• Shirley Phillips, Ph.D., Non-Profit Mentor

The Blessing and Curse of Singular Focus

I once was flying with a student on Christmas Eve in the western mountains of North Carolina. We were flying out of a small private airport with a single runway with trees at both ends. Although I had no concerns about my student’s ability to do short field takeoffs and landings, I was worried that once he started flying to busier airports with control towers that he might get distracted from flying the airplane. With no time to fly to another airport on this lesson, I pondered how to devise a scenario to teach my student the importance of prioritizing tasks.

The approaching holiday gave me an idea. I told my student to name Santa’s eight reindeer out loud while he was flying the base and final approach legs to a landing. At first he looked confused and a little suspicious. “Do it,” I said, in my cheeriest holiday voice, as if flying reindeer were somehow pertinent to the task at hand.

As my student lowered the second notch of flaps on the base leg, he started to hum the melody to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in an attempt to conjure up the names. “Blitzen,” he said, as he turned onto his final leg, and shortly after clearing the tree-line, he blurted out, “Donner! Dasher!”

After he shut down the engine, I told him that he had done exactly what he was supposed to do. He had focused on flying the airplane first, and when he had the mental capacity to call out another reindeer name, he did that. He looked relieved that maybe he wasn’t going to have to find another flight instructor after all.

We all know that flying requires us to prioritize among competing tasks, and that we are often interrupted in the middle of doing something important to attend to another more urgent task. The same thing applies to caregivers of course–something any new parent who has ever tried to make an important phone call with toddlers in the vicinity can understand.

So why do caregivers so often have to convince their aviation employers that they are up to the job, considering that single-minded focus on one thing at a time is often a factor in aviation accidents? Shouldn’t we value that skill?

I once was having lunch with some colleagues and a few friends. One of my friends was discussing her educational plans with me, which included getting a PhD in epidemiology after having earned her undergraduate degree in geology at Harvard, and a master’s degree in occupational safety. One of my male colleagues overheard our conversation, and knew that I also had a varied background that included aviation and working as a pediatric physical therapist. He turned to us and said, “Why is that women have so many interests and career paths, while men seem to pick a profession and stick to it?” It was one of those rare times when I had a comeback ready. I said, “Why is it that men seem to be able to focus on only one thing at a time?”

Of course these broad generalizations are unhelpful, and this isn’t about men and women competing with each other. It’s about rethinking the notion that one way of doing things is superior to another, and recognizing that different ways of doing things can be advantageous. The ability to focus on a task without being distracted can be critical, both on the ground and in the air. The ability to prioritize and shift among competing tasks is equally important in other situations. That is why diversity often leads to superior performance for any organization.

This holiday season, I can’t imagine how boring and frustrating gift giving would be if everyone wanted the same things. I am somewhat of an expert on this, because as an identical twin I always received the same exact gifts that my sister received–no matter how different our interests were. I hope you get what you wish for, and that aviation as an industry can recognize the value that our differences bring to flying safely.

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