Everyone knows the Wright brothers were the first to achieve sustained, powered flight, changing history and ushering in an unprecedented era of air travel. Within a year of their first significant flight, the world had been swept up in the drama, and pilots were soaring all over the globe. Like birds bursting from an earthly nest, humans took wing and we’ve never been the same.
But how did it happen? How did two bicycle repairmen triumph where so many others had failed? That’s a story worth hearing. David McCullough, in his biography The Wright Brothers, brings it with clarity and charm, describing a tale of ingenuity and hard-work, of family and friends, crossing cultures and times, and keeping me on the edge of my seat.
How were they so successful? What were the factors contributing to their amazing story, leading them to fly when so many others had simply crashed? That’s what I want to share with you.
Here are 10 critical success factors I learned from the story of the Orville and Wilbur Wright.
- Good, hard work: If there ever was a story about hard work, this is it. At every turn of the page, every season or hour, the diligence of these brothers is front and centre. But their work was animated by desire, by curiosity, by a remarkable drive to know and to understand. Their hard work was meaningful work, life-giving work–good work–infused with purpose and focus.
- Family support: The story of the Wright brothers, as McCullough tells it, is a story of how a family supports each other, first as two inseparable brothers, with their father and sister figuring in prominently, along with their other brothers and their mother, who had died when they were younger. Every step of the journey was supported by loyal family, and the effect of this upon their success cannot be underestimated.
- Open, curious minds: The Wright family was an intensely curious family, reading and engaging in the world of art, science, history, religion and politics. It’s telling that all throughout their lives, they lived open to the world, always learning and growing and reading, truly interested in all they saw and experienced.
- Fighting for truth: The brothers were known for their heated arguments with each other, in their effort to understand truth. Hours, even days, of passionate exchanges regarding the shape of wings or the position of propellers led these brothers to true understanding. The trust they had in each other allowed them to argue and disagree and discuss and relent in ways that other relationships would not have withstood.
- Passionate observers: As mentioned already, Orville and Wilbur were intensely curious. But I didn’t know how much time they spent in observing and studying birds. Many, many hours watching birds in flight, mimicking their wing patterns, drawing and modeling and testing, all based on their close observation of God’s best fliers. Their observations lead them to wing-warping, a technique that broke the flight barrier all others had been failing to overcome.
- Enduring discomfort: Not only were the Wright brothers maintaining a bicycle repair shop during most of their inventive years, the time they spent at famed Kitty Hawk was a testimony to their grit. There were times when the conditions were so severe, the mosquitoes so relentless, the weather so unhelpful that they almost gave up. But they didn’t.
- Loyal Friends: While their family provided indispensable support, the brothers also had incredibly loyal friends and colleagues. From their own employee Charlie Taylor (a mechanical genius in his own right), to the hospitable and ever-helpful postman of Kitty Hawk, to the aviation fan Octave Chanute who encouraged them to continue and the surprising support Wilbur received in France. All along the way, their genius was aided by loyal friends.
- Cautious risk-takers: In spite of what people may think at first glance, these men did not take crazy risks. Careful, small tests, yielding measured results lead them to greater heights gradually. The location of Kitty Hawk was chosen in part because of the soft sand dunes for landing (and also for the favourable winds). They never overreached. They were meticulous in preparation. The brothers never even flew together until long after flight had become established, so that if one of them should die in an accident, the other could continue the work. They took risks, yes, but with extreme care.
- Practical Dreamers: Yes, these brothers had a vision of flight. But what strikes you is their imminent practicality. Working men, normal guys, sleeves rolled up, aprons on, dreaming but not too much, reaching but not too far, and yet through that breaking a barrier none had yet crossed. The misfortunes of other aspiring aviators gave them pause, and their own trials pushed them to tackle the next challenge of flight without getting too far ahead of themselves.
- Importance of Clarity: When facing a challenge, the brothers identified with true clarity the real problem needing to be overcome. Rather than getting overwhelmed by all the aspects of “flying”, they identified their next hurdle (wing shape, for example) and worked toward a solution. At a certain point, they understood that the real challenge of flight was no longer about going up, but being able to control the flight, to steer through the air, and set to work solving that problem. Clearly understanding the problem lead them to solutions others had been too muddled to resolve.
All in all, a remarkable story. Inspiring in scope, beautifully told and wonderfully instructive. Thank you, David McCullough.
And these 10 critical success factors seem relevant to us. We may not be gifted with the genius or inventiveness of the Wrights, but could we not, learning from their story, break through our own flight barriers and soar as we never have before? I hope so.