Your Mind on Auto Pilot

One of my recent favorite reads, “Smarter Faster Better” by Charles Duhigg gives the secrets to be productive in both your business and personal life. While the name sounds like a cliché the information inside and the story telling style in which he presents each case makes the book both appealing and useful.

He puts productivity and being prepared under 8 main points. I will list these with my own interpretation:

1 Finding the right motivators for you

2 Forming groups in which you can be happy and productive

3 Focus and awareness

4 Keys to setting the correct and motivating goals

5 Management by giving out authority and responsibility

6 Ability to make fast but correct decisions

7 Innovation

8 Being able to convert pouring data streams into useful data

Of course you need to read the book to fully understand them but what effected me on a personal, and heart wrenching level was number 3, “Focus and Awareness. I was getting back from a short holiday in Greece with my mother and I started reading this chapter just as our plane was about to take off.

This chapter started with the take off of AirFrance flight 447 from Rio to Paris on 31st May 2009. It talked about the passengers, their dreams, goals, their loved ones waiting for them, to keep it short it was about ordinary people, with ordinary daily lives. A couple on honeymoon, a retired orchestra conductor, an 11 year old going back to school, a plane taking off, with 228 people. 4 Minutes after takeoff the plane was put on autopilot and if there were no unusual circumstrances it would haves arrive in Paris within 10 hours.

Autopilot is an advanced computer created to make plane crashes a thing of the past. They reduce both plane crashes and manpower required to run planes. The airbus have an advanced computer system that can identify the cause of problems and correct them. When this is the case the plane requires the expertise of a pilot only during take off and landing.  At all other times the computer calculates the position, height, speed, and all other factors surrounding the plane, identifies problems and produces solutions.

The problems start 4 hours after take off, while the main pilot was sleeping next to his wife among the passengers. Auto pilot is disabled because of icing and as a result of the unbelievable ignorance of the two co-pilots the plane crashes into the atlantic just past the Equator while the passengers were still asleep. The co-pilots are so ignorant that even while the plane is crashing they have no idea what is going on. We can understand this from the flight data recorder in which they are making no anouncements to the passengers, asking each other frantically what is wrong. Although auto pilot goes back online, they make a simple mistake which no experience pilot would do, and constantly tilt the plane upward until it stalls mid-air and comes crashing down. Either the co-pilots don’t know how to pilto a plane without the help of the computer system or they do not have enough practical experince with it.

Similar auto pilots exist in our daily lives. We drive automatic cars, use cell phones without which we  sometimes have no way of communication with people. In our business life we specilize in smaller and smaller fields, we believe in the importance of specilization and narrow down our focus. With the capitalist system and global economy as it is we don’t have much choice in the matter.

Afterwards, the book mentions another, a complete opposite example, of the Qantas airlies flight that departed Sydney, with a much more chaotic situation. After a series of mishaps mid-air, both engines become inoperable. One wing has no electricity and out of the 22 main systems only one is still working. Within the chaos of alarms ringing all over, the experienced pilot turns to his staff and says “Stop focusing on what is going wrong, remain calm and gocus on what must be done”. He manages to land the plane in Singapour with no computer aid, and no lives lost, by remembering the operation pattern of an old Cesna from 20 years ago.

What made this possible?

NASA looked into the case of pilot De Crespingny. There has been a detailed examination of his thought pattern, and what made this impossible feat possible. The results were that the pilot trained both himself and his staff on different posibilities and models. “What would you do if such and such happened?” “What is your reaction to this situation” so in this case he thought what he should to and produced a scenario. We try to do the same in business continuity plans. What would happen if there were no employees left in the company? What would happened if our office space became inaccesible? What would happen if all our data was lost, etc.

While doing our jobs, we overlook making simple observations. We shut our ears to the sirens and go with the flow in the way we have been thought, we have become accustomed. Sometimes we are so used to doing our job on auto pilot and giving out responsibilities that we leave the thinking to other people. We ask questions to advisors and copy-paste their answers. Admit it, you have all done this at least once. I did, and took my lesson. And yet it makes a huge difference when a person does their job according to their own common sense and intuition. When I notice that people in front of me are working on auto pilot, I try to sit back and pay attention.

As I said in the beginning, I was with my mother in a plane about to take off as I started reading this passage. During this short trip, returning home to Istanbul I was in tears reading about this plane that crashed into the Atlantic. That is because this plane was carrying a passenger very dear to us, harpist and dedicated teacher Ceren Necipoglu who had changed her flight time to be able to attend one more concert at the Rio harp festival. She was my harpist daughter’s first teacher.

ceren necipogluIn the link below you can hear my daughter’s harp performance of Haru No Umi (the sea in spring) in memory of Ceren Necipoğlu.

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