Standing on the edge of a large cliff in the mountains of Southern Oregon, we prepared our plane for launch. The paper airplane glided back and forth across the valley below for what seemed like forever before it finally clipped the top of a tall Douglas Fir tree. It was almost magical. We had made a paper airplane that had flown for over four and a half minutes. We felt like victors that deserved a medal. I’ll never forget that moment, or day, as it taught me a lot of about success, failure, business and life.
How it Started
Bobby and I both attended the same grade school together and would, along with a lot of our classmates, spend our recess outside making and throwing paper airplanes. It was a competition to see who’s plane would stay in the air the longest and fly the furthest. The competitiveness of the entire thing turned us into little engineers, always striving to make a better plane.
When Bobby and I were in high school, we were still working on getting things to fly. We spent a lot of time in fields with an Aerobie seeing how far we could throw it. (a long ways!) Eventually we found ourselves throwing paper airplanes again. Trying to figure out the highest place in the area to throw a plane from, someone suggested a cliff in the mountains near where we lived. So we jumped in Bobby’s jeep and headed up with a ream of paper and a timer.
Building the perfect plane
The first thing we would do is each build a handful of planes. We wouldn’t go throw the planes off the cliff right at first. Instead we would take them to an open flat area and toss them hard enough that we could see how they would behave in the air. A paper airplane with the slightest flaw in it’s shape and design will not stay in the air but for a few seconds. If one wing is slanted higher than the other, it will pull in one direction and quickly end up on the ground. If the plane wasn’t folded just right, resulting in too much weight in the front or back, it would crash. So we would toss them over and over until we thought we had a perfectly balanced plane.
Once we had a handful of high quality planes that we had tested, we went to the cliff. I would throw the plane and Bobby would time it. I would face away from the cliff, throw the plane straight up in the air. The plane would go up for about 15 feet then flip right side up and start heading in the opposite direction, straight off the cliff. Once off the cliff, we had two things going for us. First, the plane had hundreds of feet to fall before it would hit any trees, giving a well made plane quite a bit of extra flight time. The second thing was the wind. If would often blow up the face of the cliff, which would actually cause our planes to rise like a bird at times. This is what happened with our 4 1/2 minute flight.
Once we tossed the plane, it actually rose above us 15-20 ft before leveling off. It then would slowly glide hundreds of feet back and forth as it slowly descended into the valley below. The wind probably gets much of the credit for slowing the descent, but the plane was as perfectly balanced as we had ever made one. Eventually, far down the hill into the valley, the plane clipped the top of a Douglas Fir tree and the flight was over. A few things went through my head. First, a little bit of sadness that we had no video proof of the flight. It was the late 1990’s and cell phone cameras and GoPro’s weren’t quite around yet. Second, pride that after all the time we spent working on the planes, we finally had one that had a truly amazing flight.
Things I learned about success, failure and life from making the paper airplanes
1. If you are going to do something, pour yourself into it. Get competitive about it. Try to become an expert at something. We liked making paper airplanes, so we wanted to make planes that would fly longer than any other. We drove 30 miles into the boonies and through the forest just to get to an optimal cliff. (If people don’t believe me that the plane flew that long, we’ll go back down there this summer out of spite and throw paper airplanes until my arm falls off. )
2. Test your ideas first. We wasted so much time making planes that had a small design flaw that we wouldn’t find out about until we had launched the plane. It would go up, over the cliff and straight to the ground. We could have caught the mistake and made an adjustment and saved ourselves time and effort. The same goes for business. Come up with little test flights for an idea so you can see if it might fly. Make a bunch of adjustment and see if you can increase the time before you really start putting a lot of time and resources into an idea. Most businesses fail not because the idea is a bad one, but because often people don’t do enough testing and adjusting before throwing the idea off a cliff.
3. The difference between success and failure can be very small. The smallest adjustment on the wing of a paper airplane can be the difference between a 3 second flight and a 3 minute flight. The same goes for business. The smallest adjustments to an idea, or service, or startup can be the difference between success and failure. If something is kind of working, get some helpful feedback and adjust.
4. Learn how to fail. Almost never did we make a plane that was perfect on the first fold. We would usually adjust it two or three times before really trying to fly it. Even then, many times the planes wouldn’t fly for very long. Ten or twenty times we would try before we made a really good one. Failure always comes before success. If you are starting a business, try all sorts of ideas. Most will fail, but don’t give up. Learn from it and try again using what you just learned to help your next idea go further. Temporary failure does not mean long term failure. It’s just an opportunity to learn and grow.
5. Have fun. If you are starting a business, find something you really enjoy doing. Success isn’t just how much money you make, but it’s how it’s made. Are you happy at the end of the day? Are you helping other people or making other people happy? Pay attention to the process and not just the end.
6. Eventually an idea will take flight. Whatever measure of success in business or life I end up achieving, it should not be credited to talent. I’ve tried and failed at more business ideas than I care to dwell on. Sometimes the crash was small, other times it was after dumping over 6 months of effort into a project only to end up shutting it down. The latter took me another six months to recover from I was so discouraged. You know what? I eventually got back up and made some more planes. A few of them recently have started to fly. If you try enough times, eventually you will succeed.
In the end, success owes most of it’s credit not to talent, but to perseverance.
I’ve talked up the plane, so here’s how to make it. Maybe we can have a contest this summer to see who can record the longest flight. Remember to test and adjust before throwing it off your office building.