Walt Disney surveyed the area and felt a wave of disgust – squalor surrounded him. The ground was dirty and covered with litter, the ride operators were unfriendly, the paint was cracking on one of the rides, but worse than any of that, the parents looked positively bored. Walt decided to do the opposite of everything he saw around him at this shoddy and depressing local amusement park, and in that moment, the idea for Disneyland was born.
Now, almost 70 years after that particular Sunday afternoon in 1948, people stroll into Universal Studios Florida, Six Flags, Cedar Point in Sandusky Ohio, or any of the 6 Disney Parks locations around the world and take for granted the high level of expectation they have for the experience – the quality and quantity of rides, cleanliness of the parks, and helpfulness and politeness of the staff. But it wasn’t always that way. Disgusted by just about every aspect Walt had observed first-hand, the original Disneyland was built on the principle of doing the opposite of EVERYTHING from all the other amusement parks he visited with his young daughters on Sunday afternoons.
Unlocking success from doing the opposite of what every competitor is doing is an idea not limited to Walt Disney or amusement parks.
DAN AND THE DEAN
Author, consultant, and direct-response legend Dan Kennedy credits one piece of advice he heard as a teenager for most of the success he’s experienced in his life. The advice appeared on a cassette tape by the “dean of personal development,” Earl Nightingale. Nightingale advised that if you wanted to do something successfully and had no instructions, no role model, no road map, no mentors, all you needed to do was look around at how the majority was doing that thing and do the opposite – because the majority is always wrong.
This approach is the foundation Kennedy took with him to business after business in industries as far flung as manufacturing, public speaking, and horse-racing.
The most famous investor in the world, Warren Buffett, has amassed a fortune using largely a contrarian approach, exemplified by a philosophy he’s repeated many times: “Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful.” It’s more than a platitude from the “Oracle of Omaha,” as early in 2017, with the stock market hitting record highs day after day, Buffet sold almost a billion dollars in Wal-Mart stock. The sale represented 90% of his position in the company. On the other side of the coin, Buffet pumped cash into several troubled stocks during the financial meltdown of 2008, deals that resulted in over $10 billion dollars in profits less than a decade later.
While most investors ride every wave up and then back down again, Buffet calmly stays out of the wake and finds the value inherent in doing the opposite of the majority.
This opposite approach applies beyond business and investing and is something that the dynamics of a small team can still take advantage of in the right setting. Even a disastrous one.
7,400 IS GOOD
Prior to arriving at the airport for the flight that would later be known as Qantas Flight 32 (one of the Airbus’s engines basically exploded shortly after takeoff, damaging or disabling 21 of the aircraft’s 22 major systems), Captain Richard Champion de Crespigny drilled his crew on emergency procedures. After the quiz was over and before they departed the shuttle van, de Crespigny issued one last order.
“Mark,” he addressed one of his copilots, “if you see everyone looking down, I want you to look up. If we’re all looking up, you look down. We’ll all probably make at least one mistake this flight. You’re each responsible for catching them.”
Minutes after the destruction of one of the aircraft’s left engines, the situation deteriorated quickly, the plane was sluggish to respond, and the options were limited. The flight crew decided to return to the airport despite the risk. De Crespigny radioed the tower that they would return and requested to climb 10,000 feet from their current altitude of 7,400 feet. Mark, in charge of doing the opposite, immediately challenged the order. Several of the other copilots agreed. Climbing higher would put more strain on the engines, they argued, and could cause their already leaking fuel to leak even faster. Captain de Crespigny clicked the mic again. “Disregard the climb to 10,000 feet. We will maintain 7,400 feet.”
The turning point that ultimately saved all 469 people on board of Qantas Flight 32 came a few minutes later with another round of doing the opposite. Overwhelmed with increasing alarms and emergencies, de Crespigny instructed his crew to stop focusing on everything that was wrong and start paying attention to what was still working. Once they went through that very short list, de Crespigny realized that what was left was the equivalent of a Cessna, the first airplane he had ever flown. For the rest of flight and landing, de Crespigny ignored that he was in the cockpit of an Airbus and instead went back to his thousands of hours in a Cessna, and thought only Cessna until the aircraft finally shuddered to a stop with 100 feet of runway left. Not only had everyone on board survived, there wasn’t a single injury. Qantas Flight 32 remains to this day the most damaged Airbus ever to land safely.
How can you apply this same principle to your company like Walt did with Disneyland? Like Dan advises with an entirely new business? Like Warren Buffet advises with investing? Or even with a small team as de Crespigny did with his co-pilot? If you aren’t applying this principle in some way, you can bet someone out there is. You better hope it’s not one of your competitors.
When the gates first opened in 1955, Disneyland was unique from all other amusement parks by a wide margin and in every way possible, including the promotion of the park. ABC’s The Wonderful World of Disney originally aired in 1954 as Walt Disney’s Disneyland in order to both finance the development and to promote the park. The Wonderful World of Disney is still on the air, and for over 60 years now, Disneyland has been the gold-standard and the blueprint for every other amusement park that followed. So much so that now, somewhat ironically, the Disneyland model is ripe for the approach that Nightingale, Kennedy, and even Walt Disney himself believed in and practiced. As hard as it may be to imagine, some Sunday afternoon in the future, someone is going to be walking through a Disney park and think to themselves, I should do the opposite of everything I see here.
For further reading on this topic, also check out my blog post The Circus Comes to Town No More, where I write about Guy Laliberté pursuing the opposite of everything Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus was doing when he created Cirque de Soleil.