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Three skills you need to thrive in the 2020s…no pressure, but the Wright Bros mastered them in 1903

In January 2016, the World Economic Forum published the The Future of Jobs report identifying the top 10 skills workers need to thrive in the 2020s when robots, artificial intelligence, and autonomy shape the workplace. If you don’t already have these skills, the time for procrastination is over. Time flies, doesn’t it?

Ahead of their time, Orville and Wilbur Wright were masters of these timeless skills in an era when steerable balloons were the cutting edge of technology. In the growing thinker economy, these skills are more important than ever.



The Wrights showed remarkable ability in each of these areas, particularly after their historic flight at Kitty Hawk. Keep in mind, they were able to get airborne for about $1000 in 1903 dollars (about $28K today). For comparison, today a company is raising $25K on Kickstarter for a waterproof backpack...times have changed.


While Orville and Wilbur worked to refine their invention, they simultaneously launched a marketing effort not only in the US but also in Europe. They secured their place among America’s greatest minds, and they owe their success to mastery of the top 3 skills on the list—complex problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity.


1.     The Wrights masterfully broke a large problem into smaller, critical bits.  During a 1901 presentation to the Western Society of Engineers, Wilbur Wright began his speech by laying out the three parts of the problem of manned flight.


“The difficulties which obstruct the pathway to success in flying machine construction are of three general classes: (1) Those which relate to the construction of the sustaining wings. (2) Those which relate to the generation and application of the power required to drive the machine through the air. (3) Those relating to the balance and steering of the machine through the air.”


Wilbur went on to acknowledge others who had already made significant progress on the first two parts of the problem. He understood, however, that when balance and steering have been solved, “the age of flying machines will have arrived.”


Solving today’s complex challenges is no different. Developing a safe, driverless car requires a similar step wise approach. Sensors must detect the road and obstacles. Processors must identify hazards. Mechanical parts must steer the car quickly, but safely, to avoid collisions. Taken as whole, the problem is incredibly complex, but when broken apart, it becomes more manageable. This seems simple enough, but how many times have you seen too-eager problem solvers jump to solutions before they understand the problem? How often have teams tackled a too-broad problem like “increase sales.” 


A better approach is to aim to increase sales in a certain market, of a certain product, or via a specific channel. When you solve a few of these mini-problems, you start to takeoff.

2.      The Wrights were critical thinkers when the facts contradicted the “known” truth. In order to fly, a flying machine must generate lift. How much lift can be generated depends on the size and shape of the wing as well as the amount of air going over it. At the time of the Wright Bros’ experiments, there was one set of tables that told them, and everyone else in the world working on the problem, how much lift a certain wing form could generate. These tables were carefully created and tested by the world’s foremost glider pilot who ultimately gave his life in pursuit of his passion. When aviation pioneers tested the efficiency of their machines, they measured against this gold standard. 


Unfortunately, these tables were wrong. The standard wasn’t the standard at all, and the difference between the table and truth was one of the Wright Bros’ key discoveries. Making observations and drawing objective, even inconvenient, conclusions is the essence of critical thinking. 


Some of today’s entrepreneurs find success by directly confronting conventional wisdom. Ten years ago if you told your friends about your plan to have a stranger pick you up at the airport in his car and drive you to another stranger’s house to spend the night, your sanity would have been questioned. Today, getting a Lyft to your Airbnb is Plan A.

Critical thinkers can recognize their own biases and build shields against them. The most common bias we experience is seeing what we expect to see and believing what we want to believe. It would have been easy for the Wrights to attribute the differences they observed to materials, workmanship, or shifting winds rather than the standard being incorrect. Instead, they suspected the tables may be in error and created an elegant solution to test and create their own tables.


One way to guard against this confirmation bias is by asking yourself, early in the process, what information would lead you to conclude that your assumptions about a certain problem are false. Write down the contrary evidence that would change your mind and put the paper in a safe place. Later, when your progress is frustrated, unroll that slip of paper to see if you are ignoring the very information you said would convince you that you were wrong.

3.      The Wright Brothers were masters of creativity. The concept of creativity is a slippery beast. We can all agree sculptors are creative. The same can be said for chefs, musicians, painters, poets, video game designers, and the advertising firm who brought us the phrase “dilly, dilly”. But, you might be surprised to learn the US Department of Labor has astronomers tied for the number one spot as the occupation demanding the highest level of creativity. Also high on the list are physicists, science teachers, computer hardware engineers, sociologists, and economists…not your typical list of free-spirited creatives.

Creativity researchers define creativity as the act of producing something both novel and effective. The Wright Brothers clearly proved their creative abilities in 1903 when their flying machine lifted off and landed safely. Along the way, they expertly steered their minds and efforts between convergent thinking to solve problems like developing steering mechanics or a lightweight engine and divergent thinking that led them to test hundreds of miniature wing models in their homemade wind tunnel. Their mental agility enabled their innovation.



On the 2015 list of skills, creativity was ranked #10, but on the 2020 list it shot up to #3—the importance of creativity in the thinker economy is undeniable. Of the skills the World Economic Forum says are the most important for 2020, this one is the easiest to train. Being human is being creative. If you can communicate, you can create. The more you create, the more creative you become. As your creative confidence increases, your ideas improve, as does your willingness to share them. In an economy of ideas, people who can make connections are the ones who thrive.

As we open a new year to new opportunities, resolve to practice creativity more often. Take a creativity class. Find a creativity coach. Guide your team through some applied creativity exercises to solve tough problems and develop trust in each other. Once you start on this path, the sky is the limit.

Dan Manning is the CEO of Firepower Concepts, LLC, a firm helping businesses and non-profits apply creativity to solve their toughest problems. Combining academic study with techniques refined over a career as a fighter pilot and warrior-diplomat, Dan unleashes the transforming power of creative thinking to do what could not be done before. Dan is available for keynotes, team training, consulting, and guided ideation.    

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