Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sponging off Others

I don't often fly with pilots more experienced than myself. When I do, I go into sponge mode, carefully observing everything the pilot does and how they handle the aircraft. I may make notes afterward on what I learned. I'm often in sponge mode anytime a pilot of any ability is flying the aircraft since being a careful observer is what allows an instructor to offer constructive feedback. It also provides the opportunity to learn something you hadn't considered before. I guess I've spent the better part of my life being a sponge and learning by observing.

Though I gave up training long ago, I was a dedicated aikidoka for nearly 10 years and that was were I became aware of beginner's mind: Releasing concepts of authority and rank in order to increase your awareness and enhance your learning. At one dojo where I trained, there was one class held each week where all participants, regardless of rank, wore a white belt. Those were often the most interesting training experiences in aikido.

From the age of about 8 years onward, I was busy learning to play music, another sort of monkey see, monkey do process where you spend a lot of time observing, then mimicking behavior. And before that, I was engrossed in the primary learning process that all of us use as infants and children. To learn language and discover how the world operates, children first experience and then mimic. As we grow older and more experienced, many of us have a tendency to lose the skill to quietly observe and then mimic behavior. We can become set in our ways. We may even think we've seen it all. It doesn't have to be that way

Maybe what gets in the way is insecurity about our own identity, our concept of ourselves, our ego. After all, we live in a culture that has a high regard for the individual, at times it seems to the exclusion of almost everything else. Americans seem particularly obsessed with 1) youth, 2) fame, and 3) monetary wealth. In the face of these pressures, it takes a great deal of courage to admit you don't know something. If you make it to that point, you then must find a competent teacher, turn down the volume on your own ego, and begin trying to be a sponge. You have to give yourself over to the teacher, to trust them. Of course there's a balance to be between openness and preserving one's own identity. To borrow another saying from Eastern philosophy: A person must make themselves into the right kind of vessel - open in the right ways and closed in the right ways.

If you are a teacher who is responsible for creating a structured learning experience for students, you can't be so much of a sponge that you give up your leadership role. As a flight instructor, I still strive to recognize that there are many different ways to fly an airplane. One of the most exciting things a teacher can is experience is having a student who claims to have discovered a different technique and who can make a convincing argument for their approach. What I find convincing is a rational, considered set of reasons for doing something a certain way, backed up by practical evidence that the technique is effective, safe, doesn't violate any regulations, and isn't against the aircraft manufacturer's operating limitations. Explanations I do not find compelling include "Because I'm lazy," or "I heard someone else say it that way on the radio," or "Well, it's on the checklist."

Innovation is one of the things that made America successful. Stodginess, egoism, and fear of the unknown are antithetical to innovation and are pitfalls that all teachers and students (perhaps all of us) must avoid. So are sloth and an unwillingness to consider something new. Whether you are a student pilot, a flight instructor, a gardener, or a dentist, consider spending a few moments each week being a sponge. No matter what your endeavor is in life, beginner's mind might be your gateway to learning something new.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting on such a good topic. I'm a 30-year-old software engineer midway through my primary training, married to a pilot and part-owner of a 172. I definitely consider myself fortunate to have so many sources of knowledge from which to sponge, as you put it.

One of the interesting things you didn't mention is the distinction between sponging up good stuff (such as succinct radio calls) as well as bad stuff (pilots chattering on CTAF). Being logical and reasonable in the processing of all of those inputs is essential to learning the right things.

You can absorb lessons, knowledge and tips in more ways than just in person, too. NTSB reports, for instance. Other pilots blogs, for another instance.

Thanks for sharing your experiences!

John said...


Glad you enjoyed the post.

I regularly fly with pilots who, when I ask to take the controls to demonstrate something, turn their gaze to the world outside their window and miss the subtleties altogether. So this post was more about being open and observing, but I think you're right that one doesn't want to learn bad habits from others. And there are plenty of bad habits out there to learn.

Best of luck to you on your private pilot training ...