would await his report. 3
And later in his life, Walt’s relationship with his father had been so damaged to the point that Walt refused to cut short a business trip and attend his father’s funeral.
Despite his rough childhood, Disney continued to hold unto his dream of building a cartoon and animation company.
Back to Back Failure
In early 1921, Disney built his first company, called Laugh-O-Gram Studio, and secured a contract for six animations.
Shortly after, however, the business struggled to generate enough money to stay afloat. And so, Disney tried to rescue his company through the production of Alice’s Wonderland—a short film displaying live human action with animation.
Each day, Disney slept on the floor of the studio office, showered at the train station, and ate cold beans from a can. Despite his efforts, in 1923, Laugh-O-Gram went bankrupt and Disney was back to living in relative poverty.
Disney was crushed and heartbroken. He felt like a failure for disappointing friends, family and investors who had put their faith in him.
He swore to make amends, and traveled to Hollywood to become a film director.
But after several months of looking for work, Disney conceded defeat. It was another blow to his ego. Another failure on his resume.
The curse of his father’s life of failure seemed to be reliving itself in Walt’s life.
Disney however, refused to give up. He got back on this feet and once again, reached out to film distributors to showcase his animation, Alice’s Wonderland.
Disney was third time lucky.
Margaret Winkler, a New York film distributor, got back to Disney and offered 1,500 dollars for six Alice comedies. The animation was well received, and the distributor ordered more animations.
Shortly after, Disney and his brother, Roy, created the Disney Brothers Studio—which later became The Walt Disney Company.
The rest is history.
Disney’s story is an inspiring example of someone who grew up in less than ideal conditions, faced adversity and failure, and yet, turned their fortunes around to achieve extraordinary success.
Here are five lessons from Disney on how to stay motivated and bounce back from failure in life and work.
5 Lessons on Staying Motivated and Bouncing Back From Failure
1. Follow your heart
The journey to success is hard enough by itself, but it’s much harder when you go down a path that doesn’t resonate with you.
Too often, we attempt to garner energy and motivation to pursue a goal that we know deep down inside, isn’t right for us. And so, when adversity strikes, we lose motivation and give up.
Unlike most people at the time, Disney passed on working for his father’s factory and followed his heart to pursue his dream of a career in animation, even though the industry was very young and nowhere near as profitable as it is today.
His father would often criticize his dreams and say that he wouldn’t succeed, but that didn’t sway Walt. It drove him even further, to the extent that whenever he faced adversity and failure, he had the capacity to bounce back and keep going.
Trust your gut, pursue the goals that suit your natural skill set and inclination, and quit those that don’t.
2. Be grateful for failure and move forward
“All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me… You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.” — Walt Disney
We live in a world that’s obsessed with success and the secrets of successful people.
We do everything we can to avoid failure in life and work. And yet, behind each success story is a mountain of failures.
Instead of running away from failure, Disney ran towards it and turned adversity from foe to ally.
He forgave himself for making mistakes, learned from each failure and used failure as a solid foundation for success:
“Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
3. Go all in
In the game of poker, when a player goes “all in,” it means the player has committed their entire stack of money, and risks losing it all.
Likewise, Disney took the risk and committed his life to achieving his dreams.
In an interview, Disney said:
“A person should set his goals as early as he can and devote all his energy and talent to getting there. With enough effort, he may achieve it. Or he may find something that is even more rewarding. But in the end, no matter what the outcome, he will know he has been alive.” 4
It’s easy to half-arse our efforts and give up when there’s a plan B. But when our backs are against the wall and there are no other options available, our survival instincts kick in and we follow through on our plans.
If you have one foot out of the door, you’re already setting yourself up for failure.
Make your final decision: are you all in, or all out?
4. Invest in knowledge
“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island and at the bottom of the Spanish Main… and best of all, you can enjoy these riches every day of your life.” — Walt Disney
Disney was an avid learner, and often spent his evenings after working hours, watching animations and studying films.
As he read more books and learned from his failures, his self-confidence grew, and his incidents of failure diminished.
This is no coincidence. Confidence and knowledge go hand in hand.
The more knowledgeable you are at something, the more competent you will be at doing it. The more competent you are, the more confidence you will have. And the more confidence you have, the more likely you’ll succeed.
And when you enjoy the rewards of success, you’ll gain more self-confidence and motivation to keep going. And then the cycle repeats itself.
5. Embrace self-delusion
At some point in their journey, successful people were labelled as “delusional.” But once their crazy dreams turned to reality, they were quickly labelled a “success.”
Delusion and extraordinary success are two sides of the same coin. In order to achieve something that has never been done before, you’d have to believe in something that nobody else does.
Disney was delusional. He believed that his crazy dreams would come true, even when his current reality said otherwise.
Yet, today we are enjoying the by-product of his self-delusion, with the legacy of Disney characters, Disney world, Disney movies and much more.
The morale of the story is this: if you feel like you’re the only person who believes in your crazy dream, you’re probably on the right track.
Because contrary to popular opinion, there isn’t any safety in numbers: if everyone else believes it’s possible, it’s already be done.
Carve your path, embrace your self-delusion and in the parting words of Disney:
“When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.”
- Olympic Champion Dorothy Hamill on How to Motivate Yourself to Get Out Of Bed in The Morning and Succeed
- Timeless Wisdom from Marcus Aurelius: Habits, Lessons and Quotes to Motivate Yourself Every Day
- Richard Schickel, The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney, 3rd ed. (1968; reprint Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks, 1997).
- Gabler, Neal (2006). Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.
- Walt Disney interview by Martin, Reel 11.
- As quoted in Walt Disney, Magician of the Movies (1966) by Bob Thomas p. 116.