Disney is a popular topic within the world of self-help books. Authors regularly describe the ways that Disney’s customer service and creativity apply to our lives. This is also true of the company’s founder. Walt Disney’s life is a perfect study on succeeding against the odds. I’m skeptical of this genre, particularly when it applies to Walt. It’s easy to choose myth over reality. There’s little need to exaggerate his accomplishments; Walt’s life was amazing on its own. However, it’s still possible to deliver interesting books on this topic. A prime example is Jeffrey A. Barnes’ The Wisdom of Walt: Leadership Lessons from the Happiest Place on Earth. The university professor provides effective strategies and pulls valuable examples from Walt’s life.
Barnes organizes this book extremely well, and that makes it an easier read than you might expect. Most chapters are about 8-10 pages, which feels like the right amount of content. He also uses a lot of subheads within each chapter to keep the momentum rolling. For example, the section on “Facing Fear and Failure” uses concrete examples to show how Walt failed regularly. The loss of Oswald the Rabbit, Fantasia, and even the circus at Disneyland are used well to support his points. Barnes finds the right balance of evidence from Walt and lessons for us. He also uses points from other experts without overdoing it. The chapter on failure includes several pages of thoughts from author Jonathan Fields. It doesn’t feel like filler and supports Barnes’ work.
Another nice touch is the “Getting Your Hand Stamped” section that concludes each chapter. These brief stories give a final point that connects to the main theme. They’re often just short anecdotes, but it’s a good way to avoid a jarring ending. “Detailing Your Destiny” closes with a story from Art Linkletter about how Walt could see Disneyland even while he stood in the dirt in 1954. This connects to Barnes’ points in the chapter about visualizing our success and working to achieve those impossible goals. Disneyland was hardly a surefire bet when it opened.
Many of Barnes’ strategies are similar to what I’ve seen in other books focused on Disney. The reason this one clicks is the execution; it’s clear that Barnes has done his homework. He teaches a class on Disneyland and is an expert, but that’s only part of the equation. Finding inspiration within Walt’s life is easy; connecting them to real-life goals is trickier. In “Learning Your Lessons”, Barnes describes the technological innovations in Disney’s attractions at the 1964-65 World’s Fair. The attractions were a learning experience for both Walt and his Imagineers and helped push Disneyland to greater heights. Barnes also covers the flip side in how we can learn from failure. The experiences from Walt’s past nicely show the ways to grow through adversity.
Barnes’ stories from his own life are the key reason that The Wisdom of Walt succeeds. Hearing about his brain surgery, his wife Niki, and the Disneyland class makes it easier to connect with his work. Barnes uses his experiences to support the strategies and never lets them get overwhelming. He uses a convincing blend of Disney history, personal stories, and the lessons from both of them. There are a lot of helpful tips in the breezy 200-page book. It’s targeted at Disney fans, but you don’t need to be an expert to understand the content. Barnes has written an accessible, enjoyable book that should please both fans and novices. I’m currently at a crossroads of my career, and it definitely hit all the right notes for me at this challenging stage of life.
Learn more about The Wisdom of Walt at the Theme Park Press site.