This morning I was reflecting on the fact that it has been some 20 years since my primary job was computer programming. It’s quite possible that I would struggle — or even fail — at a number of the technical interviews that I passed in the past. This is not a sign of my dotage (yet!) but rather a reflection that my focus and skills development has been in other areas. I haven’t maintained my proficiency entirely.
In aviation, we have this notion of being “recent”: you need to have practiced a set of skills regularly, or if you’ve fallen off the wagon and haven’t flown lately you need to have those skills examined to verify proficiency. As a private pilot, once every other year, you need to go up with an instructor for an hour to get a refresher. All of this is codified in law and regulation. The FAA wants to be confident the pilots in the skies know what they’re doing and are safe to fly. On top of that, at nearly every level you are expected to be continually learning and improving your skill set, and there are a wide range of tools and services to help you with that. all of that makes a lot of sense and is completely unsurprising.
More surprising, then, is to turn one’s attention to other areas where a high degree of proficiency and continued development are critically important, and the degree to which there are not analogous expectations and services as what we see for pilots.
I suspect that this is in part due to a 20th-century worldview: where we believe that education is a phase in life. We receive as much education as we can tolerate or afford, then proceed onto the next chapter of our life of putting that education to work in a job, then if things went well we can retire comfortably and die at peace and satisfied. But this model no longer holds. The increasing amount of education required to have a meaningful impact in the world means that the education phase pushes out farther and farther, leading to teenage frustration and angst about being unable to meaningfully interact with or impact the world since the job phase has not yet arrived. (And a good deal of stamping the natural fun out of the young educational years since “this isn’t meant to be fun, it’s meant to be learning!”) There are similar tensions in mid-life around deferring fun to one’s retiring years — and then finally the despair of disconnectedness that can arise from a detached retirement at the end of life. Our 20th century template for a good life is not a good one.
What we need is a template for a life that can combine continuous education, impact and engagement with the real world, and fun. It’s a theme I’ve touched on a few times, but I think it’s important for our societies health that we start to think through a lot of the assumptions that we bake into everything from our schooling to our work policies to our retirement plans.
And to wit, it is incumbent on every one of us to continuously be finding ways to learn. To refine our craft, to share our observations and mistakes, to seek out expert counsel in books and mentorship and peers on subjects that are important to us. That includes taking ourselves seriously as teachers, not only for others but for ourselves as well. Asking ourselves the questions, contextualized by actions we can perform: what’s going well? What’s not going well? What are the areas where I need to learn more and how can I best learn those things? If I’m not sure of my answers to any of these, are there resources I can lean on to help provide guidance? What are areas where I have learned things that could potentially help others? What could I do to effectively share that knowledge with others?
Finally, to close on the topic with which I started: what are areas in which you would like to maintain proficiency, and what are your plans to do that? Have you set aside the time and the mentorship? Could you go through a book or take an online course? Are there tools that will help you stay sharp at your craft? It was an obvious but important realization for me that even Olympic athletes have coaches. Especially Olympic athlete have coaches.
At whatever level of performance you find yourself, there are resources out there to help you excel. Find them. Level up. Go forth and kick ass.