The Wright Brothers

Last week I read The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. I’ve always enjoyed McCullough’s books (his John Adams is my favorite biography and I’ve read the book 3 times). That said, I’ve avoided The Wright Brothers because I thought to myself what else could I learn about the Wright Brothers that I don’t already know?

Well, I’m glad I read the book because it turns out I knew virtually nothing about the brothers. The book centers on the 10 years that they were developing the first airplane, and I found it fascinating. But perhaps more than anything else, I found in the Wright brothers a set of characteristics that I look for and admire in people. Indeed, they have become role models for the kind of behavior I wish to emulate.

Biographies fascinate me because people surprise me. I most admire those people that appear to be hard workers, in part because hard work can offset nature (hard work can make up for lack of genius, for instance), and nurture (hard work can overcome background circumstances for which a person has little control). I also admire integrity, and the appreciation of learning and knowledge. It is no surprise, therefore, that John Adams is my favorite president: he was an incredibly hard worker, had almost unquestioned integrity, and used his accumulated learning for the benefit of the country. (Note that I don’t say I think Adams was the best president, just my favorite.)

Reading McCullough’s biography of the Wright brothers, I saw in both Orville and Wilbur, 5 traits that are among those that I most try to emulate (with admittedly mixed success):

  1. They were hard workers. They never shied away from work, but welcomed it, preferring to perform the most menial and most difficult tasks themselves rather than have someone else do it.
  2. They were self-starters. They found something that interested them, wondered about it, asked questions, and then proceeded to explore it without waiting for the prodding of others. They financed their work from the profits of their bicycle shop rather than look for investors elsewhere and because of that, they had complete control over their explorations.
  3. They were methodical and detail oriented. They were not rushed. They began with small simple explorations of birds in flight, and gleaned what they could from that. They worked in slow, steady increments. They were not trying to revolutionize the world overnight. The invention of the airplane was not a race. They made mistakes frequently and learned from them. They spent time studying their subject, learning everything they could about it until they were unquestioned experts in the field.
  4. They were self-confident without being arrogant. Even after their famous flight at Kitty Hawk, most people around the world believed their achievement a hoax. This didn’t bother the brothers. They knew it wasn’t and they had confidence in their abilities and knowledge. They didn’t complain, calmly going about improving upon their work, knowing that eventually, people would see the plane flying for themselves.
  5. They were even-tempered and humble. They didn’t take offense easily, in part because of the confidence they had in themselves and each other. They were willing to learn from mistakes and be corrected.

There are other traits I admire, but these five are rare to find in a single person, let alone two brothers. Even John Adams lacked some of them (especially 4 and 5). They are traits that I have for decades been striving for, but falling short in various ways that occasionally frustrate me. Seeing them all in a pair of brothers, though, gave me hope. I’ll never come close the success that the Wright brothers had in terms of their inventiveness. But it would be nice to think that I have a target I can use to approach their character.

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