Walt Disney: Why did the original Mickey Mouse flop?

In 1923, Roy Disney asked his 21 year old brother Walt to move to California and stay with him. Walt’s animation studio in Missouri had gone bankrupt and his business venture had failed.

So Walt packed his bags and moved to Hollywood. And he started approaching the big studios for a job. But when he went to MGM and to Universal studios he was left completely dejected. Walt Disney felt like he had missed the boat. Everything that could be done in animation was already being done by other much better artists!

It was 1923 and Walt Disney felt like he was too late to get into the animation business!

Disney is not the only one who has felt left out. Who has felt like they are too late to the party. 

Young Alexander the Great cursed his father’s war successes because he thought his father would leave nothing for him to conquer! 

Alexander’s father – Philip of Macedon had improved the discipline and training of his soldiers. He had invented a whole new type of offensive phalanx where soldiers used long 6 metre spears to fight. And he had defeated the Athenians and the Thebans and created the league of Corinths to unite the Greeks under Macedonian rule! Alexander felt that he would never rise above his fathers shadow.

Why do we feel like we missed the boat?

Because as Tony Robbins teaches, we have a limiting emotional belief. Where we compare our work to the rest of the world. And inevitably, we fall short. 

When we are new to a field, and are faced with others who have done superior work, we can’t imagine that we will ever do better than them! It’s that lack of imagination that makes us feel like imposters. Like failures before we have even begun.

And you know what: this is not a new problem. In fact, one of the oldest fragments of writings archeologists have found is a complaint. A note written in Sumer in 3000 BC. A writer bemoaning that all the good subjects were already taken by other poets!

So how can you beat others?

How can you become the captain of the boat? The pioneer of your industry when you are late to it?

You have to switch your goals. As psychologist Heidi Grant teaches: focus on getting better, rather than being good!

When your focus moves from creating something good to just personal self improvement, you give yourself permission to make mistakes. To innovate more freely. To find your own style. 

Focus on improvement rather than success. And paradoxically, success will come easier. As Walt Disney shows us.

Did you know that Mickey Mouse was a flop originally?

Walt Disney had made Oswald the Rabbit – a black and white animation series for Universal studios. But a year later, Universal had replaced Disney with cheaper artists. When Disney found that he didn’t own the rights to the character he had created, he was really mad.

And so, he decided to create a character better than Oswald the Rabbit. But this time, retain the rights. He created Mickey Mouse!

And it flopped! Disney failed to find a single distributor for it even after making two Mickey Mouse feature animations with his own funds! 

It was only when he stopped focusing on competing and creating a good animated series did he find his breakthrough. When Walt Disney decided to focus on improving his own skills, he created something new! 

He managed to add synchronised sound to the animation – and created the first sound cartoon! And Steamboat Willie – the third Mickey Mouse cartoon to be made became a smashing hit!

Disney didn’t stop there. He spent considerable time in improving the music. He even hired a music composer and arranger before anyone requested he do so! Over the next few years, he gave us Pluto and Goofy and Donald Duck! He invested in a story department so he could create better emotionally gripping stories. And started using storyboards! 

And then he gave us colour!

Disney managed to become the best animator in the world because he focused on improving his craft everyday, instead of competing with others in the industry!

So how can you focus on getting better?

By focusing inwards. By reviewing your work everyday. 3 questions to reflect on:

  1. How can you improve?
  2. What new thing can you try today?
  3. What did you learn?

Action Summary:

  • Focus on getting better, rather than being good!