How to Learn From Your Mistakes - A Life Lesson

Nate Naversen

This story is reasonably accurate, although most definitely hearsay and quite possibly exaggerated. But it is worth repeating because there is a good life lesson in this story:

Many years ago there was a college student who wanted to become a Disney Imagineer and work at WED Enterprises, as it was called then. His goal was to design a theme park ride, a particular idea that he had imagined. Not just design it, but make it reality at a Disney theme park. So he spent days and weeks, and even months conceiving of an idea that he imagined. He created a detailed scale model that somehow he would use to sell his idea to Disney.

Of course, this student didn't know that The Walt Disney Company doesn't buy ideas, nor do they ever solicit ideas from outside sources. To do so would open themselves up to many various types of lawsuits. So as a policy, they strictly will not look at ideas presented by outside sources.

And so as the story goes, the student, not knowing any better and not having anything to lose, tried anyway. By a stroke of luck or an act of God, he was able to get his model in front of a Disney Imagineer. What happened must have been disappointing. The Imagineer said: "Your idea is terrible. It is a tremendously flawed design and there is no way that it will ever become a theme park attraction."

Then he added, "But you do make pretty good models. Why don't you come work for us in our model shop?"

And just like that, the young man was hired as a model maker for Walt Disney. He began working on other peoples' ideas, helping to build models of future Disney attractions in the model shop. But he never gave up on his idea. In fact, he brought it in to work with him and set it on his desk.

Inevitably, many of those old venerable Disney Imagineers, Walt Disney's "Nine Old Men" and others would walk by his office and ask about the model on his desk. He would simply reply that it was his own idea and ask him what they thought of it.

When an engineer happened by he would receive a reply, "It's awful! Your track gauge is all wrong! This needs to be pushed, and that needs to be pulled. This needs to be lengthened and that needs to be narrowed. It's awful!" And so later, the young man made modifications.

Then a show set designer might happen by. He would say, "This design is terrible! Your proportion is all out of scale, and it needs to be like this! And the color and texture of this is all wrong! Make it like this. It's terrible!" And at night, the young man would rework his design taking into account the critique.

Later, a technical manager might remark, "This will never work! Your capacity is much too low for a ride like this. You need to add a larger load platform, an extended queue, and areas for handicap accessibility..." and on and on it went. In every case, this astute young man humbly accepted the criticism of his design. Each time he would refine, improve and rework the design.

As the years went by, the boy became a man. He got promoted from the model shop. And then he was promoted again. And again. He worked on a lot of different projects for the Disney Company, but he never forgot his idea. And he never forgot how to listen to others' criticism, each time refining his idea into a very workable and now very buildable theme park attraction.

Today, his idea is now known as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It opened at Disneyland in 1979 and at the Magic Kingdom in Florida the following year. That young student was Tony Baxter. Tony Baxter currently holds the title of Senior Vice President for Creative Development at Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, California.

Sometimes, there is great value in listening to the criticism of others.


By Nate Naversen, with thanks to Bob Rogers of BRC Imagination Arts.

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