Over the holidays my mother was kind enough to gift me David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers. This week there was an opening in my “to be read” schedule and I picked it up. I got about half way through last night, far enough in that I got to and past the major event at Kitty Hawk in December of 1903 (the first powered flight of an airplane) and past the conclusion of their testing the next year of their second powered plane, this time flown in a large pasture just outside of Dayton, their home town. McCullough is a talented writer of history, he is wonderfully good at taking you into the details of a figure’s life–in this case the Wright Brothers–without bogging you down in them. So I now know about Wilbur and Orville Wright, their family and friends, and roughly how they went from successful bicycle manufacturers to become the first men to crack the problem of powered, heavier-than-air flight.
If you are a fan of history, or of airplanes–I happen to like both–than this book is more than sufficient to warrant your attention. However, this isn’t a book review, in the strictest sense, there are plenty of those to go around upon this book and/or this topic; this dear reader is something different. You see, as I read of the experiences of the Will and Orv, as they liked to be called, I was struck by something really remarkable: The famous Wright Brothers of historical fame crashed their planes a lot.
Their first glider, which they flew out at Kitty Hawk, NC, crashed and was rebuilt several times. By the time they were done testing with it that fall the glider was so abused and rebuilt that they gave it away, it was literally in pieces by then. Their second glider flew worst then the first one, at least until they rebuilt the wing, but it crashed and was rebuild several times afterwards. Their third glider crashed once so bad it took two weeks to rebuild, and it eventually crashed so often it was all but discarded. Even their famous Flyer, the first powered plane ever, crashed on its first major test flight, bending the propeller shafts so bad Wilber had to travel back to Dayton and have them rebuild. The reason why they didn’t make their historic 1903 until December was because they had so many crashes on the Flyer’s delicate frame that the plane could not get off the ground until then. Once it had flown, making three flights, each one successively longer than the last, it was picked up by the wind like a kite at the beach when they stopped for lunch and toppled over forcefully several times, almost injuring a man who was tangled in the rigging. The first powered airplane in the world came back to Dayton in pieces and was never flown again.
The Wright’s second powered plane was a slightly different design than the Flyer, and was test flown practically in their own back yard. But even this plane crashed so often that it needed constant repairs. By this time Wilber was keeping a diary, logging each flight, so we know for instance that they once went for three months with nothing but crash after crash on this airframe. When they learned to turn a plane around, they crashed. When they learned to launch it with their ingenious catapult, they crashed. When they learned to fly higher off the ground, they crashed. In fact, the place was so cantankerous, the flights so short, the crashes so often, that their friends and people from the press simply gave up all interest, thinking them mad men because their progress was so slow and so littered with repairs. By the time their third Flyer was constructed, the first truly reliable aircraft, the two brothers had done hundreds of flights with a health proportion of those ending in destruction. In short, the Wright Brothers were adept at the art by this point they could have been rightfully called the Kings of Crashing.
The reason for all this crashing is not unknown. To their credit the Wright Brothers knew going in that they were attempting to do two very difficult and interrelated tasks; they were trying to discover the laws of aerial mechanics, that is to discover how to design and build a plane than can repeatedly fly through the air, and they were also learning the art of flying such a plane, both at the same time. Neither of these things had ever been done before, in fact many of the leading scientists of their day proudly proclaimed that heavier-than-air flight was impossible for humans. So not only were they blazing two different trails into the unknown simultaneously, they were doing so with no certain knowledge of their success. There were no maps, no methods, and even the most learned men of their day were completely wrong in their theories, which the Wright Brothers discovered to their chagrin.
This is the nature of doing something truly new. It doesn’t matter if it is working at the leading edge of science, or something so prosaic as falling in love, once you step foot down the path that no one else has trod before, you enter the world of the unknown. And the unknown has a lot of pitfalls.
Now the point of all this is not to claim the Wright Brothers were losers. Obviously they became a household name for a reason, and it wasn’t for their many spectacular failures. In fact I’ll bet that up until you read the above you had no idea how often they crashed. Until I read McCullough’s book I certainly didn’t know, and I’m a serious history buff and n airplane buff. I guess if I had thought about it at all it would have been obvious. I mean, there’s no way to learn how to fly and what is flyable, without making a lot of errors. Anyone who has ever designed or learned to fly a radio controlled airplane can tell you that, and I’ve done both. It’s a process the is fraught with trial and error. If I had thought about it at all I just sort of assumed “they figured it out.”
Which leads me to another point: the people around you, what Christians call “the World”, they do not care about your crashes. To them, your crashes, no matter what the cause, are not all that important. What they want to see are your successes. Turn on any news channel and you can see hundreds of examples of people who have succeeded at something, rock stars, movie stars, lottery winners,and CEOs of large corporations. What you will not see on the news are the many and spectacular failures, crashes, that each of us, all of the time, are doing. If you take the wrong exit off the freeway, it’s not going to be on the news. Neither will be dating a person not suited for you, or failing to miss your stop on the bus. Make a spectacular success and you might make the news, make a mistake and you won’t. Crashes it seems aren’t newsworthy, they’re not important, because they’re too common.
What it comes down to is this: like the Wright Brothers, each of us will find ourselves at some point powered by an inner passion. Maybe it’s to be an actor, a musician, or an artist; maybe it’s to be a wife, or a husband, a mother, or a father; maybe it’s to be a mechanic, or a theoretical physicist, a nurse, or a salesman. It doesn’t matter what the path is, only that it is new (at least to us) and it is difficult. To accomplish our goals we’re going to have to walk over new ground, we’re going to have to claim new metaphorical lands for our purposes, climb new mountains, seek out new ideas, and try on new opinions.
All of these attempts, of course, are going to be ripe for failure. There is an absolute certainty that we’re going to make mistakes, some of them quite large. We’re going to crash. Crash and crash hard. Perhaps even crash fatally. We risk injury and ridicule at every turn. We’re traveling into the unknown and the only truly known thing we can count on is that it will not come without a cost. Pain is certain. Crashes will happen.
Not only will they happen, but when they do we will have no control over them. Think about it, if we knew they were coming we would avoid them, right? The only thing we can control is how we react to them. A crash could mean you’re a terrible person and are never going to amount to anything, or it could mean you made a minor mistake and you need to correct for that. When the Wright Brothers crashed, they got right up, and immediately began repairing their plane. Oh they talked about the crash, believe me they did, but only from the point of view of discovering the problem so they could avoid it in the future. They were learning a difficult task, after all, and mistakes were bound to happen. They just didn’t think those mistakes were based on their own moral failings, nor did they think each crash was a sign that God didn’t approve of their direction. In short, they didn’t think the crashes they caused were a reflection of their own shortcomings. That idea seemed to have never entered their heads. They saw them for what they rightly were, small mistakes on the road to understanding. To them each crash was a way to discover a new problem and thus reduce their ignorance.
As we can learn from the Wright Brothers, crashes are not good indicators of failure, only the inevitable. The only way to truly fail is to either avoid crashes, or even worse to assume the cause of the crash is something other than what it is. Failure doesn’t come from crashes, failure comes from not learning what went wrong when you did crash. And you will crash my friend, indeed you will.
And not only will you crash, but when you do crash you will discover that no one cares. Friends, family, etc. not a one of them is going to be interested unless they are directly involved. Its interested to note that while the Wright Brothers were testing their second aircraft, just minutes away, a short trolly ride, from downtown Dayton, not a single reported from either major newspaper came out to investigate. The Wright Brothers didn’t hide what they were doing. They were flying in plain sight of a trolly line. It’s just that they crashed so much no one was interested. The man who finally broke their story, Amos Root, was an eccentric who had made himself a name by selling bee keeping equipment. The Wright’s first real exposure didn’t come from the press, didn’t come from their friends, it came from a newsletter called Gleanings in Bee Culture. Think that one through for a moment. The only reason Amos was able to write an accurate story about the Wright Brothers experiments was because he was patient enough to visit them several times until they could demostrate to him a reasonable success. In fact they first flight he saw was done by Orville because Wilbur has been in a wreck so bad he couldn’t fly for a month. Very few people are going to be patient with your crashing process. Hold on to those that are. They’re worth more than gold.
My advice to you my friend is to crash and crash often. Only its important to learn from your crashes, don’t make the same mistakes over and over. And remember, no one, except a very rare few, are going to care about your crashes. Ignore what others think or do. They’re not the one’s risking their neck in the crazy contraption that you are. Hell, they probably don’t have the first clue what you’re trying to do, so ignore them and focus on the task at hand.