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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Make Practice Perfect, Part 1: First, do no harm

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."
The quotation above accidentally sums up the two sides of practice in two sentences. First, we will only get as good at something as our practice is good. If we repeatedly practice excellence, we will develop excellence in what we're practicing.

Second—the accidentally part—it demonstrates that if we practice poorly, all we will do is make sloppiness a habit.

How does it demonstrate that? Because if you Google "We are what we repeatedly do", you will get over 200 million results, and a pile of pretty images like this:

So I just posted the same thing three times. Each one of them said it was a quotation from Aristotle. Each one of them was wrong.

It's actually a quote from Will Durant explaining what Aristotle meant when he said, "These virtues are formed in a man by his doing the actions." Posting it three different times didn't make it be from Aristotle; it just repeated the same wrong thing, just like 200 million other search results.

New doctors take the Hippocratic Oath. This is a tradition that comes from Hippocrates, often called the Father of Western Medicine, who lived over 2000 years ago. In that oath, he is famous for saying:
Make a habit of two things: to help; or at least to do no harm.
There are plenty of people who will tell you that this is part of the Hippocratic Oath. The only problem is that it isn't anywhere in it. (But at least he actually said that somewhere else, unlike the misattributed Aristotle quotation.) As to the quotation that makes up this post's title, "First, do no harm", he never said that at all.

If you simply repeat the same mistakes over and over again, your practice is no better than no practice at all. For practice to be effective (and at well over $100/hour for aircraft time, you want it to be effective), you must have three things:
  1. A concrete goal for that session
  2. Correct practice
  3. Feedback
If any of these three are missing, you are not making the most of your time. They are all connected together, so if one link of the chain is missing, the whole chain is affected.

If you have no goal for that session, you have no way of knowing what to practice or how to determine if you've done anything worthwhile. You end up like this conversation from Alice in Wonderland:
Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don't much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn't much matter which way you go.
This doesn't mean you have to have a multi-page, detailed plan with bullet points and diagrams every time you want to practice. All it means is you need to have some idea of what you want to do, even if it is something as simple as, "I want to perfect my steep turns" or "I want to get better at dead reckoning" or "I want to fly a good DME arc". That's not a wonderful plan, but it's better than no plan at all. (Chessplayers have a saying that goes, "A good plan will beat a bad plan, but a bad plan will beat no plan at all.")

When you're with an instructor, you obviously have a source of feedback (at least if the instructor is doing their job correctly). When you're out on your own, you still have an excellent source of feedback: the PTS, or Practical Test Standards. (These will soon become the ACS, or Airmen Certification Standards. Don't get too bogged down in the distinction; it's basically the same old wine in shiny new bottles.)

The FAA laid out everything you're expected to perform and what standards you're expected to perform to, then published it all in a free guide. (You can pay money for a printed version if you wish, or you can download them for free from the FAA's website.) You couldn't ask for a better source of feedback because you know precisely what you're supposed to do and how well you have to do it.

The first and third parts are the easy ones, and that's why the second part is usually the one left out. Good practice requires the most effort. The good news is that because of that, it's also the one you have the most control over.

Unfortunately, because it requires the most effort, it usually ends up going something like this:

Pilot says: "I practiced steep turns."
Pilot means: "I went out to the practice area, did half a dozen steep turns in a row, flew over and checked out the lake, then came back and did one normal landing. Most of the turns were OK, I think."

I would see this when it came time for a stage check. This is what it would look like from my perspective:

Pilot rolls into steep turn way too slowly. They're already almost 90° into the turn before getting close to 45° of bank. Nose lowers slightly because of too-timid back pressure once the load factor goes past 1g, and the plane loses 200 feet of altitude. Past the halfway mark, the pilot pulls back a lot on the controls and regains most of the lost altitude. We pull less than 1g during the rollout because the pilot rushes to keep from shooting through the altitude he should have been at the whole time. Rolls out 10 degrees past the correct heading (meaning within standards), but happens to be at the correct altitude thanks to the last minute ham-fisting of the controls to reel the plane back in.

I say, "How do you think that one went?"
Pilot says, "Pretty good!"
I say, "Really?"
Pilot says, "Yeah. I ended up at the right altitude and heading."
I say, "In that case, let's see if you can do that again."

And he does, and it looks pretty close to the last horrible one. But he finishes "within standards", so everything is OK, right?

No. But this is what bad practice creates. This pilot "practiced" all of these bad habits so many times that they were able to look like they were doing what they should have been. Another thing I've seen with steep turns is people who can do great ones to the left, and absolutely atrocious ones to the right (or vice versa).

That phenomenon indicates another common practice deficiency: practicing what's easy instead of what's hard. I used the example of steep turns above, but that's not because there's anything special about steep turns; they just happen to be an easy example. Sometimes I would see people who are great at doing steep turns in both directions, but were bad at slow flight. Or people who would be really good at almost all of the maneuvers, but couldn't navigate their way to the ocean if they took off from the beach.

It's easy—all too easy—to enjoy the illusion of competence and the rewarding feeling given by doing something you're already good at. But that's a superficial "mental sugar rush" that won't help you to your goal of mastering an airplane. (Or anything else, really.)

The legendary Bob Hoover, a man who is a household name among pilots, became the legend he is precisely by doing the opposite of what most people do: he deliberately sought out what he wasn't good at and practiced that. I wrote a post about that approach that has a video of him talking about that, and I called it Bob Hoover reveals THE secret to learning ANYTHING. I capitalized THE because this principle is the one fundamental principle to learning, no matter what it is you're trying.

I've given some examples of what bad practice looks like and what it produces, but what does good practice look like? Find out in next week's post. See you next Wednesday!

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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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