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Disney Legend - November 2016

The Best Advice I Ever Heard (or Read!) — Part II

by Marty Sklar

Disney Legend shares more of his favorite and most inspirational quotes, and how they impact him, his work, and the attractions industry

When I first developed “Mickey’s Ten Commandments” in the early 1980s, I never imagined there would be more than one set of these very special principles. But soon I had to apologize to Moses. He stopped at that incredible 10, but I now have 30 more “commandments” about leadership and “followership.” (The last 10 were called “Part IV – Followership: “How to be a great team player and help your leaders succeed.”)

I’m the kind of person that always needs to be “doing something”—even at age 82. I don’t “retire” easily (although it happened “officially” from Disney after 54 years in 2009). I’m finding there are great new opportunities for learning in this kind of freedom. And chances to reflect (and add to) work I thought was my best thinking, as new doors open through travel, reading, technology breakthroughs, and just plain old “experience.”

Earlier this year, I was asked to present one of my favorite speeches again. It’s called “The Best Advice I Ever Heard.” Funworld published my article about the speech that included the wisdom of 10 great achievers, including (of course) Walt Disney, along with George Lucas, UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, and Don Hewitt, the patron saint and news innovator who created “60 Minutes” for CBS television.

So when asked to present my speech again this year, I began rummaging through my notes and, lo and behold, I found a brand new list I wanted to talk about—not a “better” list, but ideas and advice that are just as strong as the original 10. And it includes the advice of only two people—Walt Disney and Coach Wooden—from my original set.

As a special treat for Funworld readers, I asked Editor-in-Chief Jeremy Schoolfield if I could introduce Part 2 in this month’s issue. So here they are in capsule form (the speech is longer!). I guarantee you a great ride into creative imagination!

1. “It has to be magic— but it doesn’t have to be seamless.”

—Michael Eisner, Chairman and CEO, The Walt Disney Company (1984-2005)

Michael Eisner and his executive partner, COO Frank Wells, injected new life into The Walt Disney Company when they became the top management team in the fall of 1984. The Disney Parks and Resorts, motion pictures, and television (with the purchase of ABC) all grew by leaps and bounds. And new ventures—theater productions and the Disney Cruise Line—came into being. But it was Eisner’s clarity and focus on storytelling that drove us in creating new Disney park and resort projects.

In my book, “Dream It! Do It! My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms,” I included a number of my favorite Michael Eisner quotes: “This is so large and impractical—that’s what appeals to me”; and “I like this because it’s driven by entertainment—and not by office buildings.” But his best was about “creating magic.” It connected perfectly with another of my favorite quotes from Wooden:  “Perfection is a goal that can never be achieved—but it must be the objective.”

Michael understood Disney parks are living organisms that can—and must—be re-shaped on an ongoing basis to meet guest expectations and competition, and to take advantage of new ideas, new technologies, and new times. Always strive for the very best you can do. But very few things are “seamless” at birth, especially if they are new, innovative, and “magic.”

Imagineering creative executive Kevin Rafferty (see No. 7 later in this article) has put it this way: “Once that orchestra starts coming together, constant changes can be costly and disruptive. It’s okay to do a little ‘arm waving’ as the project evolves, because unexpected things always happen. But major changes and redirection brought on midstream means the idea was not rock solid to begin with. Be smart about the up-front. Be thorough. Rally the troops around a good, solid idea and say, ‘We’re going this way.’”

2. “Love what you do!” 

—Daniel Jue, Portfolio Creative Executive, Tokyo Disneyland Resort, Walt Disney Imagineering

This advice appeared in my second book, “One Little Spark!” published in 2015 by Disney Editions. Daniel wrote about passion. His full quote: “Love what you do. To me, this is more important than ‘Do what you love.’ Whatever job you can get, no matter how small or simple, have the passion to do it well.”

I liked this advice so much, I asked Daniel to expand on his thinking in another section of the book about becoming the best at what you do. Daniel wrote:

“When you do your job with passion, you will excel and you will become the best at what you do. People want to work with people who love what they do. They will want you on their team; they will mentor you; they will give you opportunities. If you take advantage of enough of these opportunities, then someday you may have the luxury to do what you love.”

3. “Everything’s a lobby!”

—Stanley “Mickey” Steinberg, Senior Advisor, The Portman Holdings Companies; former Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Walt Disney Imagineering

Mickey Steinberg was my favorite “partner” at Imagineering in the development of Disney parks. From a management standpoint, no one was more responsible for the successful launch of Disneyland Paris, the foundation for Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and the organization of Imagineering’s 140 disciplines into its most efficient working team.

Coming to Imagineering from the respected and successful John Portman Architectural firm in Atlanta, Mickey was initially taken aback by the difference between designing a hotel—a Portman specialty—and Disney park projects. “In the hotels,” he said, “we concentrated on making the lobby the focus of our best design. After all, it’s the one-of-a-kind feature in a hotel. But in a Disney park, everything’s a lobby! You have to treat every design as an important feature, because that’s how our guests experience them.”

So you think your little piece of the project—your part in the storytelling—is insignificant? Don’t tell that to Mickey Steinberg!

4. “When everything works, it reassures people that the world can be OK.”

—John Hench, Senior Vice President of Design, Walt Disney Imagineering

John Hench’s design career spanned more years than anyone in the history of The Walt Disney Company. From the time he joined Disney as a sketch artist working on “Fantasia” in 1939 until his passing in 2004—still working nearly 65 years later at age 95—he was one of Walt Disney’s closest associates. His achievements ranged from painting the first official portrait of Mickey Mouse (at Walt’s request), to the design of “Space Mountain” and Epcot’s “Spaceship Earth.” He was my design partner in the creation of Epcot.

John believed passionately in the power of good design to set an example. Once they experience the world inside Disney parks, where you can speak to a stranger in a public place that is clean and organized and where things actually work, John argued that guests would know that “the outside world” can also achieve those standards. In a travelling show we developed with the Canadian Center for Architecture, John even named the show and the Disney standard: “The Architecture of Reassurance.”

“We give power to the guests’ imagination,” John said, “to transcend their everyday routine. Our special notion of form, together with Walt’s insistence that our guests should ‘feel better because of their experiences in Disney theme parks,’ establishes the foundation for the art of the show.”

5. “Does it have to be a light bulb?”

—Kevin Rafferty,  Executive Creative Director, Walt Disney Imagineering

When Disney published the first major hardcover coffee table book about Imagineering in 1996 (“Walt Disney Imagineering – A Behind The Dreams Look at Making the Magic Real”), it began with this Q&A by Kevin Rafferty:

Question: “How many Imagineers does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “Does it have to be a light bulb?”

Kevin’s lines simply and directly hit the heart and spirit of discovery and innovation in our industry. As I later wrote in the section of “One Little Spark!” called “Be Curious”: “When you ask ‘why’ or ‘what if,’ you have an inquisitive mind that can lead to new directions and discoveries. Be eager to know and try more: be curious!”

It also led Kevin to paraphrase, on a blank page at the end of the big Imagineering book, a cliché I created and believe: “There are two ways to look at this blank sheet of paper. You can look at it as the last page of this book, or as the greatest opportunity in the world because no one has put anything on it. That’s the way we look at it at Imagineering. Go ahead and use it [the blank page] to dream, create new things, and let your imagination go. Why not? Everything begins somewhere …”

6. “Understand the ­meaning of what you are ­communicating.”

—Donn Tatum, Vice Chairman of Walt Disney Productions (circa 1970s)

One day, Donn Tatum asked to speak to the creative leader of Imagineering—me. It was a quiet but very pointed conversation. “Marty,” Donn asked, “do you look at the illustrations of our projects your artists create?” Of course, I answered—those illustrations are what we use in the development of our projects, and to communicate the fun and adventure to our guests. “Yes, I know,” Tatum responded. “Only next time, pay more attention to the faces and people depicted in the illustrations.”

Here’s what I found: There was hardly a non-Caucasian face in any of the illustrations! So guess what Commandment No. 1 in “Mickey’s Ten Commandments” became? You are correct if you said “Know Your Audience.”

In “One Little Spark!” I expressed it this way: “I can’t imagine beginning any assignment without knowing the prime audience for your story or product. How you communicate, what you communicate, is totally influenced by who you identify as your target audience … Clearly define your audience and you have taken the first step to achieving a successful experience, venture, or communication.”

7. “Twenty years from now, you will be more ­disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you do.”

—Mark Twain, Author

Can you imagine that Samuel Langhorne Clemmons (aka Mark Twain) was born in 1835? Of course, he is best known for his stories on life on the Mississippi in the 19th century, immortalized in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876) and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1885).

But when I ran across this quote, I realized it could be the mantra for our whole industry. Here’s the full quote and advice from Twain:

“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you do. So throw off the bow lines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

8. “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

—Warren Bennis, Distinguished Professor of Business Administration, University of Southern California Marshall School of Business

Believe me, it was not easy for this old UCLA Bruin to include this quote from a professor at that school across town in Los Angeles. But Professor Bennis’ book, “Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration,” co-written with Patricia Ward Biederman, is one of my very favorite explorations of leading and developing new, creative projects.

I love this quote from “Organizing Genius”: “Life in great groups is different from much of real life. It’s better … On those rare and happy occasions when you are part of a great group, you know the truth of Noel Coward’s observation that ‘work was more fun than fun.’”

Please count me in!

9. “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

—Walt Disney, Motion Picture and TV Producer, Creator of Disneyland

On my home-office wall, I have a photograph of Walt Disney demonstrating how he wanted an early Audio-Animatronics figure to “perform.” Bob Gurr, the great Disney designer who made the original Abraham Lincoln figure work for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, says the concept Walt was demonstrating did not work. “Actually,” Gurr said, “it was impossible.”

Exactly the point! Having tried—and tried again—to create lifelike “characters” who could “act” 16 hours a day and provide every guest with a perfect performance (no matter what time of day, without coffee and lunch breaks), Walt moved on from that early concept. And as a result, today we have not only Abraham Lincoln, but the singing children of “it’s a small world,” a dragon in a Parisian castle, Buzz Lightyear, and the iconic swashbuckling buccaneers of “Pirates of the Caribbean.” (If you haven’t seen Davey Jones in Shanghai Disneyland’s “Pirates,” you have missed “the impossible!”)

My second note about Walt’s advice is about the word “fun.” Lest we forget, that’s the business we’re in, and the expectation of our guests who pay the bills. But as I frequently told my colleagues at Imagineering, it’s about them, too. If you’re not having fun in the “fun business”—find something else to do!

10. “Make every day your masterpiece.”

—Coach John Wooden, UCLA

As the sports editor of The Daily Bruin student newspaper, I covered the UCLA basketball team for two years, observing the coach who would later win an unprecedented 10 NCAA championships in a 12-year span. When Coach Wooden passed away at age 99, I decided to review six books written with the philosopher/coach … all of which I had previously read.

Coach Wooden’s philosophy of life is inspirational. I wanted to end this “Best Advice” article with the above quote, but I had a hard time getting past other wisdom from John Wooden: “Failure to prepare is preparing to fail” … “Have the most concern for what’s right—not who’s right”… “When you are through learning, you are through.”

But how can you top “Make every day your masterpiece”? If you live your life with that attitude, you will definitely “love what you do.” And I’m positive you will also be “doing what you love.”