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How Walt Disney, Ellen DeGeneres, and Vera Wang Unleashed Their Potential

by Michelle Emanuele

Surfacing the potential we all have within us is the first step to success. Activating and accelerating that potential, however, can prove challenging—especially when we’re confronted with significant barriers.

In this, the second installment in my three-part blog series, I’m sharing stories of three notable people—Walt Disney, Ellen DeGeneres, and Vera Wang—who faced challenges early in their careers that they had to overcome to unleash their potential. The three are famous in very different realms—one an entertainment entrepreneur, another a comedian, the third a fashion designer—but in each case, their potential could have remained untapped had it not been for their perseverance.

To read stories of other notable people who either benefited from the help of others or overcame long odds to unleash their potential, I invite you to check out the first blog in my series, or either follow DDI on Twitter or search the hashtag #UnleashPotential.

Walt Disney

A talking cartoon mouse with round ears and a long tail, dressed in red shorts and yellow shoes? Who would’ve thought it would be the description one of the world’s most recognized and beloved characters? And the story of the creation of Mickey Mouse is one of potential unleashed through long odds and a bit of desperation.

In 1928, Walt Disney had the rights to his successful “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” series stolen from him by his distributors, Margaret Winkler and her husband Charles Mintz, who also poached most of Disney’s animators. With no bankable character, Disney set about developing a new one. After rejecting several characters drawn by his staff, which included a handful of employees who hadn’t been lured away by Winkler and Mintz, he eventually settled on a cartoon mouse. Thus, Mickey Mouse was born!

The Mickey Mouse cartoon produced by Disney Brothers Studio (Walt’s brother, Roy, was also heavily involved in the business), including Steamboat Willie, one of the first sound cartoons, proved to be wildly successful. A global phenomenon was born!

Twenty-two Academy Awards, two theme parks, and many other characters’ stories later, Walt Disney’s career stands as an unqualified success story.

But what if Disney gave up after his distributors had stolen from him? Would Mickey have been developed? Would we have the famous characters we all know and love today? Disney pressed on, and in the end, he unleashed his full potential.

Learn more about Walt Disney’s story here.

Ellen DeGeneres

Growing up, Ellen DeGeneres wanted to be a veterinarian, but she didn’t believe she was “book smart” enough and gave up on her dream job. She then settled into multiple jobs— salesperson, house painter, legal secretary—that had nothing to do with animals.

But it was through a painful public speaking experience that DeGeneres found her true calling. To combat her stage fright, she employed jokes and humor—and got laughs! She eventually became one of the most popular female stand-up comedians in the business, landing appearances on top talk shows, including those hosted by Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Oprah Winfrey, and others.

By the late 1990s, DeGeneres had her own sitcom, called, fittingly enough, Ellen. But her decision to have her character come out as gay on the show (DeGeneres had publicly come out during an appearance on Winfrey’s talk show the year before) and to devote storylines to LGBTQ topics and themes, set off a cultural firestorm that eventually led to the cancelation of the show in 1998.

That could have been the end of DeGeneres’ career. Only it wasn’t. As determined to rebuild her career as Walt Disney had been to rebuild his, she returned in 2003 with a talk show of her own, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which remains a daytime television staple more than 14 year after its premier.

What’s more, DeGeneres has hosted the Oscars, been awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor by the Kennedy Center, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2016.

What if Ellen DeGeneres had given up when her sitcom was canceled and not persevered to unleash her potential? Fortunately, for her and her millions of adoring fans, we’ll never know.

Read more about Ellen DeGeneres here.

Vera Wang

Transitioning from a figure skater to well-known fashion designer, Vera Wang unleashed her potential at age 40, when she designed her first wedding gown. It’s a great story of reinvention!

A talented competitive figure skater, Wang placed fifth in the 1968 and 1969 U.S. National Championships in the junior pairs category, with her partner, James Stuart. With dreams of becoming named an Olympian, Wang practiced and studied her sport constantly. But then Stuart made the decision to go solo, breaking up the successful duo. Thus, after graduating from college Wang made one of the hardest choices of her life: she put her skates on the shelf, shifted gears, and went to work for Vogue magazine.

By her mid-twenties Wang was promoted to the magazine’s senior fashion editor. After a decade and a half in the magazine industry, she then went to work for Ralph Lauren as a design director.

Wang became engaged to be married later in life, and in her search for the perfect minimalist wedding gown she couldn’t find what she was looking for. So, Wang, at age 40, set about designing her very first wedding gown—her own!

Now Vera Wang is more than just her name—it’s a popular fashion brand!

But what if Wang had decided to pursue her dream of becoming an Olympian, either solo or with a new partner? She wouldn’t have unleashed her potential in fashion!

See more on Vera Wang’s story here.

You Can Unleash Your Potential, Too

The three people I’ve chronicled here all have one thing in common: they all became successful because they either fell into or continued to do something they loved—and kept moving forward to their goals of success.

Whether it was creating a cartoon mouse to rebuild a business, continuing to work through controversy, or even diving into a field that represented something completely new and different, these people ultimately found what it took to unleash their potential.

What about you?

Michelle Emanuele manages DDI’s international social presences on the company’s official accounts for LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. She also acts as a resource for employees within the organization to learn about social media and its functions. Outside of her daily digital world, Michelle enjoys shopping for the best deals on clothing and spends time in the kitchen perfecting the Pinterest recipes she pins to her boards.

Learn more about how to unleash potential in your organization and download the new eBook, The Revolutionary Guide to Rethinking Leadership Potential.

Posted: 27 Dec, 2017,
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