Each spring for the past nine years, Walt Disney World plays host to 100 of the brightest high school kids in the country. The location makes perfect sense because there’s no better venue for young people to grow their dreams than the very place that was born out of the grandest dream of them all.
Led by comedian, radio personality, and game show host Steve Harvey, a roster of celebrities and successful professionals assemble in the “happiest place on Earth” for the Disney Dreamers Academy to teach, guide, and fill with hope the hand-picked, dream-filled teenagers from every nook and cranny of America. During workshop-packed days and fun-filled nights at Epcot, Magic Kingdom, and beyond, lives are literally being transformed … but not only young lives.
The teenage dreamers are each allowed one parent or guardian to enjoy the free long weekend at Disney World with them. Those lucky grownups aren’t kicking it poolside with piña coladas though! They are also in the weeds for 72 hours, having some of their ideas challenged and other beliefs reaffirmed, all while receiving a heavy dose of inspiration and actionable skills to help improve their lives and the lives of their promising teens. This is a vital piece of the Dreamers Academy puzzle because Walt Disney’s famous Carousel of Progress isn’t just talking about kids when it sings, “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, and tomorrow is just a dream away.”
Many of the life lessons discussed at the Disney Dreamers Academy in Orlando intersect with the very skills and traits I myself try to instill in my two pre-teen daughters at home. Here are 10 lessons to instill in your kids to raise leaders, not followers.
1. It’s not only OK to be uncomfortable, it’s necessary.
Steve Harvey who, along with Essence Magazine, has his fingerprints all over the Disney Dreamers Academy, put it this way to the dreamers and their adult chaperones on Day One of the 2016 event: “You gotta get out of your fuzzy comfort zone. You will fail in your comfort zone. Get out to where it’s a little skanky.”
That’s pretty funny, as is to be expected with Harvey, but it’s also 100% true. Being uncomfortable for a short time, while the rest of your community and peer group come around to your brand of brilliance, is a small price to pay for living your dream. I put this advice in practice regularly when I dare my daughters to think big with seemingly bizarre thoughts about the possibilities of the world and how they might impact it.
Networking specialist and speaker Jonathan Sprinkles smartly reinforced Steve Harvey’s point when he told the dreamers they must “be willing to stand on your own, all by yourself, until the rest of the world catches up.”
2. You’re going to make mistakes; it’s what you do next that matters most.
It was appropriate for the dreamers to have toured the Kinsey Collection inside the American Heritage Gallery at Epcot because in the museum is an original edition of Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. The abolitionist’s thoughts, actions, and words continue to offer wisdom for current generations. In fact, it’s a quote by Douglass that’s served as a mantra for my entire adult life and is something I try to pass on to my kids to this day: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
It’s sometimes hard for us parents to let it happen, but we simply must allow our children to struggle and to fail, especially during childhood when the consequences of failure are not so dire, so that they can learn to do so with class and grace. We must allow them to fail so that they learn how to pick themselves back up and try again with extra effort and new ideas.
Dr. Steve Perry, founder of the acclaimed Capital Preparatory Magnet School, told the Disney Dreamers Academy Class of 2016 that they shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes along their journey, instead: “If you want to be afraid of something, be afraid of being ordinary.”
3. It’s okay to ask for help.
If there’s one thing the Disney Dreamers Academy shows kids, especially during the intense deep-dive session where dreamers listen closely and work hard with a professional in their desired field of study/work, is that even the “Han Solo-iest” of people sometimes need the help of others.
Having a strong, independent spirit and the will to go at endeavors all by yourself can take you far, but there will be times when teammates, coworkers, friends, and family must play a vital role in helping you find success. These may be individuals with certain skills you may not have mastered yet, and you should be open to allowing them to help propel you in the right direction, thus getting you closer to achieving your unique vision.
4. Exude gratitude.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling extra ridiculous, I call myself Captain Gratitude. No, that’s not my boring superhero alter-ego but it does, I hope, illustrate to my kids how much gratitude means to me on a personal and professional level.
At the Disney Dreamers Academy, gratitude was a sort of opening act when Jonathan Sprinkles began with this: “Anytime anyone does anything good for you, you be sure to say thank you” because “gratitude has a multiplier effect” in brightening the lives of others and encouraging more acts of kindness and of service.
5. Find your own definition of success.
Maybe you don’t need all the cars, houses, and stuff that the rapper on TV is flaunting. Maybe a yacht doesn’t make any sense for you because you get seasick easily. Every single person needs to shut out the noise and determine for themselves what exactly success means in their own life.
For some, it could be living paycheck to paycheck in a tiny studio apartment because their dream career isn’t extremely lucrative, but it makes them fulfilled every single day. For others, maybe a mansion in the hills will make them the happiest even though the 9-to-5 will be stressful and demanding.
To each his or her own, but everyone needs to think long and hard about what success means to them individually. Don’t spend your life chasing down someone else’s — not a celebrity’s, not a friend’s, and not even your parent’s — version of success!
6. Be persistent.
I asked Sleepy Hollow actor Lance Gross what his #1 wish for his 17-month-old daughter is as she grows up and he said, with little hesitation, that persistence is the attribute he most wishes to see in his child. He noted that:
“There are two different types of people, the gifted and the grinders. The gifted group is smart and can just show up and shine. The problem is that often the gifted don’t understand the process, so when they fail they question and doubt themselves and have very low self-esteem [in the face of struggle]. The latter group however, the grinders, they fall down and get back up, and over time develop their character through the process of trying, failing, trying again and eventually achieving their dream.”
7. Stop saying “I will” and start saying “I am.”
Grammy Award-winning gospel star Yolanda Adams brought down the house with her singing and also when she boldly demanded that the dreamers and their adults, “Stop saying ‘I will’ and start saying ‘I am’.” Later in the 2016 Disney Dreamers Academy programming, Dr. Steve Perry, who dazzled during two separate talks over the course of the weekend, added, “Those who do, do; those who don’t, talk about it.”
I am a doer and I want nothing more as a dad than to help my two kids be the type of people who live out their dreams, not the type who sit on social media or stand around the water cooler in a cubicle farm yapping about all the stuff they wish they could be doing.
8. Experience life.
Real knowledge doesn’t come from the push of a button. Being able to Google stuff doesn’t mean you know everything, because you can too easily forget what you’ve read but you will never forget what it felt like. Real knowledge, the kind that can alter the course of your life, comes from exposure. You have to experience life to learn about yourself and the world. And you have to learn about yourself and the world before you can realistically change either.
9. Always be prepared to pitch.
I struggle to describe what it is I do and what I hope to be doing next, and so this bit of life advice smacked me in the face, too: have your 30-second elevator pitch ready to go at all times! Be prepared to highlight your best attributes, skills, accomplishments, and dreams to any and all at a moment’s notice. You never know whom you will meet while out there experiencing life (see above!).
The next person who sits down beside you on a subway train or an airplane, or the person who stands in line in front of you at the deli might just be the person who will see your true potential and is in a position to give you the big break you’ve been looking for. To that end, you should always put forth the best version of yourself and make your best effort, because you don’t know who is listening, watching, and ready to invest in you and your dream.
10. Think outside your box.
Finally, and maybe most poignantly from the 2016 Disney Dreamers Academy, is the idea that the most important thing about your own dream is not the impact it will have on you, not the fame or wealth or material possessions your realized dream may afford you, but the impact your dream will have on others. That just about sums up the Disney Dreamers Academy experience at Walt Disney World: determine what you want in life and reach for it, but make sure to pick others up along the way.
The world is always in need of more dreamers and leaders, thinkers and doers, and for one weekend each year, 100 talented young dreamers are being propelled to greatness at the Disney Dreamers Academy.