I recently read (okay, listened to) the new book by David McCullough about the Wright Brothers (Simon and Shuster, New York, 2015). This was a fascinating book, and I highly recommend it. I thought I knew a lot about the Wright Brothers, but it turns out I knew very little. The Wright Brothers were the perfect example of the sixth key in my book, Living a Life That Matters: 7 Keys for Purposeful Living. The sixth key is “Be a Lifelong Learner.”
Orville and Wilbur never attended college, yet they were two of the most brilliant, innovative men of their era and made a huge impact on our world. What was the cause of their incredible success and ingenuity? Their father, a Bishop, filled their home with books and a love of learning. They didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity or a telephone, but they had a multitude of books at their disposal and took advantage of the opportunity to learn from them. They became knowledgeable about engineering, bird flight, aerodynamics, architecture, wind and many more subjects.
McCullough says in his book, “Years later [after they had made their historic first flight], a friend told Orville that he and his brother would always stand as an example of how far Americans with no special advantage could advance in the world. ‘But it isn’t true,’ Orville responded emphatically, ‘to say we had no special advantages. The greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity.'”
Wilbur had aspirations of attending Yale and was planning to go there, but he was hit in the face by a stick during a hockey game and lost his front teeth. (The boy who hit him was later executed for murdering his parents and an estimated 12 other people.) Wilbur went into depression and secluded himself in his house for three years. During that time, he read practically non-stop and filled his mind with information about many topics, including bird flight and aerodynamics. He and Orville may never have become history makers had not Wilbur suffered such an unfortunate incident. When Wilbur later visited Paris to showcase the new airplane, he visited the Louvre 15 times and wrote home lengthy letters about architecture, art and culture in Paris. He never ceased learning.
Another thing that impressed me about the brothers was their ingenuity and courage. They didn’t have a crew of engineers and mechanics at their disposal. When their airplane broke (which it did often), they had to fix it on their own. Every time they took to the air in their “experimental” aircraft, they were putting their lives in jeopardy. In fact, Orville seriously broke his leg in a crash at Washington, D.C., and his passenger (a high-ranking military officer) was killed.
At the same time the Wrights were preparing their aircraft, the US government had given tens of thousands of dollars to the Smithsonian Institute to develop a flying machine. That machine never achieved flight. Orville and Wilbur spent less than $1,000 on their project, proving once again that a couple of entrepreneurs operating in the private sector could be more successful and do it for less money than a government-sponsored endeavor.
For me, the takeaway from this book was that one of the greatest things we can do for ourselves, our children and society is to cultivate a love of learning. We are never too old or too young to learn something new. Knowledge drives our society and our economy. It is difficult for an ignorant, uninformed person to live purposefully. Most of the truly great people I know and respect are avid learners. We may never invent something as dramatic and impactful as an airplane, but filling our minds continually will help us lead happier and more productive lives. What good books have your read lately? What wisdom or information have you shared recently with your children, grandchildren or co-workers? What have you learned today?