Jump Off the Cliff and Build Your Wings on the Way Down

Ray Bradbury? Franco Mancassola? Kurt Vonnegut? Annie Dillard? Anonymous? Apocryphal?

wingsbradbury03Dear Quote Investigator: The influential publisher Tim O’Reilly recently tweeted a great quotation about entrepreneurship that was used in a commencement address given by DJ Patil, a Data Scientist at a venture capital company. Here is an excerpt from the speech given at the University of Maryland: 1 2

As my good friend Reid Hoffman, one of the founders of LinkedIn, says: Entrepreneurship is jumping off a cliff and assembling a plane on the way down.

Some of the Twitter responses pointed to a saying from the science fiction master Ray Bradbury about building wings after jumping off a cliff. Could you determine what Bradbury actually said?

Quote Investigator: Bradbury used this vivid metaphor to illustrate boldness and audacity several times. In November 1979 he reviewed a book about the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., and he gave very high praise to the book and the museum: 3

It looks like a dream book. Then you suddenly remember it’s all real. Then the long march from the rim of the cave to the edge of the cliff where we flung ourselves off and built our wings on the way down quickens to focus. It’s all here, in a building, in a book.

In October 1986 Bradbury spoke at a one-day symposium on ‘Future Style’ held on the campus of the University of California, Irvine, and his words were reported in the Los Angeles Times: 4

In his keynote address, author Ray Bradbury declared that if enough people followed their hearts, they could realize their optimistic vision of humanity’s future. Bradbury exhorted his enthusiastic listeners to “jump off the cliff and learn how to make wings on the way down.”

Ascriptions to other authors such as Kurt Vonnegut and Annie Dillard only appeared years later and are not well substantiated.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1988 a book by a top salesman titled “Changing the Game” included a version of the saying attributed to Bradbury: 5

Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer, said, “First you jump off the cliff and you build your wings on the way down.

Also in 1988 Disney and Time Inc. worked together to publish a special commemorative magazine called “Mickey Is Sixty!” Sections of this magazine were later reprinted as advertising supplements in periodicals such as Time, Life, and Fortune. Bradbury wrote an essay for the work titled “Why Disney Will Live Forever”, and he praised the executive in charge of the Imagineering division, the group responsible for designing and constructing theme park attractions at Disney: 6

On Walt’s behalf, he gives other young people a chance to jump off cliffs and build their wings on the way down, at Imagineering.

In October 1990 Bradbury used the expression again in an interview distributed by the New York Times news service: 7

“If we listened to our intellect, we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go in business because we’d be cynical: ‘It’s gonna go wrong.’ Or ‘She’s going to hurt me.’ Or ‘I had a couple of bad love affairs so therefore …’

“Well, that’s nonsense. You’re going to miss life. You’ve got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down.”

In November 1990 an excerpt from the interview was distributed by the Associated Press in a column called “People in the News”. The overall passage was streamlined, and the quote was modified to read “jump off cliffs” instead of “jump off the cliff”: 8

“If we listened to our intellect, we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go into business, because we’d be cynical.” Bradbury said in a recent interview.

“Well, that’s nonsense. You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.”

In 1990 a compilation called “The Quotable Quote Book” printed another version of the adage: 9

Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down.
Ray Bradbury

In 1998 an airline executive, Franco Mancassola, employed a variant of the statement during an interview in the Sunday Times of London: 10

He says delegation is the key to success. “I tell managers: ‘I have absolute faith in your abilities, and should you fail, I’ll have absolute faith in your replacement’,” he says. “Guts are important – if you’re too cautious, you’ll never do anything. I live by the rule, ‘jump out of the plane and build your wings on the way’.”

By 2003 a newspaper in South Carolina was attributing a version of the adage to a different famous science fiction author: Kurt Vonnegut: 11

“WE HAVE TO CONTINUALLY BE JUMPING OFF CLIFFS: and developing our wings on the way down,” Kurt Vonnegut said.

In 2005 a passage containing the saying was attributed to the Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Dillard by an Australian newspaper in an article about taking risks. The words ascribed to Dillard were almost identical to those used by Ray Bradbury in the October 1990 interview excerpted previously in this article: 12

Dillard says: “If we listened to our intellect, we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go into business because we’d be too cynical. Well, that’s nonsense. You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.”

In 2010 Time magazine published a Q&A with the venerable author: 13

Rachel Goldstein for Time: A maxim of yours is to “jump off cliffs and build your wings on the way down” has there ever been a time in your life when you’ve jumped and haven’t been able to build your wings in time?

Ray Bradbury: All of my life, I’ve jumped off the cliff and built my wings. It works every single time. It never fails.

In 2012 the illustrator Gavin Aung Than created an intriguing visualization of Bradbury’s words and shared the artwork at his website Zen Pencils.

In conclusion, evidence favors naming Bradbury as the originator of this guidance extolling adventurousness. Bradbury presented the adage directly in his writings and during interviews though he phrased the sentiment in more than one way. The connection to Vonnegut is weak because the adage has been found in neither his writings nor in his interviews. The connection to Annie Dillard appears to be a mistake. It is unlikely that Bradbury and Dillard would both have spoken or written the same extended statement, and the Bradbury interview was published several years before the attribution to Dillard.

(Great thanks to Andrew Steinberg who located the October 1986 citation.)

Update History: On November 30, 2012, a link to Gavin Aung Than’s artwork was added. The 2003 cite to Kurt Vonnegut was added. Footnotes were switched to numerical style. On February 6, 2013 the 2005 citation to Annie Dillard was added. On August 14, 2013 the November 1979 and October 1986 citations were added.

Notes:

  1. 2012 June 13, Greylock Partners website, Failure is our ONLY option, [Commencement Speech for the class 2012 in the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, at the University of Maryland], Speech by DJ Patil: Data Scientist at Greylock Partners, Speech date: May 20, 2012. (Accessed at greylockvc.com on June 17, 2012) link
  2. 2012 June 6, Wired UK website, Ideas Bank: Failure is our only option, Guest Author: DJ Patil, [Excerpts from Commencement Speech for the class 2012 in the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, at the University of Maryland], Speech by DJ Patil: Data Scientist at Greylock Partners, Speech date: May 20, 2012. (Accessed at wired.co.uk on June 17, 2012) link
  3. 1979 November 18, Los Angeles Times, Section: The Book Review, Hymn to humanity from the cathedral of high technology by Ray Bradbury, (Review of “National Air and Space Museum”, text by C.D.B. Bryan), Page K1, Column 3, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  4. 1986 October 21, Los Angeles Times, ‘Future Style’ Slickly Peers Wrong Way by Charles Solomon, Page OC_E2, Column 5, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  5. 1988, Changing the Game: The New Way to Sell by Larry Wilson with Hersch Wilson, Page 156, A Fireside Book, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  6. 1991, Yestermorrow: Obvious Answers to Impossible Futures by Ray Bradbury, [This collection contains: “The Hipbone of Abraham L.” a revised version of the essay “Why Disney Will Live Forever,” first published in “Mickey Is Sixty”, August 1988], Start Page 137, Quote Page 141, Joshua Odell Editions, Capra Press, Santa Barbara, California. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1990 October 14, Herald-Journal, Learning is Solitary Pursuit for Bradbury by Luaine Lee, [N.Y. Times News Service], Page C1, Spartanburg, South Carolina. (Google News Archive)
  8. 1990 November 27, Trenton Evening Times, People in the News, [Associated Press], Bradbury’s advice: “jump”, Page A9, Column 2, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1990, The Quotable Quote Book by Merrit Malloy and Shauna Sorensen, Section: Courage, Page 53, A Citadel Press Book, Published by Carol Publishing Group, Secaucus, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  10. 1998 January 11, Sunday Times, Plane crazy dream takes off; My first break by Rupert Steiner, Section: Business News, Page 10, London, England. (Academic OneFile)
  11. 2003 August 21, The Post and Courier, GOOD MORNING LOWCOUNTRY, Author: Staff reports, Page B2, Charleston, South Carolina.(NewsBank Access World News)
  12. 2005 July 2, The Courier Mail, Section: Life, Running away from life’s real risks by Kathleen Noonan, Page L16, Brisbane, Australia. (NewsBank Access World News)
  13. 2012 August 23, Time, “Q&A: Ray Bradbury” by Rachel Goldstein, Time, Inc. (Accessed Time magazine online archive May 20, 2012)

2 thoughts on “Jump Off the Cliff and Build Your Wings on the Way Down

  1. Greatly Appreciate your THOROUGH research, citation and annotation! Kudos and Many Thanks. You Sir, are the Snopes of Quotes!

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