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The Wright Brothers 50:1 Rule

Gentlemen, we’re out of money, so now we must think. Sir Winston Churchill

Everything I needed to know I learned in engineering school. Not all the topics like history, psychology, physiology, math, engineering, biology, physics, chemistry, statistics, and economics, but how to think. I could have skipped everything between kindergarten and went straight to engineering school. During my time at college, I realized that a college degree only shows that one is educatable in some vocation, not that they will be good at it. Exiting college, my engineering prowess might not have been stellar, but the ability to think like an engineer propelled me past my initial ignorance.


Collaborating with engineers who bypassed formal education, like my colleague Jim, reaffirmed that not all engineering challenges succumb to theoretical or logical approaches. Initially perplexed by this revelation, I questioned the value of my engineering education. Jim's directive to study the Wright Brothers became a beacon of understanding early in my career. I’m currently delving into David McCullough's book "The Wright Brothers," and memories of Jim's insights came flooding back. With no formal education, the Wright Brothers thrived on observation, trial and error, and unbridled passion—a stark contrast to the educated and accomplished inventor Professor Langley. The persistent inquiry remains: why did the Wright Brothers triumph where Professor Langley faltered?


Jim's second insight resonated: "Take the worst job in the lab and do it better than anyone has ever done it before." I embraced four challenging R&D programs, unattractive to others, and surpassed management’s expectations. Completing projects on time and under budget, I mirrored the ethos of the Wright Brothers and Jim—driven by observation, trial and error, and passion. Engaging in dialogue with a fellow researcher affirmed this approach. Managing a project allocated only $100K, he succeeded when the initial proposal demanded $5M and a staff of ten. The Wright Brothers showcased their flying machine for $1K, trumping Professor Langley's $50K investment and substantial team. Success in underfunded programs hinges on a passionate engineer, regardless of formal training, who is willing to think creatively. The Wright Brothers' triumph epitomizes the potency of curiosity, open-mindedness, and interdisciplinary thinking cultivated independently.

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