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Paul MacCready
Paul MacCready
Profile of Paul MacCready Biography of Paul MacCready Interview with Paul MacCready Paul MacCready Photo Gallery

Paul MacCready Interview

Engineer of the Century

January 12, 1991
Pasadena, California

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  Paul MacCready

When did you first get a sense of what you wanted to do in your career?

Paul MacCready Interview Photo
Paul MacCready: When I was twelve, I wanted to be a doctor, because my father was a doctor. I just assumed that I was going to be. Shortly after that, I got very involved in model airplanes and it became more obvious that it would have something to do with aviation, and maybe physics and engineering. But even when I was in graduate school, I didn't really know what I was going to get into and what happened was very different than what you could have predicted anyhow.

Many of us built model airplanes, but there was something in that that drew you to that, as a life's fascination. What do you think it was?

Paul MacCready: You could concoct a bunch of reasons but that doesn't mean that its necessarily so. So I have to guess at what made me interested in aviation.

I think one thing was that in high school I was always the smallest kid in the class by a good bit, and was not especially coordinated, and certainly not the athlete type, who enjoyed running around outside, and was socially kind of immature, not the comfortable leader, teenager type. And so, when I began getting into model airplanes, and getting into contests and creating new things, I probably got more psychological benefit from that than I would have from some of the other typical school things.

Without thinking about it, I probably found the models more appealing. And, of course, as I look back now I'm delighted that I had these defects or problems back then, and got into models which led to a lot of other things that have been very exciting, rather than just being a football jock, which I certainly would not be at this age.

Paul MacCready Interview Photo
I somehow got especially interested in a large variety of models. My father was very supportive and that helped, but he wasn't leading me, he was supporting. I found myself instinctively drawn to working on ornithopters, autogyros, helicopters, indoor models, outdoor models, hand-launch gliders, rubber power, gas power, just a big variety. I wasn't as good as some other modelers, but I don't think anybody had the breadth of experience that I had back then. There was something appealing about it, and in a few cases I set some records in some new category, which was fun. It was just plain enjoyable to do something that was new and different that hadn't been done before.

What other experiences or events do you think most influenced you growing up?

Paul MacCready: The culture I was in, the sort of schools I went to, the various people my family was involved with. We all worked hard, and had a good life. You tried to get good marks in school without knowing why you were trying to get good marks. That's just what everybody did. You look back and you're glad you paid that much attention in the schoolroom. It was just the culture of the people who were coming out of the depression era. Life was maybe a little simpler then. You worked hard to try and get some place.

Paul MacCready Interview Photo
So starting with that was quite comfortable. In the private high school that I went to, everybody who goes there almost automatically goes to Yale. I got a good education at Cal Tech afterwards. I still didn't quite know what I was getting the education for. It was just "that's what you do." Being in the right circumstances, having the privilege to be able to go to some of these things was very helpful.

It sounds like you didn't see a lot of limits on human potential.

Paul MacCready: If you want to move mountains, you just go move mountains. If you don't have a big enough shovel, you get some friends to help you. If you have the enthusiasm to charge ahead, you can do all sorts of things. Some things you can't do. You can't invent a perpetual motion machine. You've got to select your targets. But people can do so much more than they realize.

What is it that makes us often focus on the obstacles rather than the possibilities?

Paul MacCready: It's our whole lives, our education system, our parents, circumstances. You can get away from it by being put in circumstances where everybody else just doesn't even know the word "problems." Challenges they understand. Things aren't barriers. If there is a barrier or a stone wall, you walk around the end, you leap over it. You don't beat your head against it. I've gotten a good bit into the teaching of thinking skills. Thinking skills means many different things to people, but mostly it's an open way of receiving the outside world and being much more open in what you are doing, how you handle problems. You can hugely improve a persons thinking skill in just a few hours, because you haven't had it in school before. If somebody teaches you a few little tricks that can become habits, you are a different thinker, and it only takes a few hours.

You said some of the people you knew growing up were a fairly important influence on your thinking and your sense of what your own potential was.

Paul MacCready Interview Photo
Paul MacCready: Yes, they were. It wasn't teachers in school. I'm sure they did a good job, but I wasn't a responsive student. I didn't interact with them a lot. Irving Langmuir, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry was one of the pioneers in weather modification, and he was very helpful to me. I just followed him around, interacting with him. A lot of enthusiasm rubbed off, a feeling of there are no barriers, you just charge ahead. It doesn't matter whether you know anything about that subject. He'd plunge into a new subject and ask lots of questions, make mistakes, and plod ahead. It didn't worry him whether he was right or wrong, as long as he was building toward something worthwhile.

When you were in school, was there a particular subject that you liked better than others?

Paul MacCready: The ones that were easiest. Physics and math were easy because they just involved principles and they were kind of fun, like games. History and English were very difficult, so I didn't enjoy them, but I did pay a lot of attention to them. I figured, I'm not good at them, so I should work a little harder.

As I look back, I realize I probably had some manifestations that would be called dyslexia now. Not a basket case but, certainly in some things, a short attention span. If I would start reading a paragraph of history, by the time I was to the second sentence my mind would be a thousand miles away. And even in physics classes, I would tend to daydream about other things, not getting so much good out of the class.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

I still tend to jump between subjects in my mind. Also, if I write down 274, I say 274, I write down 274, and I look at it, and I've written 254, because I'm still mixing up a few numbers. There is some misconnection between one part of the brain and another part, or the motor system. Not enough to be at all troublesome, but it makes you realize how difficult it would be to get by in life if you had a bad case.

Having a brain that works a little differently than what best fits the school system, you learn to cope and emphasize the things -- You sort of do it the way that best suits you. I did most of my learning during the homework rather than the class period. A lot of dyslexics are very creative people. They have some real problems to overcome, and they figure out good ways of overcoming them. In fact, the jails are probably full of dyslexics who are very bright in figuring out how to do crime, which is what they are left with when they can't fit into the school system.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Do you think that's a shortcoming of the school system?

Paul MacCready: Yes, and of our whole culture. People without dyslexia seem like oddballs to me. When we were evolving into homo sapiens, 100,000 years ago in the savannas of Africa, why would the ability to look at little wiggly lines and curlicues on a flat sheet and interpret sounds and messages from them have anything to do with survival? I can understand how other things that dyslexics may be pretty good at -- the ability to see, run, reason, fight the lion, whatever -- all those talents provided survival and therefore evolutionary selection. The ability to read -- which is so much what our modern civilization is focused on, 'til we all get to be TV addicts -- seems sort of unnatural. But our whole school system and culture is built up around that. I think there may be a sort of mismatch between that, and what people really are.

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