Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Continue to Fly the Plane

Most people in life are pretty aimless. We find some things that we enjoy doing that people encourage us to do and we do those things.  Very few people do only one thing.  We see the many things that we could do and we like to kind of do them all instead of doing one of them well.

As any self-help guru will tell you: the key to a happy life is complete focus.  If we can just find that one thing that makes us happy we should throw everything else away and do just that one thing, because after all that's the thing that makes us happy right?  All the rest is distraction.

To be happy you need to be good at doing the thing that makes you happy and to be the best that you can be at something you need to focus your entire life around it, at the cost of everything else.   If you choose to be a photographer, you need to spend every minute learning about photography and perfecting your craft.

When you decide that you are doing something, you should do it with your whole being, and you should actually be there doing it.  Do not think about the cereal you had for breakfast or that itch on your head or that airplane flying overhead:  think only about taking the perfect shot.

Life is so much more fulfilling when you are actually present in the moment, feeling the agonies of failure and the high of success, and putting your all into something that you enjoy.


In his book "Checklist Manifesto" Atul Gawande tells the story of how checklists for airplane failures are designed.  When something goes wrong on a plane (any plane) there is a binder with checklists that tell the pilot exactly what steps should be taken in order to address the issue at hand.

These checklists are designed by the engineers that build the plane and are tested in simulations to remove all unnecessary or confusing steps.  They repeat this testing process until they're confident that the checklists they produce are intelligible and complete but not cumbersome.  These checklists are some of the biggest successes of this kind of design methodology and have resulted in an extraordinary safety record for modern flying.

There was, however, a problem with a particular checklist.  Many recreational fliers were crashing to their death when their planes' engines gave out (not an uncommon thing for small planes).  The engineers looked back at the checklist and the steps definitely got most engines running and guided the pilot through a safe landing if that failed.

It wasn't until they decided to take pilots up, kill the engine, and actually observe some pilots that they learned what was happening.  When an engine goes out, the pilot is very concerned about this (understandably!) and tries to get their engine back up and running.  They turn to the check list and start going through the steps to get the engine running again, just as they were told to in training.

In their complete focus on the task at hand, however, most inexperienced pilots will forget about the most basic task they should be doing: flying the plane.  They take their hands off the controls and start reading the checklist. While they are trying to restart their engine the plane nose-dives into the ground: killing them instantly.

Based on this experience, the engine restart checklist, in bold letters at the top of the list, now says "Step 1: Continue to fly the plane"

Take a second to appreciate that.   Telling a pilot to fly a plane.

Everyone knows that you're supposed to be doing that!  But when faced with engine failure, you're most likely to forget to fly the plane without someone reminding you.


Complete focus is in many ways something to strive for.  Many worthwhile things can only be done with focus.

Life is not one of those things.

Life requires you to be doing many things at once (even if that is just "eat" and "breath") and many of these things are contradictory or overlapping.  We cannot avoid multi-tasking even if we wanted. We must balance many priorities and try to find ways of doing things that accomplish our many disperate goals: to maintain friendships, help people in need, maintain a comfortable life, etc.

While we idealize the artist that can produce beautiful work from years of solitude, their story simultaneously fills us with a sadness.  For when the focused life is actually lived, it looks less like happiness and more like madness.

If you spend your life developing one skill or one way of thinking, you are lost when things change.   Change in the world or in your life is inevitable and if you're not open to that you will miss out on most of what life has to offer.

So despite what you may sometimes hear or feel: here's to the aimless life!
And being able to continue to fly the plane :)