Monday, September 26, 2005

The Value of Practice

Back in my aviation years, I found one of my biggest challenges to be the spin recovery training required for my instructor certification. Unlike some of the others, I didn’t find the maneuver at all disconcerting, nor did it cause the kind of stomach-turning spatial disorientation I’d somewhat anticipated. For me, the trouble was more that I had difficulty at first keeping track of the number of times we’d gone around so that I’d know when it was time to pull out.

The theory behind teaching instructors-in-training how to recover from spins is that sooner or later you’re likely to have a student inadvertently put you into one. When that happens, it’d be a good idea to know not only how that tends to happen (so you can try to prevent it) but also how to get out of it if that proves necessary. There are lots of other interesting ways that flight students try to kill themselves and their instructors and I’ve been taught or taught myself on the job how to deal with quite a few of them. The spin training still sticks in my mind as the one most worthy of the time I spent practicing it even though I’ve yet to actually use the knowledge outside of a training environment.

Here’s the thing – at first, the ground just seemed to go by so fast. How in the world are you supposed to count to two turns when that’s happening? So – we practiced. My instructor put us into a spin, counted a half, one, one and a half, two, and recovered. I had to take his word for it on the counting; it seemed rhythmical enough to be accurate but I couldn’t have said one way or the other. Then he had me put us into a spin while he counted and he walked me through the recovery. The next few times, I tried counting myself and while I could do the entry and the recovery just fine, I still needed help with the counting part.

Finally, after practicing the maneuver several more times over the course of a couple of different flights, the ground miraculously seemed to slow and I could actually see the landmarks go by that I was using to mark the turns and half-turns. Counting to two became easier and it all clicked.

As much as I enjoy playing the fighter pilot video games (the ‘realer’ the better – my favorites are the ones that actually feel like sim’s), I rarely do well at them the first couple of times. Okay, let’s make it the first ten times. There’s simply too much information. My current strategy is to focus on one form of input that makes sense and try to stay alive long enough to figure out how to use it. Then I invest in a few more games, paying attention to more and more of the game each time until I’m finally able to comprehend a large enough chunk of what’s going on to begin to do well.

Needless to say, the arcade definitely makes money on me when I decide to sit down with one of the flying games. If I’m not prepared to spend that many quarters, I don’t bother because it’s simply too frustrating. Time and time again, however, I find that where things had been nothing but a confusing mass of too much going on, I suddenly am able to make sense of it as a whole. It takes repeated exposure and repeated practice to make use of the information but eventually it all comes together.

I’ve flown 747 and other “heavy jet” simulators a handful of times. Only once was it for a job interview. Applicants were expected to make three approaches in a DC-10 sim and on the third one, they wanted to see how you did with all the alarms going. The first two times were all I needed to get comfortable with it so that by the time they had the horns blaring and lights flashing, I was able to deal with the added distractions just fine.

Fast forward to last week with the Airbus landing at LAX with its sideways-jammed nose gear. I’m not at all surprised the landing went as well as it did. As with the spin training, this particular kind of incident tracks well with what we were always taught about gear-up landings – “There are two kinds of pilots, those that have and those who will.”

These pilots were trained for this kind of landing with the full expectation that one day they’d have to use that expertise. The fact that some never do is irrelevant; the fact that this is not just a hypothetical scenario – not an empty exercise – remains true and everyone knows it. This is rather one of those things that simply happens sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts, and so you’d better know how to handle it.

It should be no surprise, then, when that repeated practice of a skill you know you’ll one day have to use pays off – for the pilots of Flight 292, the landing probably felt in many ways rather run-of-the-mill if perhaps a bit more ‘interesting’ than most.

What's worth practicing in your life?

Friday, September 23, 2005

SG – Brains vs. Brawn Part 2

Buzz phrases like “Work smarter, not harder” tend to make people nervous because they’re too often euphemisms for “Figure out a way to get the same amount of work done, just with fewer people because we’re letting some of you go (or aren’t replacing the ones who just left).” Just because it's used badly so much doesn’t make it worthless advice. Plus, I find it interesting that this notion came up again so soon on Survivor so let’s run with that one. The examples I saw of smart & not-so-smart behavior are every bit as valid for the business world as they are in Guatemala.

Blake, for instance, is being as smart as he can be right now, pushing as hard as he can without overdoing it too much given his run-in with the spiny tree (what was in those spines anyway?). What’s not so smart is whining like Judd & Brandon about whether other people are pushing hard enough – how could they possibly know what’s possible for someone else and do they really think the whining endears them to anyone else?

And while I don’t mean to pick on Judd, I find it curious that he thinks it’s a bad thing that Blake was sufficiently rested to do well on the challenges when he’s in the hurt locker the rest of the time. Later on when it’s for individual rewards and immunity, that would be a valid complaint but hey, this early in the game, that’s good for everyone, right?

During the immunity challenge, Nakum was clearly the stronger physically, a real opportunity for Yaxha to get ahead by working smarter. In the end however, the few strategic moves of the challenge were made by Nakum and that was what barely edged them into the winner’s circle. Maybe Yaxha will learn from that. Or maybe they'll implode.

Here’s one I’m still trying to work out myself – just how smart is it that Gary is keeping his past such a secret? It seems like a reasonable strategy and yet, taken too far, it has the potential to cause him more trouble than if he’d just be open about it. Thinking of analogous situations in the corporate world (such as illness or pregnancy perhaps), I can see that it’s important to identify the conditions under which full or partial disclosure might become more important than discretion and to leave myself a graceful out so that it doesn’t come off as duplicitous when the truth does come out. I don't get the idea that Gary is really thinking that far in advance.

And I have similar questions around Danni’s strategy to use her knowledge of Gary’s past to try to undermine the other team. Sure, it worked – at least twice. But making ourselves or our teams better by tearing down somebody else often has negative consequences down the road and I wonder if that’s a risk that she’s taking intentionally or whether it could end up working against her.

Not surprisingly there’s also the question once more of which contributions are the most valuable. Possible candidates on Survivor include food gathering, working around camp, teamwork, being able to be in close quarters together, and winning challenges. I'm sure they're at least somewhat analagous to activities at work, right? There is a combination of work ethic and physical and mental strengths needed in most of these. Tribal council is a lot like trying to re-hire all the best people for a team at each stage.

The smart ones will figure out that the needs change as the game goes along and adapt to that. The smartest ones will figure out that despite whatever it is that logic might dictate regarding which contributions are most valuable, what’s more important is whatever it is that the decision-makers believe to be the most valuable at that point in time. And yeah, we see that every day in the work environment too, don’t we?

In the end, Morgan may have had other good qualities but what stuck out were her liabilities. To top it off, she didn’t have enough allies cultivated (read - social capital) to help her out of a jam when she needed it so that’s what sank her. That too is a worthwhile lesson to take into the workplace.

I'm interested how you see any of this applying to your own life. Send your thoughts to me at if you feel like sharing.

How can you help others understand and value the contributions you make?

Friday, September 16, 2005

SG – Pacing Is For Wimps – Riiighhht!

Fall is here and I find myself more interested in watching television than I care to admit. I doubt that TV will ever be the “highlight of my whole day” as one of my workshop clients once mentioned. There is, however, a certain mind candy quality about it that seems attractive this time of year. As a result, I discovered an amazing story about Rafe Esquith and his Hobart Shakespeareans. But that was after I indulged in Survivor – Guatemala. Of course, both hooked into a pent-up desire to get back into writing after having had some time off over the summer so today is a rare two-fer.

Just for the record, I would like to make clear that I am not the one in the household who typically generates the most interest in watching Survivor. I was not the person who turned it on the first time mid-way through the first season, though I suppose I am at least partly responsible for watching the rest of that season. After that, though, I step back from any responsibility in the matter. That said, when I do watch, I find it to be a fascinating lab experiment.

Like any good lab, Survivor takes place in a highly controlled environment. We are still able to make useful observations on individual and group dynamics anyway that can often be applied to real life – both of the personal and the business variety. This is what keeps me coming back.

So we have a new season and this time I again was not the person to have turned it on. I did decide, though that it would be worth following this time and commenting about what I see. The first episode of Guatemala did not disappoint in that regard.

So far, I have to say that I’m most impressed with Margaret, the nurse who looked after the guys who all pushed themselves too hard. She’s compassionate AND she’s thinking about team success and strategy. Way to go!

Perhaps not surprisingly, I find this combination of compassion and long view of success to be an important skill in both life and in business. As individuals, we can improve our chances of success for ourselves if we also take into account the others around us.

Blake and Bobby Jon proved to be particularly good examples of why it’s so important to pace ourselves. It may be one thing if you’re dealing with a situation of limited duration – a sprint, in effect – but it’s something else entirely when you’re dealing with an endurance event – a marathon. Life and business are usually about the endurance rather than the sprint and, as Probst said near the end of this first episode – “You have to figure out how to give it your all without destroying yourself in the process.” Face it, must be present to win…

It is great to see Stephenie back for another round and embodying another pair of important lessons. The early evidence is that she’s shaking off the past and is content to start with a new baseline. Once we learn from past mistakes, it’s time to move on. The other one is, of course, the value of simply not giving up. Persistence usually pays off.

So – whatever your goal, stay with it but do it with brains rather than brute force and pace yourself along the way. If you do that and take into account in your decision-making what else is happening around you and who you’re with, then you’ll greatly improve your chances of success.

If you have other thoughts about how what you see, hear or read influences your everyday life, I’m interested. I can be reached at if you feel like sharing. In the meantime, I plan to use the track what happens with this group a little more closely and see what writing falls out of that. Hopefully we'll all find some value in that.

What strategies do you use to keep yourself in the game?

Readiness Is All

Shakespeare had an uncanny ability to sum up larger life lessons within the context of scenarios designed primarily to entertain. Certainly this quality has much to do with the abiding popularity of his work. I found myself so touched last night – and fascinated too – to see how well one teacher is able to reach at-risk grade-schoolers and help them develop life skills that prepare them for greater success than they typically see on a day-to-day basis.

And the impact on these kids is huge – I mean really, how many boys are that might otherwise be considering getting involved in a gang are able or willing to cry openly as the class reads about Huck Finn finding within himself the courage to reject societal norms and do what he believes to be the right thing? Heck, the whole class was sobbing after their final performance of Hamlet on their last day of school. You can’t buy or force that kind of compassion and closeness nor the sort of personal convictions that arise from that.

Rafe instills in his Hobart Shakespearean students two priorities – Be Nice to one another and Work Hard. The rest follows from this and it’s a good start; simply put, there are no shortcuts to these words of wisdom. Rafe also understands that what it is they do with his gifts when they leave him is entirely up to them. Fortunately, it sounds like many of them take the foundation provided them and really run with it. Their implementation must be good for these students to end up places like Harvard, Stanford & Yale especially when they’re literally pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. That’s not the kind of success that can be pushed upon a kid.

This is heartening to see in a time when so recently we have seen the devastating impact of both insufficient readiness and problematic implementation of an entirely different sort.

Quite frankly, I believe that it would have been impossible to fully anticipate and effectively deal with a storm as horrific as Katrina. Where I gag is in knowing that those things for which we could not prepare did not have to be nearly as devastating had there been sufficient preparedness for that which was predictable and had those plans been carried out more effectively. And by all means, if you see a storm that effectively fills the entire Gulf of Mexico, take seriously that it’s likely to be very bad!

Now is a good time for all of us to take stock. While it is reasonable to expect the government e involved in emergencies and that it be the federal government when the disasters are large-scale and regional in nature, it’s also important to consider the role of individuals too.

In the US, most of us are in danger of one kind of natural disaster or another – if it’s not hurricanes, it’s tornadoes, or earthquakes… or river flooding or flash flooding… or volcanoes… or blizzards, or… well, you get the idea. Those who know me are probably not surprised I’m harping on this topic yet again.

What is likely where you are? Start with what preparations are reasonable for your situation to ensure that you as an individual (and your family) are ready to be self-sufficient for a minimum of 48-72 hours. The notion that being on our own for an extended period of time truly is a possibility even in our industrialized society is perhaps the biggest wake-up call for us recently because clearly this is not something we’ve necessarily understood well in the past.

I am one of those who can be easily overwhelmed by a task that seems too large. The good news is that there are monthly/weekly To-Do lists available that can help make the task of preparedness more manageable and at least one that I’ve seen even includes suggestions such as completing some first aid training – making it much more than just a kit list. If you don’t like what you find, make your own master list and then post it together with your shopping list so that you can buy one item at a time along with your normal purchases.

The other clear lesson both from Rafe’s classroom and from Katrina is that good communication is critical to any long-term success.

For that matter, get kids interested in ham radio and use that as an opportunity to get involved yourself if you’re so inclined. Not only is it fun and interesting, it’s clear that ham radio works and that there’s still a need for amateur radio operators even in this age of cell phones and trunked radio systems. While I highly value the Elmers in my own life, I know there are some things I can do now that I won’t be able to do in my later years. Even if I could, we need to keep younger generations involved just to keep up the tradition.

Once you’re able to start working on your individual disaster preparedness, take a look at your work family and your business operations. Even if it seems like something somebody else should be paying attention to, there are people you care about and skills that you have that make you uniquely qualified to come up with questions and solutions others will not have without your input. Undoubtedly there is also something about your work that you know better than anyone else and so they’ll all be relying on you to help figure out how to keep operations as normal as possible in the event of a disaster.

Start today. Start small if you must, but start – Work Hard. And coordinate with the other people you interact with both at work and in your personal life – in other words, Be Nice. If that readiness is necessary, the results will be far better than if you put off the effort.

It’s also likely that we’ll be better off for having engaged in these efforts even if they’re not needed. Work Hard and Be Nice is just good advice no matter what the circumstances. We’ll know more about our business operations and the people we work with, we’ll know better how to deal with sports injuries should they occur, and we’ll be closer to our neighbors. How can any of that be a bad thing?

What is one thing you are willing to do this week toward being better prepared?