The Secret of Walt Disney’s Creativity

Fireworks at Walt Disney World.

Image by hyuku

As a child, I remember being shocked to learn that Walt Disney was a person.

To me, Disney was a mysterious entity, symbolised by the magical castle that appeared at the start of every film. A cross between fairyland and a faceless corporation. A bit like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

So it was hard to get my head around the idea that all those films were the brainchild of one man. Not to mention the theme parks. How could a single person be responsible for all of that?

Later on, I discovered that the truth was even stranger. There wasn’t just one Walt Disney. There were three.

Here’s the testimony of one of Disney’s animators:

there were actually three different Walts: the dreamer, the realist, and the spoiler. You never knew which one was coming into your meeting.

(Ollie Johnstone and Frank Thomas, The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation)

Robert Dilts uses this statement as the basis of a brilliant analysis of Walt Disney’s creative process, in his book Strategies of Genius: Volume 1. He substitutes the word ‘critic’ for ‘spoiler’, giving three distinct roles that Disney played, each of which involved a particular type of thinking and action:

  • The Dreamer – the visionary who dreamt up ideas for films and business ventures.
  • The Realist – the pragmatic producer who made things happen.
  • The Critic – the eagle-eyed evaluator who refined what the Dreamer and Realist produced.

More important than the individual roles was Disney’s ability to strike the right balance between them:

Creativity as a total process involves the coordination of these three subprocesses: dreamer, realist and critic. A dreamer without a realist cannot turn ideas into tangible expressions. A critic and a dreamer without a realist just become stuck in a perpetual conflict. The dreamer and a realist might create things, but they might not achieve a high degree of quality without a critic. The critic helps to evaluate and refined the products of creativity.

(Robert B. Dilts, Strategies of Genius: Volume 1)

The Dreamer

Disney the Dreamer could visualise extraordinary scenarios, for new business projects as well as animated films:

What I see way off is too nebulous to describe. But it looks big and glittering.

That’s what I like about this business, the certainty that there is always something bigger and more exciting just around the bend; and the uncertainty of everything else.

(Walt Disney, ‘Growing Pains’ – 1941 article, reprinted in SMPTE Journal, July 1991)

In Dreamer mode, Disney had the ability to immerse himself in his imagination, to the exclusion of everything else:

When Walt was deep in thought he would lower one brow, squint his eyes, let his jaw drop, and stare fixedly at some point in space, often holding the attitude for several moments … No words could break the spell …

(Ollie Johnstone and Frank Thomas, The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation)

Anyone with hypnotic training will recognise in Disney’s body language several classic indicators of a trance state – a state of mind in which conscious thought has been suspended and in which the involuntary thoughts of the imagination come to life. It would be interesting to know what creative rituals or triggers he used to access the Dreamer state when he needed it.

Without the Dreamer’s vision, Disney’s films would lack the touch of magic that sets them apart.

The Realist

Disney wasn’t just a creative thinker. As a committed Realist, he made things happen – and even his dreams were rooted in reality:

I definitely feel that we cannot do the fantastic things based on the real, unless we first know the real.

(Ollie Johnstone and Frank Thomas, The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation)

Disney the Realist had a phenomenal ability to motivate and co-ordinate teams of diverse workers to bring his dreams to life. He brought the necessary perspiration to the Dreamer’s imagination:

[Our success] was built by hard work and enthusiasm, integrity of purpose, a devotion to our medium, confidence in its future, and, above all, by a steady day-by-day growth in which we all simply studied our trade and learned.

(Walt Disney, ‘Growing Pains’)

Without the Realist’s practical thinking and energetic activity, Disney’s achievements would have remained no more than a twinkle in the Dreamer’s eye.

The Critic

Disney the Critic subjected every piece of work to rigorous scrutiny:

every foot of rough animation was projected on the screen for analysis, and every foot was drawn and redrawn until we could say, “This is the best we can do.” We had become perfectionists, and as nothing is ever perfect in this business, we were continually dissatisfied.

(Walt Disney, ‘Growing Pains’)

The Critic provided a valuable feedback loop in the creative process: as they cycled back through the Dreamer, Realist and Critic at different stages of their projects, Disney and his team were continually learning and extending their abilities:

in fact, our studio had become more like a school than a business. We were growing as craftsmen, through study, self-criticism, and experiment. In this way the inherent possibilities in our medium were dug into and brought to light. Each year we could handle a wider range of story material, attempt things we would not have dreams of tackling the year before. I claim that this is not genius or even remarkable. It is the way men build a sound business of any kind – sweat, intelligence, and love of the job.

(Walt Disney, ‘Growing Pains’)

Without the Critic’s perfectionistic dissatisfaction, Disney would have been satisfied with producing very good work – which, as any self-respecing creative entrepreneur will tell you, is not nearly good enough.

How You Can Use Disney’s Creativity Strategy

You’ve probably realised by now that Disney’s approach to creativity isn’t limited to animated feature films – it’s a strategy for success in any creative endeavour.

Every creative project needs to incorporate the three aspects of creative imagination, practical action and critical refinement.

As an individual, you need to have some capability in all three roles. Most of us are naturally stronger in one or two roles, and decidedly weaker in a third. The first step is having the self-awareness to recognise this. And the next is to commit to developing the skills necessary for that role.

For example, I’m naturally very comfortable as a Dreamer and Critic – as a writer, creative thinker, storyteller and editor. But I’ve had to work much harder to develop the perspective and skills of the Realist, in areas such as management, marketing and technology.

For each project you work on, make sure you cover all three bases. These questions may help you:

The Dreamer

  • What are you trying to make or achieve?
  • What excites and inspires you about it?
  • If you could wave a magic wand and do anything you like – what would you create? How would it look? What could you do with it? How would that make you feel?

The Realist

  • What resources do you need to make this happen – people, money, materials and technology?
  • What’s your plan?
  • What obstacles will you face? How will you get round them?

The Critic

At critical stages of the project, step back from your work and ask yourself:

  • How does this look? What about the big picture? And the fine detail? How do I feel when I examine it?
  • How would it look to a customer? A user? A member of the audience? The client? An expert in this field?
  • Is this the best I/we can do? What would make it better?

Beware of getting the roles mixed up! I’ve worked with a lot of creatives who blocked themselves by introducing the Critic too early – before the Dreamer had a chance to finish the first draft or prototype. The Critic was pulling the work to shreds before it had even been put together! Things go much more smoothly when you allow the Dreamer to put together a rough draft, and then ask he Critic to have his say.

Another classic problem is the Dreamer who is great at creative thinking but lacks the Realist’s focus on action. And so on – the key is to achieve a dynamic balance between the different roles.

The Disney Approach to Team Creativity

You can only get so far by trying to play all three roles yourself. You can achieve much more by partnering with people whose natural strengths complement your own. If you’re a hard-headed Realist, look to team up with Dreamers and Critics.

For example, I could have invested a huge amount of time studying graphic design, animation, coding, copywriting and web marketing – and maybe become average at some or even most of them. But by working with Tony and Brian, I benefit from their expertise in all of these areas. One of the great things about being part of the Lateral Action team is that for just about anything we want to do, one of us is a specialist.

And clearly, Disney didn’t make all of those films single-handed. He didn’t just play the three roles in his head – he used them to counterbalance and direct the tendencies of his team. If he felt the team were too bogged down in detail, he would become the playful Dreamer; if they were in danger of getting lost in pie-in-the-sky fantasies, he switched roles to the Realist.

I do not know whether he draws a line himself. I hear that at his studios he employs hundreds of artist to do the work. But I assume that is the direction, the constant aiming after improvement in the new expression, the tackling of its problems in an ascending scale seemingly with aspirations over and above mere commercial success. It is the direction of a real artist. It makes Disney, not as a draughtsman but as an artist who uses his brains, the most significant figure in graphic art since Leonardo.

(Cartoonist David Low, quoted in The Game of Business by John McDonald)

Disney’s films contain some wonderful artwork. But his creative approach to the whole business of filmmaking raised ‘direction’ to the level of art. Which was arguably the most creative thing he did. Like Marla, he was an artist in business.

For more about Disney’s approach to creativity, get hold of Robert Dilts’ excellent book Strategies of Genius: Volume 1. It not only covers the Disney strategy in depth, but offers a similar analysis of the creativity of Aristotle, Mozart and Sherlock Holmes. Robert Dilts’s article ‘Walt Disney – Strategies of Genius’ will give you a brief introduction to his ideas.

The Dreamer, the Realist, the Critic – and You

Do you recognise the Dreamer, the Realist, and the Critic in yourself?

Which role(s) do you feel most comfortable with?

Which role(s) do you find most challenging?

How are the three roles represented in your current team? Which roles could you do with developing within the team?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post


  1. Absolutely terrific. I loved this quote:

    “What I see way off is too nebulous to describe. But it looks big and glittering.

    That’s what I like about this business, the certainty that there is always something bigger and more exciting just around the bend; and the uncertainty of everything else. ”

    Just classic. It describes the way I like to see the world/my career.

  2. Fabulous. Thank you, Mark.

    I am giving a teleseminar on the Four Temperaments, the original personality typing from 5th Century BC Greece. Here is the correlation:
    Choleric – the dreamer who lives in possiblities for the future
    Phlegmatic – the realist who connects to the needs of the present
    Melancholic – the critic who brings the wisdom of the past.

    There is the fourth temperament – the Sanguine – that has no correlation in your image. But the sanguine is sorely needed for fulfillment. The Sanguine is the Engager who brings all the others needed for the project to manifest in the world. The sanguine temperament engages in the present all those who are needed for the next step into the future.

    Thanks for the continuing inspiration.

  3. @Will – Thanks, yes I can recognise that description of you! 🙂

    @Lynn – Very nice, I hadn’t thought of linking the Disney types to the Greek temperaments.

  4. Walt Disney was one of the most amazing creators to ever live and his biography is one of my favorites.

    I absolutely recognize the dreamer, realist and critic in myself.

    I am most comfortable with the dreamer and have the most difficult time with the realist (though it is really not that difficult to tell the truth)

    I am lucky to work with a partner who shares the same qualities in a different hue, well woven inside my own.

  5. @Will – I too loved that quote. It’s how I hope to approach my work and I’ll keep it handy to redirect my focus for those days when the uncertainty gets the best of me.

    Great great post Mark.

  6. Excellent post, Mark.

    It fascinates me that Walt and his studio operated at the very edge of financial ruin so many times. He risked everything he had time and time again, when many of us would have said “let’s play this one safe.” He drove his financial folks (and family members) crazy.

    Had he merely been a Dreamer, such financial risk-taking would have ended much differently. He was fearless, but he sure as heck wasn’t a fool.

  7. @Lynn – What an insigtful observation about the four temperaments! It deserves to be explored in depth. Much food for thought. Thanks!

  8. I love that Ollie could distill what Disney was doing so succinctly. I wonder if their reasonably clear understanding of how he worked made it even easier for them to create such magical stuff.

  9. You have summed up what I have needed to hear at my stage of business and life, and I really appreciate it. Thanks for taking the time to write a fantastic post and sharing with us all.

  10. Mark, you wrote an excellent post, thank you. I wish I had written it myself since it’s one of my favorite topic. I have been trained by Robert Dilts and even been once an interpret at one of his seminar (English to French). The Disney strategy is one my core topic and always great to facilitate in Leadership trainings.
    We each have to define and re discover what our strategies of excellence are. NLP , visualization, intuition,” caring and creative coaching” help you achieve that.
    When you become aware of your personal strategy of excellence (often embedded in childhood memories, or in having fun creating playing, aside from work), you are best suited to be your own best coach. Reward is success.
    After 15 years of training several hundreds of individuals and teams, I have learned the immense richness and diversity of success strategies. Find your own and become tomorow’s Walt Disney!

    I am sending you some of Dilts Ppt slides from his last Vision and Leadership European Summit, where can I post them for every body? (pdf format)
    Again, cheers and bravo for the excellent quality of each of your post. Marion

  11. Really appreciate your efforts on this post – fantastic summary of what seems to be a valuable book.

    Not been a fan of Disney as a *nameless, faceless money-making machine*, however you have to admire the way that Mr Disney made it happen and learn from it!

    This also reminded me of “Ten Faces of Innovation” by Tom Kelley.

    Now, to go and practice there roles

  12. The art and creativity inherent in building a business (especially one so cutting edge as Disney’s at the time) is something that is usually lost on a lot of creative professionals. Almost as if the word “business” automatically drains the endeavor of any satisfaction.

    I’ve encountered those that look at these different roles as chores that they have to do, instead of seeing them as equal parts to a process that will build better output. Finding the joy in each facet, whatever it may be, will only push the quality of work to higher levels.

    I’ve been able to play all three roles quite strongly, but always focused on someone else’s project. Inhabiting these roles for my work and getting them to balance out has been tricky to say the least.

    Thank you for this wonderful post and I will definitely check out the “Strategies of Genius” book.

  13. What an incredible post. I would recommend everyone reads that three or four times.

    Everything from the content to the way its written. Mark can write some blog post, that’s for sure.

    Walt was the man, and lets not forget about EPCOT as well. Those communities would have changed the entire world for the better had he not died.

    Very good integrations and insights here.


  14. Thanks everyone for the great feedback and observations.


    I wonder if their reasonably clear understanding of how he worked made it even easier for them to create such magical stuff.

    I would imagine it did. It sounds like he enjoyed surprising and challenging people by switching roles, but I’d guess their understanding of the ‘method in the madness’ would be helpful all round.


    The art and creativity inherent in building a business (especially one so cutting edge as Disney’s at the time) is something that is usually lost on a lot of creative professionals.

    Exactemundo! Sounds like you’d get on well with Marla. 😉

  15. Great post Mark, thanks a lot.

    By chance I visited the disney websites earlier this week and I must say they are great and your post has given me a glimpse to the creative process that has gone into them.

    Personally over the years, I have passed through the 3 personalities you’ve mentioned. But due to the challenges faced in my environment I’ve become fixated at the critic stage.

    But thanks to articles like these, I can now start to put things in perspective and move on to greater heights. Thanks again.

  16. “due to the challenges faced in my environment I’ve become fixated at the critic stage.” – I feel your pain. Sounds like it’s time to lighten up and have some fun… 🙂

  17. Between me and my husband we’ve owned more MP3 players over the years than I can count, including Sansas, iRivers, iPods (classic & touch), the Ibiza Rhapsody, etc. But, the last few years I’ve settled down to one line of players. Why? Because I was happy to discover how well-designed and fun to use the underappreciated (and widely mocked) Zunes are.