Attitudes Of Great Innovators

Costa Michailidis -

How is it that two bicycle shop owners became the first to fly? What kept them going? How did they handle challenges? And, what can we learn from their example?

The Wright Brothers Flying For The First Time

Wright Brothers achieve powered, heavier-than-air flight on December 17th, 1903 in Kitty Hawk.

There are volumes written on the achievement of human flight, and volumes more on other incredible innovations and how they were achieved.

Let's focus on the role of attitude.

What is attitude?

When we use the word attitude we're talking about a state of being with some important factors:

  1. An attitude is a mental and emotional state defined by a belief, value, or point of view toward something.
  2. Attitudes are resilient. When someone has a certain attitude toward something, it stands up to resistance and conflict. Attitudes are not fleeting.
  3. Attitudes generate actions. People who hold certain attitudes think and act a certain way, repeatedly, and consistently, forming persistent habits.

While you might have a certain mindset that influences your actions in a certain context, or while you might have a certain feeling toward a specific person that changes your behaviors toward them, attitudes are broad, persistent, and robust. They direct our actions toward many people, affect our thinking across many contexts, and last a long time.

In this way, attitudes drive the development of habits, and habits... well...

We are what we repeatedly do... excellence, therefore, isn't an act, but a habit and life isn't a series of events, but an ongoing process of self-definition.

- Aristotle

Over time, our attitudes come to define us through the development of habits.

It is important to mention, an attitude can be practiced and engrained deliberately. It need not arise naturally from personality, upbringing, or life experience.

Attitudes, it follows, should be a major target for organizational and individual training programs (ours certainly are).

Doing The Impossible

In a sense, the entire human story can be told as a consistent drum beat of impossible accomplishments. Things that we could barely even dream of are now usual and ordinary: Flying, video conferencing, digital music libraries.

So, what role does attitude play in the creation of these marvels, and future inventions yet unmade?

And more importantly, what role does your attitude play in the breakthroughs you will make in your life?

I would like to propose two dominant attitudes among the world's great innovators: Courage and Curiosity.


Courage, from the latin root cor meaning heart.

Courage is to set your heart on something and pursue it unwaivering. In spite of fear, in spite of doubt, in spite of ridicule, failures, and obstacles. Courage is unstoppable... like your heart.

It's a gift.

No one had to approve of you.

You didn't have to earn it.

It just beats.

And as long as it beats, you live.

Courage is the same. As long as you have the courage to persist, your dreams live.

Courage is how the pursuit of breakthrough begins.

Let's highlight a few keys points:

  1. Courage is rooted in desire. No one ever called forth their courage to conquer challenges that had nothing to do with who they were or what they wanted. Courage is an act of heart.
  2. Courage must be persistent in order to succeed. It must sustain over a long period of time. Breakthroughs don't happen over night.
  3. Courage must be resilient. It has to stand up to all kinds of resistance both internal (fear, doubt) and external (challenges, obstacles).

The Wright brothers can teach us a few things about courage.

Their courage was not pure daring. They did not leap from cliffs to test their flying machines. Nor should we mortgage our homes and max out credit cards to try to start a new business or pursue other innovative endeavors.

The Wright brothers' was an intelligent and informed courage. A deep, arguably obsessive commitment to the long term goal, and an incremental, caring journey to reach it.


If you're going to attempt to do something that you've never done before, you're going to have to try new things, make mistakes, and learn.

Curiosity is an incredible tool in this pursuit.

In addition to helping you learn from others (research, classroom learning, reading), curiosity enables you to make discoveries on your own, and if you're trying to do something that's never been done, you've going to have to discover things no one yet knows.

There are a few key factors about curiosity:

  1. Curiosity at its core is a sense of awe and wonder about the world. Do you recall being a child? Remember what it was like to follow the cracks in the sidewalk, or chase a butterfly? That's curiosity.
  2. Curiosity yields insight and learning. This is a crucial aspect of innovation. You cannot do something new unless you engage the unknown and make the discoveries needed for breakthrough along the way.
  3. Curiosity helps you to unlearn. Sometimes, false notions are the biggest blocker to innvoation, and no one likes being disillusioned, but it's important! You cannot innovate without the capacity to correct false notions. Curiosity can help speed this up.

Said a different way...

It ain't what you don't know that get you in trouble. It's what you know for sure... that just ain't so.

- Mark Twain

Here is an extended article on how curiosity drives innovation:

The Wright brothers approached their dream of flying machines with an almost child-like curiosity. They built, and tinkered, and went on adventures, and when something didn't work they didn't quit and go back to their jobs. They just dusted themselves off, and got deeply curious as to why their machine didn't behave the way they thought it should.

There are writings about their arguments where one brother took one position, and the other the opposite. Then, over the course of the argument they both found themselves fervently supportive of the brother's argument and opposed to their own original position.

This is an example of the unlearning we mentioned earlier.

Why The Wright Brothers?

Why didn't John Rockefeller invent the flying machine? He had the resources. Why not any of the actual scientists or engineers of the era? They had the skills. Why was it two ordinary, unlikely bicycle shop owners?

It seems as if they were the unexpected hero types in some kind of novel who were fated for glory from the start.

Or... perhaps they were bound to innovate all along.

Maybe their attitude toward their dream meant they were more likely than not to find final success.

They pursued the craft of flight with insatiable curiosity, with the courage to weather all kinds of challenges. They began with the belief that Anything Is Possible, and operated by the principle to Never Give Up!

Theirs is a wonderful example of the attitudes of great innovators.

And example that we all might follow.

If two bicycle shop owners can herald the age of aviation? What else is possible? What can you do?


James Tobin, To Conquer The Air, May 3rd 2004