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Afflicted with an Idea: Lessons from the Wright Brothers

I never really think about the Wright Brothers when I fly commercially. The only reason I am thinking of them now, as my flight prepares for departure, is that I’m writing an article on them. My mind is still freshly full of the images from the books and DVD I used in my initial research. Now I am heading to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina — the “ground zero” of flight — for an up-close look at where it all began.

Wright Brothers Memorial

Wright Brothers Memorial

Ask any schoolchild in America who the Wright Brothers were and you’ll receive a pat answer along the lines of “They invented the airplane!” Yes, we owe this fantastic mode of transportation we call “airplane” to them; but beyond that, what do we really know about Wilbur and Orville Wright?

Did you know that Wilbur and Orville were lifelong bachelors who didn’t even graduate from high school? Their neighbors and friends were convinced that the eccentric Wright brothers would never amount to much. Little did those acquaintances know that the brothers were “afflicted with an idea,” as Wilbur put it in a letter to his mentor Octave Chanute: they were afflicted with the idea that man could fly.

Many other inventors had attempted to make flying machines. Competition along those lines was pretty fierce in the late 1800s. What made the Wright Brothers succeed where so many others had failed? Four characteristics stood out to me as I discovered more about the Wright’s story.

What made the Wright Brothers different?

They were willing to DREAM. They were crazy enough to think that just because something hadn’t been done before didn’t mean it couldn’t be done.

They were willing to FAIL. And they did — again and again and again, even to the point of putting their own lives in danger. And yet they never gave up, though the temptation to quit nearly overcame them many times.

They were willing to LOOK FOOLISH. You can fail repeatedly in private without anyone knowing. You can experiment in a laboratory hidden away from others and risk little embarrassment at a lack of success. But the Wright Brothers, though they were private people who tried to keep their experiments secret for as long as possible, chose to put themselves “out there.” The people in Kitty Hawk had never seen anything like these well-dressed grown men chasing through the sandy dunes after their gliders. The brothers were misunderstood and ridiculed. But they kept experimenting.

First landing strip, with museum and monument in background

First landing strip, with museum and monument in background

They were willing to KEEP FIGHTING. In the years that followed the first successful flight, the brothers had to fight hard to protect their patent and their reputation. Though it made them unpopular in their latter years, the men (and especially Orville after Wilbur died) had to fight to secure their rightful place in history. The Smithsonian wanted to put one of its own as the inventor of flight; had Orville not fought tooth and nail for recognition of their idea, schoolchildren may be learning about Samuel Langley, not the Wright Brothers, as the inventor of the flying machine. Heritage and legacy are important.


The Wright Brothers took a complicated problem and made great headway with it. Through their willingness to dream, willingness to fail, willingness to look foolish, and willingness to keep fighting, they invented the first successful flying machine and affected the course of history.

Have you ever been “afflicted with an idea”? Ask God to help you have the same single-mindedness the Wright Brothers exhibited in their pursuit of aviation. Your God-inspired idea can change the world!

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4 Comments to “Afflicted with an Idea: Lessons from the Wright Brothers”

  1. Well said. I’ve often come back to their story of being “afflicted with an idea” that flight was possible for man. It changed the world. Gives the rest of us some hope and encouragement for following our dreams.

  2. Makes me want to go to the museum again! Great article. Inspiring and motivating.

  3. I think we all need to be reminded of these 4 points. I know I did! What a fresh, motivational way to present a timeless truth.

  4. Great job Nat! Very inspiring.

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