View of a wooden airplane hovering above the ground, while a man at the left watches  on.
PHOTO: UNC Libraries Commons

“If God had meant man to fly, he would have given him wings.”

That point of view may have been as widely held in 1901 as it was in 1901 BC. At the turn of the 20th century, almost nobody believed that man was destined to pilot a flying machine. Even Wilbur Wright, one of the inventors of the airplane, was skeptical. Reflecting on his success in a 1908 speech at the Aero-Club de France, he said:

“Scarcely 10 years ago, all hope of flying had almost been abandoned; even the most convinced had become doubtful, and I confess that, in 1901, I said to my brother Orville that men would not fly for 50 years. Two years later, we ourselves were making flights.”

So, while Wilbur went on to say “this demonstration of my inability as a prophet gave me such a shock that I have ever distrusted myself and refrained from all prediction,” we have the advantage of more than 100 years of perspective to draw some important conclusions from how the Wright brothers were able to achieve what far more experienced people had been unable to do. 

I believe the Wrights’ accomplishment was as extraordinary for how they invented the airplane as for what they invented.

Here are some lessons from the Wright brothers’ experiences that can be applied to daily work life.

1. Study Past Mistakes

Two years before designing their first prototype, the Wright brothers began learning all they could about prior attempts to build a flying machine. For example, Wilbur reached out to the Smithsonian Institution asking to “avail myself of all that is already known” about human flight. The brothers studied the documents long and hard before they entered the workshop to build their first prototype.

The lesson: Too often, in an effort to get going quickly, we rush to start tasks and projects without proper reflection on the problem we are trying to solve. Studying previous work helps us avoid making costly mistakes while revealing the primary challenges in front of us. Which leads to the next lesson.

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2. Focus on the Hardest Part First

Based on their research, the Wrights realized that their main challenge was to build a large wing structure with aerodynamic properties that could be easily controlled. So they first focused on designing the shape of the wing and the control mechanisms needed to keep the wing aloft. The Wrights worked on this task for three years until they were able to demonstrate a glider that could stay aloft for extended periods of time. Only when they completed the glider did they go about building a motor to power the craft — a task that took only a few months. 

In contrast, the Wrights’ competitors focused first on building powerful motors and attaching them to structures whose aerodynamic properties were unproven. As a result, those folks put a lot of effort into working on the wrong problem first — and they wasted lots of time and money. Ultimately, they lost the race.

The lesson: Focus on the tough parts of a project or problem first; the other parts will fall into place later.

3. Prototype Your Ideas

The Wrights’ first attempt at building an aerodynamic wing failed. After a year of unsuccessful tests, they hit upon the idea of using a scaled-down “wind tunnel” to quickly test new designs. This approach enabled them to prototype new designs more quickly. While they didn’t invent the wind tunnel, they were quick to adopt its use. Using their wind tunnel, the brothers were able to validate their design. Only when their design was aerodynamically sound did they build a full-scale model and test it in a live environment.

The lesson: Prototype your ideas before trying to solve the whole problem. People using agile methodologies will recognize this concept.

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4. Work in Optimum Conditions

The brothers pored over US weather data and maps looking for a test site that would provide a steady and continuous wind so they wouldn’t waste time waiting for suitable conditions. Ultimately, they settled on Kitty Hawk, N.C., a remote and foreboding location, with no local resources to support them. Despite the hardships, this site provided the key ingredients for efficient testing — consistent wind and abundant sand dunes to provide a soft landing spot for the expected crashes.

The lesson: Choose the optimal work environment for your project so you don’t have to expend valuable time and energy combating distractions and impediments. Invest maximum focus and energy in completing the project or task.

5. Trust Colleagues to Make the Right Decisions

When Wilbur went to Paris to sell the first flying machine, he partnered with local agents to help him market the aircraft. At the time, Orville was back home in Dayton, Ohio, becoming impatient with Wilbur’s lack of progress. When Orville instructed Wilbur to drop his marketing partners, Wilbur ignored the advice, later reflecting, “I have done what I know he would have done if he had been here and understood all the facts. In such cases, the man at a distance only does harm by trying to give instructions which do not fit the case.”

The lesson: People on the scene often have the best perspective about what to do next. Learn to trust colleagues who may have a better perspective than you.

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6. Remember, There Will Always Be Another Challenge

By the early 1900s, new inventions had radically changed peoples’ lives. The telegraph, telephone, radio, railroads and the automobile had altered peoples’ day-to-day existences as never before. So it’s not surprising that there was a feeling that there was nothing left to invent. On the eve of the brothers’ celebratory return to their hometown, the Dayton Daily News ran an editorial containing the following passage:

“The old world was getting tired, it seemed, and needed help to whip it into action. There was beginning a great deal of talk about man’s no longer having the opportunities he once had of achieving greatness. Too many people were beginning to believe that all of the world’s problems had been solved .... This celebration ... crowns anew the efforts of mankind. It crushes for another hundred years the suspicion that all of the secrets of nature have been solved or that the avenues of hope have been closed to those who would win new worlds.”

The lesson: As much as we think of our own advancements, there will always be something new under the sun to challenge us in the future. So if your last project didn’t pan out, look forward to tomorrow’s challenges.

For an excellent source of information about the Wright brothers’ trials and tribulations, I highly recommend David McCollough’s excellent book The Wright Brothers, which follows Wilbur and Orville as they struggle to invent and market the first airplane. Most of the quotes in this article were taken from that fine book.