Book Jeff

It All Started with a…Telegram!

Where were you three years ago?

That’s right! It has already been three years. On March 8, 2020, I took a group of students to Disneyland for a Sunday tour and COVID was already all over the news. On Wednesday, an NBA player tested positive, and by Friday, March 13, the world started shutting down…with Disneyland and Walt Disney World leading the way. Remember how once the lockdown started, it felt like it would never end?

I talk about March 13 in my signature Wisdom of Walt keynote. Not just because of 2020 but also because of 1928. Call it irony, coincidence, fate, or whatever…but before we knew March 13 as the date Disney shutdown due to a global pandemic, it was already known as Telegram Day. Let me explain.

Walt loved to remind us that it all “started with a mouse.” But before there was a mouse, there was, of course, a rabbit. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Walt developed Oswald in 1927 and signed a distribution deal with Universal that same year. In 1928, he and Lilly traveled to New York City hoping to negotiate a bigger and better contract. Instead, Walt was offered 20 percent less. Even worse, forces were working behind his back to hire away the very animators who had helped make Oswald so successful, and Walt had signed away the rights to Oswald when he signed the distribution deal.

Knowing his worth, trusting his value, and banking on himself, Walt walked.

But he was walking away without a character, a contract, a product, an income, or animators. And Walt was staring bankruptcy in the face…again. The second time in five years.

Worse, how was he going to break the news to his older brother and studio partner, Roy? Before boarding the train at Union Station in New York City, Walt sent Roy an update via telegram dated March 13, 1928:


“Don’t Worry. Everything OK.”

On March 13, 1928, Walt Disney had everything in the world to worry about because everything was certainly not okay. Again, his second studio was about to fail and this time he was going to bring his brother down with him.

Years later, Walt would recount how he drew Mickey Mouse and sketched out his first story on that long train ride home. He reflected on a little character, an actual mouse, who had kept him company during the darkest days right before the bankruptcy in Kansas City and used him as inspiration for what would become the world’s most popular, and profitable, cartoon character.

I like to think Walt was really drawing on the optimism reflected in the telegram he sent to Roy before he ever boarded the train. “DON’T WORRY EVERYTHING OK.” Perhaps if Walt had told Roy the truth, the entire truth, then his long train ride home would have been three days of brooding, sulking, grief, and loss. And perhaps we would never have heard the name Walt Disney again….

Instead, Walt used his optimism to telegraph himself into a corner and it forced him to come up with something new. Something different. Something better. Suddenly, he was on deadline, needing details to share with Roy when he arrived home on Sunday morning a mere three days later. Walt didn’t have time to brood. To sulk. Grief and loss could come later. Right now, there was work to be done!

What have you done with your three days…I mean three years? Walt, Oswald, Mickey, and COVID remind us that every crisis is an opportunity. An opportunity to panic or pivot. An opportunity to implode or improvise. An opportunity to retreat or be resourceful. What was your Oswald in March 2020? Where is your Mickey today? What would your world look like today if you had gotten up each morning for the past three years and rather than worrying, had reflected on Walt’s words, “DON’T WORRY EVERYTHING OK”?

While the rest of the world continues to sort out where and how COVID started, vaccine laws, and mask mandates, I want to issue my own challenge. Regardless of what you are facing in your life or in your business, for the next fourteen days, tell yourself at the start of each day “DON’T WORRY EVERYTHING OK.” Then, like Walt, you can draw on this attitude of positivity throughout the day and throughout the next two weeks as you deal with whatever circumstances or crisis you might be facing.

And never forget that despite Walt’s encouragement to the contrary, it didn’t all start with a mouse. Or even a Not So Lucky Rabbit.

It really started with a telegram. A positive attitude. And an encouragement not to worry because everything will be OK!

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