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by Mark Eppler

A reporter, looking for a special insight into how the Wright brothers had solved the problem of flight, was given a clue by their father, Bishop Wright. "For several years," he replied, "they (Wilbur and Orville) read up on aeronautics as a physician would read his books." The parallel the Bishop was trying to draw was that a physician reads with great diligence, knowing that someone's life may depend upon the knowledge he acquires. Wilbur and Orville pursued knowledge in a similar fashion, knowing that their lives might be put at risk as well.
Whenever the Wright brothers had an interest in something, they immediately sought more information on the subject, going to other sources, if necessary, when the resources in their home library were not enough. It was their one uncompromising habit in solving problems. Consider the following:

  • At the age of twelve, Orville becomes interested in woodcutting after reading an article in Century Magazine. He immediately goes to the library to read everything he can about the subject, and he later applies this knowledge to develop his own woodcuts.
  • Exhausting home and public library resources on aviation, Wilbur writes to the Smithsonian Institution to request recommendations and materials. He purchases every book recommended by the Smithsonian, rereading the books many times. The original books, which are on display at Wright State University, have pencil notes in the margins.
  • When the brothers begin work on the propellers for their 1903 Wright Flyer; their first step is to visit the public library and find everything they can on marine technology (propellers were already in use on power ships).
"The time expended in preliminary study of books was not misspent," Orville told biographer Fred Kelly, "for they gave us a good general understanding of the subject, and enabled us at the outset to avoid effort in many directions in which results would have been hopeless."

Disciplined and methodical thinkers, Wilbur and Orville had a low tolerance for guesswork. If information on the subject was already available, that was the starting point. Once the information was consumed, discussions between the brothers would begin with the following questions:

  • What is the objective (i.e. the problem to be solved)?
  • What has already been done?
  • What can we learn from previous efforts, both successes and failures?
  • Can the problem be reduced to smaller subsets?
  • Is information available on those subsets?
  • What information will we need to solve this problem?
  • What skills will be required to solve this problem?
  • What resources (e.g. materials, equipment, etc.) will be needed to solve this problem?
  • What obstacles will we need to overcome to solve this problem?

For the Wright brothers, who systemized everything, it was an orderly process powered at all times by their commitment to continually learn and grow. They solved the problem of heavier- than-air-flight, as much as anything, by thoroughly studying it. It was something others had neglected to do.

When Wilbur and Orville's interest in manned flight was reignited in 1896, it was quite natural for them to do what they had learned to do from their earliest days: Read all about it. Books on the subject of flight were scarce, however. In their book Twelve Seconds to the Moon, Rosamond Young and Catharine Fitzgerald report that Orville was more than a bit frustrated with the Dayton Public Library's lack of books on the subject of manned flight. When he asked the librarian why there were no books on aeronautics, he was told that "scientists held the idea in great discredit and it was therefore not a subject on which libraries spend money."

The brothers were not deterred. They continued their research by rereading articles they had previously uncovered in magazines and wearing out their encyclopedia. They read everything they could get their hands on for three years. It wasn't enough, however, to satisfy a rapidly increasing appetite. When Wilbur took pen in hand and wrote to the Smithsonian Institution on May 30, 1899, to request information on aeronautics, he created what was arguably the most important letter the Smithsonian has ever received. Wilbur took pains to let the Smithsonian know that he was genuinely interested in the topic as an "enthusiast, not a crank." He wrote the Smithsonian that he wanted to avail himself of all that was already known, with an eye toward adding "his mite" to the solution.

The letter was received by the Smithsonian on June 2, and responded to by Richard Rathbun, director Samuel Langley's personal assistant. Rathbun instructed his clerk to send Wilbur several articles that had appeared in the Smithsonian Annual Report on flight. The collection included excerpts from Louis-Pierre Mouillard's Empire of the Air; Langley's own The Story of Experiments in Mechanical Flight; Otto Lilienthal's The Problem of Flying and Practical Experiments in Soaring; and E. C. Huffaker's On Soaring Flight. In a separate note, Rathbun recommended three books: Progress in Flying Machines by Octave Chanute; Experiments in Aerodynamics by Langley; and The Aeronautical Annual by James Howard Means. The books were immediately ordered by Wilbur.

When the books and materials from the Smithsonian arrived, the brothers were ecstatic. In Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers, Fred Howard describes the reading material as "a rich feast for two bicycle mechanics whose diet until then had been restricted to books on ornithology, encyclopedia articles on bird flight, and an occasional magazine piece on man's attempt to fly." The brothers often became so absorbed in reading (and debating) that all other thoughts slipped away, including a commitment made to sister Katharine to entertain friends she had brought home from Oberlin College. Their intense focus on the problem at hand would have made both brothers, had either married, a poor choice for a mate.

In The Wright Brothers, biographer Fred Kelly tells the story of a friend who once commented to Orville that he and his brother would always be an example of how young men with no special advantages could get ahead. Orville immediately took exception, saying that they did have special advantages. "We were lucky enough," he explained, "to grow up in a home environment where there was always much encouragement to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity. In a different kind of environment," he continued, "our curiosity might have been nipped long before it could have borne fruit." The success of the Wright brothers was forged in an environment that fanned the flames of potential.


Any organization hoping to prosper in the coming decade will have to make relentless preparation (forever learning) an integral part of its competitive strategy. Here are a few tips to make it happen. Some of these suggestions apply to the organization as a whole, some to individuals, and some to both. We'll leave it up to you to figure which is which.

Prime the pump. Like those old-fashioned sucker pumps that need to be primed to get the water flowing, it may be necessary to prime the learning habits of individuals. Legends has it that Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, told his managers he would pay for any seminar or workshop his people wanted to take, even basket weaving! Watson's goal was to place the emphasis on creating a learning habit.
Make contact with areas of expertise. Informal surveys conducted in my seminars reveal that a surprisingly large percentage of college graduates fail to make contact with their areas of discipline after graduation. These individuals not only hurt their organizations by failing to update their knowledge, they run the real risk of becoming last year's model in a competitive employment market. Encourage employees at all levels to continue their education -- formally or informally. I recommend that, at a minimum, you read a book a month in your area of discipline. As Vince Lombardi once said, "It's what you learn after you've learned it all that counts."
Encourage inquisitiveness. In a television interview, astronaut Scott Carpenter was asked what had made him want to go to the moon. "Driving curiosity," he replied. His clipped answer doesn't need elaboration. Curiosity makes things happen. It is the driving force behind everything -- from the development of new products to improving the processes to make them. Employees encouraged to pull on the thread of curiosity will frequently bring ideas and options to the surface. "Create an institution where people aren't allowed to be curious," Tom Peters says, "and people won't be curious." Or, as I like to express it, any good behavior that goes unacknowledged will eventually disappear. The best way to acknowledge good behavior is by rewarding it in tangible or intangible fashion.
Don't skim, read. Reading has fallen on hard times in a culture conditioned by the Internet to surf and skim. Depth of knowledge and understanding, however, come from really getting into a wide range of topics. Creative thinking expert Mike Vance recommends three hundred books a year. The fact that his suggestions is greeted with derision is a reflection not on Vance, but out poor reading capabilities.
Tailor learning strategies to meet individual styles. The learning styles of individuals differ just as their personality styles do. Some people are more tactile in their creative efforts than others. They need to be fiddling with things in order to get their creative juices flowing. Others are more conceptual in the process. The key here is to judge the output, not the method. Create or sponsor learning opportunities that take personality and learning styles into consideration. Some people are detail-oriented and like to thoroughly examine an issue. Others are "big picture" people who prefer an overview of a problem. Neither approach is right or wrong. Both, however, need to be considered in preparing a learning strategy.
Redefine the concept of failure. It has been often stated, that mistakes are among the greatest and most productive learning experiences people can have. A critical part of the Wright brothers' efforts was devoted to analyzing the failures of others in an effort to learn from them, and not repeat them. In Visions of a Flying Machine, Peter Jakab notes, "Walking through the failures and misunderstandings of others aided the brothers in focusing quickly on the basic problems that needed to be addressed."
Be an asker of questions. Irving Stone says Michelangelo depended on the "ever-widening and deepening circles of questions asked and answered" to provide the knowledge he needed to create his masterpieces. The principle of applied inquisitiveness states that problem solving is greatly enhanced by the ability to gather information. And that requires questions to be asked.
Rediscover the library. The first step for the Wright brothers, when confronting a problem or opportunity, was to visit their local library. Although the Internet has surpassed libraries as the primary source of information for many people, the library remains a valuable resource. Not only is it a more tactile experience to be able to peruse actual books, catalogs, and archives, it offers the user an excellent "browsing" opportunity. On more than a few occasions, I've discovered something of value when my eye happened to glance over a bookshelf while looking for something else.
Hire the learning, not the learned. There are many criteria for hiring new employees, but one that should be at or near the top is the degree to which a candidate accepts personal responsibility (i.e. accountability) for her growth and development. Dr. Samuel Langley was a highly learned man, but he spent two decades in aviation research without gaining a sufficient understanding of the subject. Wilbur and Orville Wright were forever-learning men who solved the problem in fifty-five months.
About the Author
Mark Eppler (Milford, OH) is an award-winning speaker, a former marketing executive in the electronics industry, and a passionate student of "everything Wright." He has taught business and management at Indiana University and is the author of Management Mess-Ups. The Wright Way

About the Book
7 Problem-Solving Principles:
from the Wright Brothers:
That Can Make Your Business Soar:
by Mark Eppler
Published by Amacom Books (ISBN 0814407978)
Hardcover, 224 pages, $ $16.90 + Shipping and handling

To order USA ONLY:
International buyers, please contact editor@pilotsweb.com  for shipping prices.

When Wilbur and Orville Wright executed the first successful manned flight on December 17th, 1903, they stunned the world. Man could fly! Where had these two brothers come from? The impact was astonishing. (Imagine if Neil Armstrong had landed on the moon in a craft he built himself and paid for with a part-time job!)

In ushering in the age of flight, the Wright brothers got past numerous obstacles the world's other scientists hadn't even begun to tackle. The Wright Way defines seven essential problem-solving principles the brothers used in accomplishing this enormous feat, and shows readers how to apply them to common business problems. The book presents practical, inspirational principles for achievement, including:

  • Hammering out problems through constructive conflict
  • Addressing the toughest issues -- or "worst things" -- first
  • Achieving perfection through "inveterate tinkering"
  • Pursuing useful knowledge through "forever learning"

      The book gives business leaders and managers constructive tips they can use to tackle their most difficult -- and rewarding -- challenges and opportunities. A perfect combination of savvy management guidance and historical adventure story, The Wright Way shows readers how to make their business soar when others can't even get off the ground.

      Copyright (c) 2004 by Mark Eppler. All rights reserved. Printed here with permission of the publisher, Amacom Books.

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