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Thinking and Learning

If the past three years have taught us anything, it’s to recognize our need to adapt to changes in the world around us and the incredible power of learning on our ability to accomplish this. I gained some great insights into this from a fascinating book detailing how US fighter pilots are trained (see below for all the book info). Commercial pilots use many of these same training skills. Since I fly a fair amount for business, it’s comforting to know that despite nearly 100,000 commercial flights taking off each day, US airlines haven’t had a single crash in more than a decade. How do they accomplish that? While pilots are certainly well-trained, a good pilot uses superior judgment to avoid situations that require the use of superior skill. Pilots think smart.

Thinking smart has a lot to do with learning. Learning is about being able to forecast the future. It’s about understanding the cause-and-effect relationship of the world around us, and using that knowledge to assess situations, choose an appropriate solution, and then execute a plan that gives us a high probability of accomplishing our objectives. Successful learning is about far more than knowing mere facts. It’s about the ability to think clearly, even when the situation changes. It’s about understanding concepts – a deep knowledge of how different systems interact and how that pertains to the decisions we need to make – more than information. While numbers and terminology are quick to change, concepts typically evolve slowly, often through trial-and-error. Facts are fixed. Concepts are flexible.

Dynamic and flexible thinkers build a robust mental framework by taking general concepts and reinforcing them with real-life learned lessons. For example, take the general principle that life works better if you have more money coming into your checking account each month than what is going out. You can flesh out that general principle with lots of information, like how to create a budget, ways to reduce your taxes, or how saving and investing can build wealth. Add more detailed information (data) to this framework as you go along, but only if it supports that basic framework. It may be interesting trivia to know that the currency of Argentina is the peso, but that doesn’t fit into your money in/money out framework, so you can forget it. (Unless you’re playing Jeopardy!)

One way of visualizing this principle is by picturing a tree. Trees have a large trunk that splits off into small and then smaller branches. These represent concepts. Big ideas. At the end of the branches are leaves. They represent information and data, and each one is tied to a branch/concept. Any leaf that isn’t securely anchored to a branch eventually is discarded. Dynamic leaders are very clear about what concepts are crucial to their organization. Is it building a reliable, cost-effective product? Offering exceptional customer service? Making a change in the health of community residents? These leaders then retain and use information that is essential to important concepts. They don’t clog their thinking with irrelevant data. They are flexible and adaptive.

As you move forward this year, I’d like to challenge you to think like a fighter pilot. Build a strong and flexible mental framework and then use it to adapt to whatever comes your way. Because I can guarantee that changes will arrive.

The Art of Clear Thinking
A Stealth Fighter Pilot’s Timeless Rules for Making Tough Decisions

Hasard Lee (US Air Force Combat Pilot and Instructor)
St. Martin’s Publishing Group | Copyright 2023 by Justin Lee

ISI Consulting

Holly Hayes, President & Founder
ISI Consulting

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