Lesson #4: Think Big, Act Small

When Hughes said as a child that he wanted to be the richest man in the world, he had a clear vision about where he wanted to go, but he did not yet know how he was going to get there. That is, until, he began taking one step at a time towards achieve his dreams. Hughes recognized the importance of setting high goals and thinking about long-term possibilities, all the while taking small steps in the short-term to achieve those goals.

Hughes’ desire to fly was so great that in 1933, he applied to be a commercial pilot for American Airways under the name of Charles W. Howard. He got the job but was forced to resign when it was discovered that he had tried to alter his pilot’s license number. Although his attempt to gain flight experience was unsuccessful, this was one of Hughes’ first steps towards becoming ‘the world’s fastest man’.

In order to continue to gain as much experience and exposure to planes as possible, Hughes founded the Hughes Aircraft Co. and began working on converting a military plane into a racing plane. With his new creation, he went on to win the All-America Air Meet in 1934 and set a new speed record. He continued to dedicate himself to his aviation company until he felt comfortable enough, four years later, to tackle his goal of breaking Charles Lindbergh’s around-the-world speed record.

With each plane that he built and each test flight he performed, Hughes worked himself closer to his goal of becoming the best pilot in the world. He always kept this bigger goal in the back of his mind, but focused on the steps he needed to take to get there. Although even his smaller goals might seem immense to the average person, in relation to his end goal, they paled in significance. That is why, whether it was a broken down plane with corroded wires or a powerfully advanced H-1 racer, Hughes never turned down the opportunity to fly a plane.

Hughes’ perfectionist nature was also an extreme example of ‘acting small’. For Hughes, every little detail of a project had to be perfect before the final product could be considered completed. Even while playing golf, Hughes would have a camera crew follow him so that afterward, he could run the tape and watch his strokes in an effort to perfect himself.

Amongst the team Hughes had assembled, he was known as the ‘conceptualizer’ and often left it to the team to figure out how to achieve his vision. A former colleague recalled about Hughes, “He said, you know, ‘Make the cockpit look like this.’ And everybody was saying, ‘Well, we’ve never seen a cockpit like that.’ And he said, ‘Well, you make it like this and it will work.’ And it did.” If Hughes was not able to create those small steps in between his goals, he was shrewd enough to get others to do it for him.

Whether driven more by passion and a natural series of events than by a well-planned out strategy, Hughes nonetheless followed a step-by-step progression towards his goals, never losing sight of his end goals.

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