The Incredible Advantage of Learning Through Action

In 1896, two brothers named Orville and Wilber Wright had a crazy idea.

“What if we could be the first ones to create manned flight?” [1]

There was no reason to believe that the brothers would be successful. They had no formal education in engineering. They had no experience with any kind of aviation. And they had no financial backing – only the meager profits from their bicycle repair business.

They were also competing against the best and brightest minds in the country.

A man named Samuel Pierpont Langley was the clear favorite to be the first to develop manned flight. He was a brilliant engineer, he had a full team who all graduated from Ivy League schools and he had financial backing from both private investors and the government.

So why have you probably never heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley?

How did the Wright brothers – simple bicycle repairmen from Dayton, Ohio – go down in the history books as the first to achieve manned flight?


Samuel Pierpont Langley’s team was full of brilliant engineers. They believed – and for good reason – that flying a plane would be similar to sailing a boat. This meant that their flying machine should be built for stability.

Their pilot, they believed, should be focused mostly on going straight, making only gradual turns so as to ensure his stability in the air.

So Langley and his team spent months calculating how to make a stable aircraft for the highly turbulent open air. They focused all of their attention on the physics of how to create the perfect aircraft.

Meanwhile, the Wright brothers saw their aircraft through a completely different lens. They saw it like a bicycle. A bicycle is naturally unstable, but with the right balance and direction from the pilot can achieve stability.

They also knew from their experience in their bike shop that the best way for them to create the right design was to actually ride. That allowed them to feel where there were flaws. Then they could tinker with it and make incremental improvements.

So while the Langley team was inside theorizing about the perfect craft, the Wright brothers were out testing it. They learned what worked by acting, not by theorizing.  

The first designs of the Wright brothers were terrible. But that was simply a part of the process! They tested out their simple machines and learned where they were making mistakes.

Then, because they were actually piloting the planes, they were able to feel how the pilot could play a role in stabilizing the craft. So they could create their new designs based on actual experience in the air.

Then, on December 17, 1903, while Langley’s team was still locked in their offices trying to figure out how to create the perfect aircraft, the two bicycle repairmen achieved the first sustained flight.

With no advanced education, no financial backing and no experience in aviation, Orville Wright flew the very first manned aircraft for an impressive 59 seconds. Winning the race and adding the Wright brother's names to the history books.


There is no greater way to learn than by trial and error. Because Langley’s team was focused completely on designing the “perfect” aircraft, they were unable to gain experience of what it actually felt like to fly a plane.

If they did, they would have realized how much more control the pilot had to stabilize the plane in the air than they originally thought. This would have instantly set them on new path to design something with the pilot in mind.

But they didn’t. They never got that experience. So even the most brilliant minds and endless financial backing could not help them to be the first to achieve manned flight.

It is intuitive for us to believe that those with the highest degrees, the most education or the most financial resources are destined to create the greatest inventions, the greatest products or the greatest companies.

But when you look at the people who have truly mastered their field, you see that they aren’t necessarily the smartest people on paper.

Thomas Edison, who is widely regarded as the greatest inventor of all time, did not even attend college! He spent his days looking at problems and tinkering with solutions until they finally worked.

There is no better example of this than in his invention of the light bulb. It famously took him 1000 attempts before he finally figured it out. Talk about trial and error! [2]

Even the great Albert Einstein, perhaps the greatest genius of all time, showed little brilliance in his actual formal education. It was not until he got a job at the Swiss Patent office that he began to show any promise.

Even then, it took him years of doing his "thought experiments" before he was finally able to come up with his theory of relativity. [3]


It is tempting for us to ignore the path of the Wright brothers and instead choose the path of Samuel Pierpont Langley.

We don't have to deal with failure when we are reading, strategizing and planning!

So it is much more comfortable for our psyche. Plus, there is a certain romanticism tied to developing brilliance and genius – rather than learning through trial and error. However, learning through action is exponentially more powerful.

It can even turn bicycle repairmen into two of the most respected figures in history!

So it is absolutely necessary that you become comfortable with failure and accept it as part of the learning process.

Here are some simple ways to begin learning through action:


Although it may be valuable for me to read books on writing theory in order to become a better writer, that won't be nearly as valuable as actually writing. That is why my learning process is as follows:

1. Every day, I read an article or book by another author that I admire. Next to each paragraph, I write down the key ideas that were expressed on a separate sheet of paper. I then leave the sheet of paper alone until the next day.

2. Then I look at the piece of paper from the previous day. I look at each idea and try to write a paragraph about it with my own words and tone.

3. Then I compare my paragraph to that of the better author and see what he or she did better than me.

4. Then I take notes on how to improve for next time.

5. Finally, I repeat the process by beginning this day’s reading of paragraphs and writing down ideas.

This is better than reading about writing theory because I am learning through trial and error. I am seeing where my writing is sub-par versus the best writers I know. Then I can adjust my writing for the next time - just like the Wright brothers adjusted their designs.


One of the true masters of comedy, Chris Rock, has spent many more hours doing stand up in small comedy clubs and bars than he has on the big stage of the Apollo Theater

Not all jokes that a comedian comes up with are funny. Even the most brilliant comics do not rely on their comedic genius alone to create great jokes. That is why Chris Rock would work out his material in the small clubs first.

He would spend weeks testing his jokes on the smaller crowds before getting on stage for the huge ones. After getting feedback from the smaller crowds, he would tinker with his material to ensure he was ready for the big time. [4]

In your life, see if there are ways you can get feedback before hitting the big time.

Have a friend or colleague of yours simulate a hard-hitting interview before you have one with the actual company.

Test your book or article out with a small group of critical readers before sending it to a publisher.

Whatever you can do to get feedback on a small scale, see if you can add it to your learning process.


When I was working with my first startup, we followed this learning through trial and error in order to determine the proper business model. Unfortunately, what we learned took us off track from our initial vision.

This would be like Edison setting out to create the lightbulb, but through trial and error realizing that maybe he should focus instead on making kerosine gas lamps brighter and last longer. 

When you are learning through trial and error, there can be the temptation to choose a different destination than you originally intended. Do not do this. You want to change the different paths you can take, not change the destination entirely.

So make sure that you take the time to step back and ensure that you are still journeying toward your higher goal. Otherwise you may find yourself completely off track as I did with my first startup.


The Wright brothers should not have been the ones to achieve the first manned flight. It should have been Samuel Pierpont Langley. However, while Langley and his team of brilliant engineers were theorizing their airplane, the Wright brothers were out testing theirs.

This helped them learn what actually worked in practice and allowed them to tweak and improve their designs - eventually leading to the first plane capable of sustained flight. This is a perfect example of why action is always a better way to learn than theory.

You must create action-oriented practice and get consistent feedback on your ideas. But make sure that you never lose sight of your overall goal. Use action-oriented learning to find the right path, and eventually you will reach your destination!


  1. Greene, R. (2012). Mastery. New York: Viking.
  2. University of Kentucky (2001). They Did Not Give Up.
  3. The History Channel (2014). The Life of Albert Einstein.
  4. Colvin, G. (2008). Talent is overrated: What really separates world-class performers from everybody else. New York: Portfolio.