Saturday, June 20, 2020

Tear Down Your Learning Barriers!

Man on Summit of Mountain
James on the Summit of Cerro Soray (5,446 m / 17,867 ft) in Peru in 2013.  First "Real" Mountaineering Summit.  A Second Mountain (Salkantay) was Summited a Few Days Later!  Talk About a Steep Learning Curve!

There are a lot of different people in this world all of whom have their own strengths and weaknesses.  You can't possibly be good at everything as there just aren't enough hours in the day to master and maintain those skills for all of the activities that you enjoy.  I'm a strong believer in that anyone can be good at anything.  You just need the willpower to put the time and energy into learning that skill, realize it's likely not going to be an easy road and tear down the wall in your mind that you can't learn this skill and/or you won't be good at it.  Of course you're not going to be good at it when you first start learning a particular skill, that's part of the learning process.  In your mind you have to realize and accept that you currently suck at this skill but you can only improve and the sky is the limit.  Sure, certain people are likely innately better at certain activities than others and different people likely have different beginning baselines when they're starting to learn a new skill.  One thing that gets overlooked a lot is each persons past experiences and how those experiences can play a big role in learning a new skill.

When I think back to my elementary school days I was never any good at math or science and I always had the mindset of: "I'm just not good at these subjects and I'll never get any better at them."  As a result and as you might imagine, because of this mindset I never put much effort into those subjects throughout my entire schooling career and I never excelled at them.  I did somehow manage to keep pace with my peers and maintain average grades in these subjects.  This is something that baffles my current self seeing as the majority of the studying I did was usually the night before a test.  The origin of this mindset is quite interesting and it was definitely a self-imposed barrier that I never even realized I had put up until I was in my late twenties.  When we first started learning math in second grade for instance, the teacher would introduce simple addition and subtraction, then put a few problems on the board and ask students what the answers were.  There were a handful of my peers who just knew the answers to these questions right away while I struggled to figure out how this simple addition and subtraction thing works seeing as the first I'd heard of it was a few minutes prior.  When I saw a handful of my peers knowing the answers to these questions, right off the bat, I compared it to my struggling to understand this concept and instantly in my mind I went, "They're just good at math, I'm not, so why even try to understand and learn this when it's obviously just not my thing?"  BOOM, this self-imposed learning roadblock was in place from a very early age and stuck with me for the entirety of my schooling career.  Looking back on this, I think the reality of what was actually going on here was much different and was definitely something that my 7 year old self didn't realize and was never explained to me.  I don't think that the handful of fellow students whom instantly knew the answers to these math problems were any better at math than me, but they likely already had experience with these math problems.  The parents of these students were always the doctors and lawyers.  These parents knew the value of giving their kids a head start in these subjects before they were officially taught these subjects in school.  These were the kids whose parents had already taught them these subjects at home, so when these subjects were first brought up in school, these kids already knew what they were doing and thus why they instantly knew the answers to a subject that was brand new to me.  Looking back on this from the eyes of my 7 year old self, I don't have the slightest idea if the teachers or parents realized this was happening.  However from the perspective of my current, adult self they had to of.  It does amaze me that when I was obviously struggling with these subjects nobody bothered pulling me aside and explaining to me that it doesn't matter if a few of your peers are seemingly naturally better at these subjects than you, they're not, they just have more experience and thus they have a head start on you and it's going to take a little more work and effort on your end to catch up with them*.  Instead, what unfolded is fairly indicative of the public schooling system in the U.S.  The peers of mine who had a head start in specific subjects got in the mindset of: "I'm great at math and science!"  Which motivated them to study, learn more, and excel.  While I got in the mindset of: "I'm not any good at math and science and I won't ever be so why should I bother trying to learn them?"  Throughout the entirety of my schooling career I watched this handful of peers excel in those subjects, go into honors classes and succeed.  While I put in just enough effort to do the homework, stay out of remedial classes, and barely pass the tests, since after all I won't ever be good at these subjects so why try?  Lucky for me though, how you do in the traditional schooling system doesn't necessarily predict your success in life.

I was given a leg-up against these very same peers of mine with some real world, career based training at a young age.  This turned the tables on them and it made me appear as though I'm innately good at a lot of odd(ish) real world skills.  From a very young age I was fascinated with anything and everything to do with airplanes and space.  My parents realized this and tried to nurture these interests as much as humanly possible.  This caused me to become more interested, learn more, and have the dreams of one day becoming a super bad-ass pilot and/or astronaut!!  This morphed me into constantly thinking and dreaming of this day and night, which caused me to learn more, which boosted my knowledge.  For my 13th birthday my parents gave me a single flying lesson as a birthday present.  Looking back on this I'm fairly certain they were half hoping that I wouldn't enjoy this flying lesson and I wouldn't want to pursue this extremely expensive career path that I desperately wanted to go down.  If that was the case, this back-fired miserably.  I started taking flying lessons and gaining my private pilots license when I was a teenager, which meant I suddenly had the freedom of being able to rent an airplane and fly it anywhere I damn well pleased!  I kept flying regularly while gaining additional licenses and ratings.  By the time I graduated college I was teaching others how to fly airplanes (I had my CFI and CFII).  I could also rent faster and more complicated aircraft, including multi-engine airplanes.  What I didn't realize at the time was all of the extremely valuable, real-world skills, that I gained during all of this training that my peers weren't experiencing or gaining at all and wouldn't until they left school and entered the real world.

When you learn to fly airplanes you learn very quickly how to properly deal and handle (assuming you have a good instructor) very stressful situations and how to adapt to ever changing circumstances and environments.  One of the main things that gets beat into your head before you obtain your Private Pilots License is what to do if you are flying along, minding your own business and then all of a sudden, out of no-where, your engine unexpectedly dies?  Without any training (or if you don't regularly practice this scenario) this can turn into a very messy situation very fast.  I was lucky enough to have a very good flight instructor, she had known several people who had died in aviation accidents, and she took it upon herself to make sure that anyone she taught would not have the same fate if she had anything to do with it.  She had a lot of fun in presenting me with various mock in-flight emergencies and how to handle them.  By the time I obtained my private pilots license, I was a pro at handling these unexpected situations and I was always expecting the unexpected, going over various scenarios in my head and how to deal with these situations if they should arise.  One of the most valuable things my instructor taught me was when a sudden emergency happens and catches you off guard: 1) Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and slow your brain and thinking down 2) Go over what the problem is in your mind 3) Once you realize what the problem is trust your instincts, training, and knowledge 4) Open your eyes and fix the problem by following your training.  This only takes you about 3 seconds to do and you can almost always spare 3 seconds even in an emergency situation**.  This also makes you more efficient which saves you time down the road, making up for the 3 seconds you lose at the beginning of the emergency.  This is something that I started doing during any and every stressful situation in life whether it was an in-flight emergency (I've had quite a few of those during my flying days), coming across a head on collision on a mountain road with no cell phone service and everyone in both cars are unconscious along with blood being splattered everywhere, or whether a rogue tire from a car traveling the opposite direction on the road came off of their car, launched into the air and hit the hood of my car totaling my car, just to name a few situations where this was an extremely handy skill to have.  Despite the fact that I'm no longer in the aviation industry, I still do this technique to this day and it is something that will likely and hopefully be with me for the rest of my life.  The first time I realized this was potentially a not-so normal skill to have was when I was working in a casino.

I was walking around the casino floor talking to guests, I walked by a gentleman who was probably in his forties, we made eye contact and exchanged greetings.  While I was looking at him in the eye, he dropped to the floor and started spasming and wriggling around like a fish out of water.  This was the first of two times in my life where I actively saw somebody have a seizure.  Other guests in the immediate area started screaming when they saw what was happening.  I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and in my head I went, "he's having a seizure, he needs a paramedic, I don't have any medical training."  I opened my eyes, immediately got on my radio, "dispatch, a guest is having a seizure just outside the 8042 bar, call paramedics immediately."  I asked if anyone in the immediate area was a doctor, I took the mix of silence and screams as a big no.  I got the guests who had started congregating around him to backup away from him, then I knelt down next to him and talked to him as I would want someone to talk to me in that situation despite the fact I had no idea if he could hear or understand me while I simultaneously tried to think if there was anything else I could do to help him.  There wasn't anything else I could do and the best thing I could come up with is 1) don't touch him or try to help him, you don't have any medical training for this 2) keep everyone else away from him unless they're a doctor 3) just keep talking to him until the paramedics arrive.  The paramedics arrived about 2 minutes after the whole ordeal started, they took the situation over and got him taken care of.  Once they took over I was able to step back, collect myself and see what all had been happening around me during those two minutes that I was oblivious to my surroundings, since I was too focused on the task at hand.  Everyone had come to see what was happening, the casino security was keeping all of the guests away and they had escorted the paramedics to our location in the casino.

After this I was a bit shaken up and full of adrenaline so I went into our dispatch office and sat down for a few minutes so I could process what had happened.  A few of my co-workers came to the office as well and they were all amazed at how calm and collected I was during that whole situation.  One of them asked me why I sounded so calm on the radio when I called for the paramedics.  I asked them if I actually sounded calm because I certainly didn't feel calm in the moment.  They all said I sounded exactly like I do during any other time when I'm talking on the radio and that I sounded as calm and collected as could be and they seemed to be mystified as to how that could even be possible.  It was then that I realized that my aviation training had quite a lot of applications outside of aviation and this isn't necessarily a normal skill to have.  To all of my co-workers it appeared that I was just naturally good at handling and dealing with extremely stressful situations.  They didn't realize that I had spent years upon years during high school and college training specifically for handling stressful situations and as a result I had become extremely good at handling these stressful situations.  To them it appeared to be a natural skill that I possessed.  Just as my peers in elementary school had appeared to me as being naturally good at math.

In my adult life I've slowly come to the conclusion that anyone in this world can be good at any subject or skill if they want to be.  It's just a matter of breaking down the barrier in your mind that you can't learn something and replacing it with a can-do mindset.  Then you actually have to put the time and effort into learning that subject and/or skill, which will likely not be an easy road and full of ups and downs.  You also have to realize how you learn things best and have a basic understanding of how your mind works.  For me for instance, my mind works vastly different from the majority of people and I don't learn things well in a traditional schooling platform.  I'm a visual and hands-on person, I learn by doing, not by sitting in a classroom and listening to someone explaining how to do math.  I have to do math to learn it.  Once I realized all of this it made quite a difference in my life.

For one of my many aviation careers, before I could even be considered to be hired, I had to take an eight hour cognitive exam.  One section of this exam would be a math exam.  It was along the lines of you had 30 minutes to solve 35 math problems with absolutely no calculators and definitely no pencil and paper, you had to do everything in your head.  These weren't simple 2 + 2 = 4 problems.  These were aviation themed word problems.  At this point in my life I was just coming around to the idea that I can do anything if I put my mind to it (including math and science) instead of my prior mindset of: "I'm just not good at these subjects so why even try?"  I put a lot of time and effort into brushing up on my math skills before this exam.  On the day of the exam I kept my head cool, calm, and clear during the entire process with lots of slow breathing throughout it.  The math section felt fairly do-able and I thought I missed a few but overall I felt good about that section.  After the entire cognitive exam was over, I walked out of the building and felt like I had just been hit by a truck.  My brain hurt, I had a headache, I was very fatigued and I felt as if I surely bombed that cognitive exam but at that point what's done is done and what can you do?  I wasn't worried or upset but I felt as if I surely failed.  A month or two later I received a letter with the results of the test, I dreaded opening this letter but when I finally worked up the nerve to open it I was very pleased to discover that I had scored a 96% and had thus passed with flying colors!!  This led to me being hired for this career.  Had I not had the can-do attitude and mindset for the math portion of the test, I wouldn't have put any further effort into brushing up my math skills and I likely would have actually bombed the exam.

This solidified in my mind that I can learn any subject or skill that I want.  I just have to actually want to learn and put the effort into it.  This was one of the major factors at play when I started up this urban farm.  I knew very well that I didn't know anything about farming or growing food, but I had (and still have) a very strong drive and will to learn anything and everything about it.  I've put my mind to it, I've made a lot of mistakes and I've learned from those mistakes.  Now look at me, I'm growing my own food!  I get a lot of people who tell me, "I could never do what you do, I just don't have a green thumb."  I always tell people the same thing when I hear this, "Well yeah, with that mindset you won't ever be able to do it.  But if you actually want to learn how to grow your own food, you can.  Anybody can, you just have to actually put the time and effort into it."  Does a surgeon naturally know how to perform open heart surgery?  Nope, surgeons go through a lot of schooling to learn how to do this, along the way they fail a bunch and they learn from their mistakes, by the time they're performing surgery on an actual patient, they know exactly what to do (more or less).  Growing your own food really isn't any different, but you're never going to be able to do it if you have the mindset of, "There's no way I could ever learn how to do this."

Anybody can learn any subject or skill as long as they approach it with an open mind, realize they can learn, and have the will and drive to actually put the time and effort into learning.

Man with Aerobatic Airplane
James with a Pitts S-2B Before an Aerobatic Training Flight in 2006.  Probably the Most Challenging Yet Most Fun Airplane I've Had the Pleasure of Flying!

*However with class sizes of around 20 to 30 kids to one teacher.  That teacher doesn't have time to pull a single kid aside, even if they're struggling, unless it's absolutely necessary.  That teacher has a boat load of kids to corral.  Yay for the U.S. Education System (can you sense the sarcasm?).

**The caveat here is if you're in a pressurized aircraft, at altitude.  Then it's always, always, always oxygen mask first as you generally only have a few seconds of useful consciousness before you become utterly useless.

No comments:

Post a Comment