Walt Disney Had a 3-Step Method for Crafting Visionary Ideas

According to the old adage, creativity is "99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration." Modern science disagrees. Psychologists break creativity into more distinct stages that move you from a subconscious swirl of ideas to a well-honed pitch. Effective creativity requires mastering each phase of this brainstorming process separately, and Walt Disney had a system that can show you exactly how.

Three Different Rooms for Three Different Walts

"There were actually three different Walts: the dreamer, the realist, and the spoiler. You never knew which one was coming to the meeting."

Like most quotes from the internet, this one, supposedly from a close associate of Walt Disney, is probably apocryphal. But it's useful nonetheless for capturing a fundamental truth about both how the Disney founder worked and how creativity functions. Ideas don't arrive fully formed one day while you're laying in the bath. They must be cultivated, developed, and vetted.

Disney understood that it's impossible to come up with, develop, and critique ideas simultaneously. Each stage in this process demands a different mindset. And according to Robert Dilts, who developed the Disney Creative Strategy based on Walt Disney's brainstorming method in the 1990s, those distinct mindsets are best achieved by adopting not just different thinking styles, but also by setting up completely distinct physical spaces for each phase of the creative process.

By setting aside three different rooms for each stage of the creative process (or dividing a conference room into three distinct spaces), you can nudge yourself to adopt the right mindset for each phase of the brainstorming process — and leave the distractions of the other stages by the door.

1. The Dreamer

Those in search of great ideas simply need a lot of ideas at first. The crazier, the better. After all, if an idea isn't "crazy," it's pretty likely someone else has already tried it. Generating this big pool of wild possibility requires turning off the part of the brain that says, "That will never work" or "Will this sound silly?" In short, you must silence your inner critic and fully embody the role of the Dreamer.

In the Dreamer space, anything is possible and criticism is banned.

2. The Realist

Now that you have a giant pile of ideas to choose from, it's time to start letting reality back into your thinking. In The Realist stage, you evaluate the actual feasibility of the ideas you generated and begin to develop them. You ask yourself questions like:

  • Do you have the resources to execute this idea?
  • What would an action plan look like to make this idea a reality?
  • Given my current limitations, how can I tweak the idea to make it more doable?

This is the space where you begin to talk about how you might achieve your ideas.

The Spoiler

Now that you've shaped your idea into something halfway plausible, it's time to start playing the role of the Spoiler. In this third headspace (and literal space) you're bent on poking holes in an idea so you can discover its weaknesses. That way you can either correct for them or abandon a fatally flawed idea entirely before it eats up too many resources.

The spoiler space is the home of the devil's advocate, where you play at being a downer and a nitpicker in order to make each idea as strong as it can possibly be.

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Explore creativity with another animation giant in "Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration" by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Jessica Stillman October 25, 2019

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