By John Kell and Clifton Leaf
August 4, 2015

FORTUNE Editor Alan Murray is taking some R&R for the next two weeks. In his absence, a number of his fellow editors are filling in. Today, Clifton Leaf, Fortune’s Deputy Editor, delivers the morning paper.

We are, it would seem, always looking for the next Big Idea: Entrepreneurs hope to create or discover it, investors to capitalize on it, and magazine editors like me to write about how big and disruptive the thing is. But as I was reading the extraordinary new biography of the Wright Brothers by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, staring bleary-eyed at my Kindle until two in the morning last night, I was struck by the notion that one of the biggest ideas in history—mechanical flight—was in reality a multitude of smaller discoveries meshed into one.

In one “study” after another—from watching birds and kites take flight to ginning up homemade wind tunnel experiments to catapulting themselves fearlessly off the ground in their own wood-and-muslin contraptions—brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright pieced together, deliberately, steadfastly, the hidden laws of lift and drag and midair equilibrium. Over the course of years, through storm and injury and public ridicule, they took their newfangled machines to wing, crashed them, rebuilt them, and practiced anew until they gained mastery. And in the end, writes McCullough, the sibling bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, achieved what had long seemed preposterous: “They could soar, they could float, they could dive and rise, circle and glide and land, all with assurance.” Human beings could fly.

This discovery—this ultimate disruption—was not the result of a grand Aha, but rather of “unyielding resolve,” to use McCullough’s term. It was born, simply, of relentless work.

Three summers ago I was lucky enough to interview McCullough, whose lyrical biographies of U.S. Presidents John Adams, Harry Truman, and Teddy Roosevelt often read like poetry. McCullough said that one of the most commonly held misconceptions about exceptionally successful people—the Wright Brothers included—was that they had glided to their success on the strength of inherited brains, skills, or some other rare gift rather than through their fortitude.

There is a widespread notion, he said, “that if you’re really talented you can do it naturally and surpass other people just because you’re so talented. It doesn’t work that way. It is my understanding that talented people, generally, work harder than anyone.”

The hard work springs out of a kind of drive or determination, he said: “Call it ambition, call it resolve to achieve, but it’s there. It doesn’t belong to a certain type of person, any more than leadership belongs to a specific type. Just look at U.S. presidents. They don’t run to a type. They’re as different from one another as anybody could be.”

The notion is wonderfully reaffirming—and quintessentially American. Just like McCullough’s remarkable books. Here, today’s news.

Clifton Leaf


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