The Importance of Reflection

Why don’t Vampires learn from their mistakes…? Because they have no reflection!

That is a poor joke, I know, but reflection is pretty much what I do for a living. Confucious once said that, “learning without reflection is a waste. Reflection without learning is dangerous.” That is why Inzpire’s Human Factors and Safety Division looks to the past to try and prepare ourselves for the future, by using case studies and anecdotes in our training. We use a lot of pithy quotes and soundbites from various iconic people and you will see a few more in this blog. However, whichever quote is used, you can attribute it, or something very similar to either Confucious, Aristotle or, in military circles, Sun Tzu. These guys pretty much said everything you need to know about anything, and famous people have been rehashing it in their own words ever since.

On a personal level, I have been reflecting on my youth of late. In a previous blog of mine, I mentioned taking my O levels at school and in particular Classical Studies. History and Classics were my all-time favourite subjects (storytelling again, see?) yet I did the classic boy thing at A level of taking Physics, Chemistry and Biology. I actually took Maths first instead of Chemistry, but the pure side of it was a mystery to me. Integration/Differentiation or drawing a circle with the same area under a curve on a graph just didn’t do it for me so I dropped it in favour of Chemistry. If only someone had told me that the whole Space programme was based on hard sums I might have stuck with it. Reflection and hindsight are wonderful things. Given that my base knowledge of the sciences was as follows…

If it’s green it’s biology; if it smells, it’s chemistry and if it doesn’t work, it must be physics….

…then maybe I should have gone for History and Classics. I certainly would have enjoyed my A level studies a whole lot more, but I had convinced myself that the Royal Air Force was looking for ‘science geeks’. By the way, I bombed my A levels, but luckily you only needed 4 limbs, a pulse and Maths O level to be accepted as a pilot in those days, and I got in.

But life is not supposed to be coulda, woulda, shoulda. The key is to take your experiences and use them to shape your future. Lots of people in my profession are adamant that we need to use the very latest case studies, and they incorporate them with no thought as to what the audience is stimulated by or what they are trying to achieve with it. Case studies take careful thought, preparation and confidence to let the audience take the analysis into unknown destinations. In our Human Factors training, we use some case studies (Apollo XIII for example) that are decades old, but we manipulate the analysis of them to suit the audience. Our main audience in the military these days are Millenials. This is a generation so removed from the end of the Baby Boomers and Generation X (most of my facilitators!) in attitudes and expectations that our training has had to evolve to suit their mindset (and rightly so). Therefore, our Apollo XIII debrief for Millenials is markedly different than for older audiences. It is not enough to say, “this is not the Air Force I joined,” and expect the audience to get with the programme, if the programme is inappropriate or irrelevant in the first place. There is of course a framework that cannot change when it comes to training programmes, but within that framework we should be flexible enough to deliver our training in different ways. For example, the principles of flight remain the same no matter what the audience: Pull back on the stick and the houses get smaller; push forward and the houses get bigger; keep pushing forwards and the houses get very very big very very quickly!

The original Apollo 13 prime crew. L-R: Commander, James A. Lovell, Command Module pilot, Thomas K. Mattingly and Lunar Module pilot, Fred W. Haise
Image: Wikipedia, NASA

However, preparing for flight and the way you build Situational Awareness in the cockpit can be approached in different ways depending on personality type and attitude – a teaching approach that has only really changed in the last decade or so. Reflecting on performance is something that is now taught in a formal way rather than just failing a student and letting them cry in their beer before putting them through the wringer the following day (does anybody else remember Tac Weapons in the 1980’s…?). Every little bit of my life has shaped me into what I am now – even Tac Weapons! Of course I would do things differently if I had my time again, but until our Mission Systems team decide to turn their attentions away from GECO and on to building a time machine then I will not get the chance. Much better to put my energies into reflecting on my history; learning from it; and making myself better going forwards. Churchill once said, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. It is a great quote, but one that really fills me with sadness. If that is true, then we are just not trying hard enough. Just take a look at most Flying Squadron Ops desks and read the first page of the ‘Lessons Learned’, book. Then turn over 4 pages and be amazed at how similar that entry is to the first one.

The final bit of reflection I did with my O Levels was with the English Language exam. Growing up in North Yorkshire, the vagaries of t’english language were beyond most of us, so we all struggled through the section on grammar etc and came to the Creative Writing bit. There were a few choices for story writing and always a poetry option. North Yorkshire? Poetry? We just didn’t get it – especially the stuff that doesn’t rhyme – what is that all about? There has only ever been one poem written in Yorkshire: “See all, hear all, say nowt. Eat all, sup all, pay nowt. And if ever thy does owt for nowt, always do it fer th’sen”.

However, my mate John (who did not have a creative cell in his body) chose the poetry option much to our surprise, and afterwards he told us what he wrote. This will stay with me for the rest of my life:

“Coming out of nowhere, driving like rain,
Stormbringer dance on the thunder again.
Dark clouds gathering breaking the day,
No point in running cos it’s coming your way.
Ride the rainbow. Rock the sky,
Stormbringer coming. Time to die.
Got to get ready.
Stormbringer coming.
He’s got nothing you need,
He’s going to make you bleed”.

Those of a certain age will recognise that John basically wrote out the first verse to Deep Purple’s title track on the Stormbringer album. He figured that the older generation we presumed were on the examining board would not have heard any heavy rock music in their lives and he would get away with it. Aristotle once said, “You will never do anything in this world without courage.” Was that a calculated risk from John or just pure courage? The end of Aristotle’s quote though is this: “It (courage) is the greatest quality of the mind next to honour.”

Image:, Pinterest

Ah! Having praised John for his courage we now have to destroy him for his lack of honour…! I’m not sure what Aristotle would have made of John. As an aside, has anybody noticed that ‘HONOUR’ is one of the words on our Inzpire Whyphoon that is written in the biggest font?

John got an A in his English language O level, confounding our English teacher and the rest of the year. All except me – we were the only two heavy metal kids in our year so I had the same album and rumbled him straight away. On reflection, John realised he had dodged a bullet and resisted the overtures from the English department to take A level English and fell into the Physics, Chemistry, Biology pool. By the way – when we teach dynamic risk management in our courses, we do not use John as a shining example of how to do it. Hoping you get away with something is not a reliable strategy towards risk management!

Ok that’s enough of looking backwards. Despite history being able to teach us many valuable things, I do reflect sometimes on the fact that all of my flying was yesterday. That is one of the reasons I envy my Millenial students in the RAF. All of their flying is tomorrow and it is so much better to be looking forwards with hope and anticipation than backwards with a mix of pride, embarrassment, regret, nostalgia etc.

Of course I accept that not everyone agrees with my views on how important reflection is, and I am open to other views. As Hilary Clinton famously said, “Every moment wasted looking back, keeps us from moving forwards.”

…How did that work out?