Reality doesn’t care what we think. It just happens. So, how does one deal with that mismatch in what one expects and what unfolds? The evolution of safety standards in the aviation industry offers some interesting pointers, Rolf Dobelli says, in his book, The Art of the Good Life (2017).
When commercial air travel was first beginning to go mainstream, a series of mysterious accidents occurred between 1953 and ’54. Investigators, including an Australian scientist named David Warren, zeroed in on the problems they could identify, and began working to fix them. But accidents continued, and most people became increasingly wary of flying.
That was when Warren, then about 30, created the first prototype of a Flight Data Recorder. He pitched it as an indestructible device that would record everything that happened in an airplane’s cockpit, from the time it took off until it landed. If anything went wrong, the recordings could be studied. He was ignored.
Then in 1960, another aircraft crashed, in Australia. An inquiry followed. The inquiry commission concluded that safety standards could be improved if they knew what had happened on board. They passed a law that made it compulsory for every Australian carrier to install the recorder Warren had devised, on every flight.
Now, even in the case of a minor mishap, there was a detailed, irrefutable account of what had happened. Soon, authorities in other parts of the world began to mandate the Black Box too. It changed aviation, giving experts the information they needed to make flying incrementally safer.
Similar practices are used every day, in a range of high-stakes fields that involve making tough decisions in real time. Surgeons analyse poor outcomes; doctors conduct post-mortems to determine causes of death. In newsrooms the world over, editors conduct “post-mortems” of an edition after it is published, to examine what they got right, what they missed, what could have been done better.
What it boils down to is this: With enough data, looked at dispassionately, it becomes much easier to course-correct. Which raises the question: Would it be possible to create a Black Box for one’s own life? What would it measure? What would it involve?
It is possible, a friend who is a psychologist asserts. He suggested that, as a first step, I do a thought-dump at the start of each day, by writing out everything playing on the mind. On attempting this, I was struck first by what an incredibly noisy place the head can be.
I stayed at it until there were no more thoughts to write down. Writing them down meant I could (and must) now face them one by one. I saw at once that some trains of thought were trivial and ought to be banished; others were uninformed demons or malnourished ghosts that needed to be stamped out. Once the list had thus been cleansed, there was room for what was essential to dominate.
I’ve been following this practice and, as the day progresses, every once a while, I update the morning note with decisions made and factors that catalysed it. There are times when this is difficult, but the pay-offs are huge. I can see, for instance, where random and thoughtless decisions are holding me back.
The results of this Black Box Thinking? I was able to acknowledge, based on data, that I say “Yes” too erratically. I spread myself too thin. I was able to trace how this has led to me disappointing myself and those I care about. I could see that I wasn’t differentiating between things I planned to do and things I wished I could do, which was one reason my to-do list was so long and unwieldy.
What has course-correction looked like? I have learnt to say “No”. I have learnt to direct my energy rather than let it direct me.
Most vitally, all plans are now made on the basis of three larger guiding principles. 1: How can I make time for what matters to me professionally? 2: How can I make time for what I love and enjoy? 3: How can I make time for those I love?