You have probably heard the story of the Wright Brothers. Both were bicycle mechanics who were unknown and lacking a formal education. Although they weren’t leaders in aviation, they still managed to pioneer man’s first motorized flight on December 17, 1903.
But do you know the story of Samuel P. Langley? He was a professor of mathematics and astronomy, and a Director of the Smithsonian Institution. Langley was also a scientist and inventor who, in the mid to late 1890’s, actively performed experiments with large unmanned airplane models, gaining notable recognition for his accomplishments.
Because he was at the forefront of aviation, the U.S. War Department gave him $50,000 (an astronomical amount of money for that time) and commissioned him to design and build an airplane that would send mankind skyward.
By 1901, he had successfully tested and created history’s first heavier-than-air aircraft. Then, on October 8, 1903, on a modified houseboat in front of journalists and spectators, Langley (with the aid of pilot Charles Manley) attempted to fly his plane, The Great Aerodrome.
When the launch was attempted, however, the biplane was flung into sixteen feet of water only 50 feet from the boat. Criticism from skeptics and cynics was brutal as evidenced by this report in the New York Times:
" The ridiculous fiasco, which attended the attempt at aerial navigation in the Langley flying machine, was not unexpected. No doubt the problem has its attractions for those it interests, but to ordinary men, it would seem as if the effort might be employed more profitably."
At first, Langley remained undaunted. Eight weeks later in early December he and his pilot again prepared to make history with their second flight. Yet, once again, disaster struck and this time the pilot nearly died.
As before the cynics and skeptics fiercely attacked the Great Aerodrome, calling it "Langley’s Folley," and accused him of wasting government funds.
Langley succumbed to his critics and abandoned his project with the heavy-hearted speech, "I have brought to close the portion of work which seemed to be specifically mine — the demonstration of the practicality of mechanical flight. For the next stage, which is the commercial and practical development of the idea, it is probable that the world may look to others."
Instead of throwing his hat in the ring, Langley threw in the towel. He abandoned his pursuit of flight and walked away from his decade-long pursuit. Only a few days later, Orville and Wilber Wright — uneducated, unknown and unfunded — flew their aircraft from the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Let me offer my perspective of Langley and the Wright Brothers because what happened to them is what occurs in the lives of many people today. Too many allow failure and setbacks to get the best of them, while a few accept life’s challenges as lessons and allow their setbacks to propel them toward the achievement of their goals.
In retrospect, it would seem that Samuel Langley had an almost unfair advantage over the Wright Brothers; money, education, reputation and supporters. Yet, I suggest it was the Wright Brothers who had the unfair advantage over Langley.
Samuel Langley had more than his share of cynics and skeptics surrounding his project. As painful as failure can be, it’s magnified when others add their ridicule. This would cause him, and anyone else, to emotionalize and personalize their shortcomings. For many, the pain of failure leads to the fear of failure.
Because the Wright Brothers were unknown, they had no cynics or skeptics to criticize their work. The advantage they had over Langley was that, when they experienced setbacks, their thoughts were not on personalized failure but on focusing on the lessons of their failures.
Therefore, the first and most important step in overcoming failure (setbacks, obstacles and challenges) is to understand that failure is an event and not a person. It is something that happens to you that can be demoralizing as well as educational, but it is not YOU. To put it simply, failing to achieve does not make you a failure.
If you really want to accomplish your dreams, you must get into the marketplace, take calculated risks and be willing to experience failure. Soccer player Kyle Rote Jr. noted, "There are many ways to win, but only one way to lose and that is to fail and not look beyond the failure."