VERBATIM – Chicago Venture Magazine doesn’t cover political events but when a serious presidential candidate talks about entrepreneurship, that’s an opportunity. This article will focus on that part of the talk–not the political side. After that, I have appended a riveting TED video by Simon Sinek, who makes the same point from another perspective.
Newt treats us to an illuminating and inspiring story. That’s right, a story. It’s clearly given off-the-cuff by a man who knows his subject—something I don’t expect from a politician.
We meet at a little airport around the corner from my office. We crowd together in a beautiful hangar with modern and vintage airplanes. I stand, surrounded by press photographers.
The secret service accosts me twice (I must look suspicious) but I seem to get along with these guys and they don’t throw me out on my ear.
I’ve transcribed Newt’s story as I heard it, in his quiet, plain-spoken language.
He addresses a crowd packed into an enormous airplane hangar. “You know, this is a great example of American ingenuity and inventiveness, you can imagine on a campaign like this we land a lot, which also means we take off a lot—I always say the Wright Brothers succeeded again. If you look back here at these wonderful planes,” he turns to indicate a vintage Stearman and Piper Cub, “they represent the evolution of American invention.
I can see he’s got the crowd’s attention. He goes on: “The Wright Brothers were two bicycle mechanics in Dayton Ohio who set out to discover how to fly. Now, being bicycle mechanics back then was a relatively high-end job. But they spent time. They studied birds. They built their own wind tunnel. And they spent years. And they knew something really important that bureaucrats don’t seem to get. THEY DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO FLY—SO EVERYTHING THEY WERE DOING WAS AN EXPERIMENT.
“One thing the US Government did to help them: When they wrote the weather service they said, where is the best place in the United States to get an updraft—so you have a continuous wind coming up? Because that makes it easier for the airplane to get lift. Turns out to be Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, which around 1900 is a really empty, barren place.
“And so to get there from Dayton they have to take a train. So every summer they load the train with extra wood. Now, the reason they’re taking extra wood is THEY KNOW THEY DON’T KNOW HOW TO FLY.
“They go down. They get up in the morning. They live very inexpensively. They have no government grants. They haven’t applied for anything. This is all on their own money. And so they live very frugally in a little shack. They get up in the morning, fix coffee. They go out and they crash. And they stop and try to figure out what went wrong. They fix the plane and they try again. And they crash.
“Callista and I were very fortunate. We were at Orville Wright’s home a couple weeks ago. The curator said to us: The best estimate is that they had 500 experiments that failed. And you can imagine the congressional hearings…”
The crowd breaks into laughter.
“…because frankly, the modern political governmental system—and I’m going to use a very strong word—is just plain stupid.”
A man in the crowd blurts out: ‘That’s right.’ And face it—everybody knows it’s true. But Newt takes a lot of heat for comments like that. It’s not PC. It’s the reason so many hate him. And it’s the reason many find him so appealing at a personal level. I recall Tom Clancy’s portrayal of his hero Jack Ryan when he ascends to the White House. In that novel, his advisors cringe when he speaks because he doesn’t follow the teleprompter and the things he says seem politically wrong. Then Clancy reveals the reaction of political leaders around the world. For example, the Indian Prime Minister thinks he shows weakness but the Japanese say, ‘He is Samurai.’
Newt goes on: “And I’ve been trying to figure out for the last several months how to get this across clearly to the American people. You need visionaries. Without vision, the people perish. You need somebody who understands that you get to these aircraft by starting. And you start somewhere with something that doesn’t look very big and isn’t very effective.
“The Wright Brothers keep trying and on December 17th, 1903 they crash four times. The fifth time, they fly for 53 seconds. The first powered flight in human history. Two Americans from Ohio in North Carolina.
“By the way, the first flight was shorter than the wingspan of a Boing 747 and slow enough that the one brother ran along next to the wing of the plane to make sure it didn’t flip over and kill his brother.”
That draws a lot of mirth from the audience.
Newt raises his voice. “Now here’s what makes this a miracle. Because they’ve now discovered the principle, by 1907 they fly around the island of Manhattan and one and one-half million people see an airplane for the first time. Three and a half years—that’s how fast they changed—BECAUSE THEY’D BROKEN THROUGH.”
He taps the podium with a finger. “Here’s what makes it a fascinating story: The Wright Brothers knew that they had to build a very light engine because they had to build a very light plane. And so they actually invented an engine. They had a number of patents. And these were very smart people working very hard. This is their hobby—this is not how they’re earning a living.
“By the way, the estimate by the curator at Orville Wright’s house is that their total spending was $500. Now, that’s back when money was a lot more valuable than it is today, so let’s say they spent a half a million—but in them-year-dollars they spent $500.
“The Smithsonian—the greatest scientific center in the United States at that time—gave a $50,000 grant. The Smithsonian had really smart scientists who didn’t know the number-one thing that the Wright Brothers knew. THE WRIGHT BROTHERS KNEW THEY DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO FLY. THE SMITHSONIAN THOUGHT THEY DID.
“And so the Smithsonian went out to Germans for metallurgy and built a really powerful engine. Now the problem with a very powerful engine is that it’s heavy. And that means that you have to have a real heavy airplane. And they didn’t want to go all the way to Kitty Hawk. They were in Washington DC. It was very inconvenient to go to Kitty Hawk. So they tried to find a new innovative way to get wind speed. And they invented something we still use—the catapult. Exactly like the nuclear powered aircraft carrier.
“Now there’s a problem because if you’re gonna have a catapult on a boat, you’re gonna launch over water. So they decided they’d launch over the Potomac.
“Now there’s a double problem: If you land in water, the impact of the water will break the plane up. Furthermore, the current of the river will break the plane up. And when it gets to the bottom and you try to lift it, the process of lifting it will break the plane up. So you won’t be able to figure out what didn’t work because by the time you get the plane back, nothing will work.
“But they’re very confident because they’re very smart and they have a $50,000 grant and they’ve got lots of degrees. So they go out and actually invite the press to their very first effort. Now remember, the Wright Brothers have failed 499 times, but the Smithsonian is so cocky, they’re convinced they’re gonna fly the first time. And exactly what most of you—I can tell by the look on your faces, you know what’s coming, right? They get up in the morning; the sun burns the mist off the river. They get the engine started. They launch the catapult. The plane goes straight down the length of the boat and straight into the river.”
The crowd erupts.
“Now they’ve invited the press so you can imagine the press coverage:
“SMITHSONIAN FAILS AT EFFORT TO FLY.
“PEOPLE CAN’T FLY.
“WHY ARE THEY WASTING THE TAXPAYER’S MONEY?”
Newt gets quiet again. “A little bit later, the Wright Brothers fly for the first time. It’s covered by one Associated Press reporter in a real small story. The Smithsonian is so angry that these guys who don’t have any degrees—they don’t have any government grants—they don’t get any money from the Congress—and they’ve invented flying? Their relationship is so chilly that the Wright Brothers will not give them the original plane for 37 years.”
The audience busts out in laughter and Newt is grinning. “It’s now at the Air and Space Museum in Washington.”
“Here’s why I’m telling you this story,” he gestures around the hangar, “because these planes just inspired it. I want to get back to this innovation point ’cause this is what nobody in Washington and nobody in the elite media seems to get. The great need in America is for a visionary political leader who understands science and technology applied with conservative principles of constitutional government. Liberating the American people to discover and invent the future allows us to become more prosperous, more productive, more successful, and safer than any possible bureaucratic system! And that’s just a fact!”
The crowd bursts into deafening applause.
“…the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford—these people invented the modern world without bureaucracy!”
Newt waits for the crowd to calm down.
“In that setting, let me tell you about innovation in energy. Over the last decade, new systems have been developed that enable us to get oil and gas out of rock we couldn’t get oil and gas out of. Now, with natural gas, if you asked in 2000, they’d have said we have a 7-year supply and we’re gonna have to import liquefied natural gas from the Middle East. With the new breakthroughs and new innovation, we now have a 125 year supply, and we’re about to start exporting liquefied natural gas to China. …natural gas will add 600,000 jobs in the next decade.
“Now it turns out that the same capabilities apply to oil in North Dakota, where it’s on private land…has led to the following development: Fifteen years ago, we thought we had 150 million barrels of recoverable oil in North Dakota. Up until the middle of last week, I said we now had discovered something like 4 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Now we believe we have something on the order of 24 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
“Here’s the real kicker. They believe that with two more generations of technology, there are 500 billion barrels of oil. They’re very deep, so we don’t currently have the technology to get ‘em.
“I’m describing North Dakota.”
He pauses again and I think about the magnitude of those numbers—in a single state.
Newt raises his voice. “They talk about releasing the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and this is nonsense. We have two strategic petroleum reserves in the Unites States. One is the ingenuity of the American people and the other is called Alaska!” The crowd breaks into applause.
After the pandemonium subsides, he shifts gears.
“By the way, in North Dakota—for those of you who care about the economy—their current unemployment rate is 3.5%.”
His speech continues to build on that story and highlight specific political objectives. That’s a subject for a different journal than this one. You can find that in any newspaper–they stress politics and only politics. My goal here is to bring out the broader insights about entrepreneurship.
After he concludes his remarks, Newt and his wife, Callista greet the visitors. They each pose with me for a personal photo. Nice. I hang around and talk politics with friends.
A reporter from the Northwest Herald interviews me at length and I give him everything I can. A sweet schoolteacher proudly tells the reporter that she taught my son and I feel mellow and happy. That March 16th newspaper article sticks to the political side of the speech and uses only a few of my comments. You can find it at http://www.nwherald.com/2012/03/15/gingrich-talks-gas-prices-jobs-at-lith-rally/ar6mc4u/?page=1
And I’m struck by the bold frankness of this candidate. Not your typical politician. I can see why he makes so many people angry. He’s highly intelligent. He says what he believes—bold and clear. And whatever your political leanings, whether you like him or not—admit it—you admire that in a man.
In his simple story he’s made everybody in this airplane hangar understand what really makes entrepreneurship and this country work. I know a lot of venture capitalists and I respect what they do, but who is that other candidate that trumpets speculation as if it were macroeconomic wisdom? Today’s story brings out deeper, more fundamental truths than that. I’m left with a very specific and uplifting view of what is possible—within our reach if we can muster the will to grab it. And I heard all that in an aircraft hangar, in the suburbs of Chicago, the new, growing center for thought leadership.
And I find this job has it’s perks.
HERE’S A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE:
TED – SIMON SINEC ON THE WRIGHT BROTHERS, DR MARTIN LUTHER KING, AND APPLE
Comments on the Gingrich article started to get shrill until one turned me onto this: I’ve appended a TED video of thought leader Simon Sinek that makes exactly the same point about the Wright Brother’s but comes at it from an entirely different persepective. In this video, he makes the same concepts stick with Dr. Martin Luther King and Apple Computer. The video is absolutely riveting. Kick back and enjoy!
Simon Sinek is the author of “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action,” He writes for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Business Week and others. He joined the Rand Corporation in 2010.
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© 2012 John Jonelis – All Rights Reserved.