The Answer is Unicycles. What is the Question?

In All, Blog by Robert PoolLeave a Comment

While I was talking with Lt. Steven Shaw, the U.S. Navy F-18 pilot and trainer featured in the previous blog, he said something that I thought was really profound, even if it was said in the context of a joke, and I thought it was worth repeating here. (A brief disclaimer: The thoughts and ideas described  in this article are Steven Shaw’s alone and in no way represent those of the United States Navy.)

By Lottrup at da.Wikipedia

Lt. Shaw is a bit of a restless sort, and in addition to everything else he has to do, he decided sometime in July that he would learn how to ride a unicycle. Reading about it, he found that people say it takes about ten hours of practice before you get comfortable, and he figured that he could afford that sort of investment of time. Since he got his unicycle, he said, he has spent maybe six or seven hours on practice, and he was recently able to ride it about 200 feet. So three or four more hours should do it.

But what does riding a unicycle have to do with flying F-18 fighter jets? Before Navy pilots can train on the F-18, they have to go through primary, intermediate, and advanced flight training. But the training planes that they learn on in these phases are so different from the F-18 that very little that these pilots learn transfers to flying the F-18. In particular, Lt. Shaw said, the main purpose of primary flight training is selection. The pilot trainees who do best in the early training go on to the next phase, a process that heavily favors those who have learned to fly similar planes before their flight training.

But instead of selecting for an aptitude for flying, Lt. Shaw said, the Navy should be selecting for an aptitude for practice, for it will be the pilot trainees who are best able to learn through practice who will be most successful in flying the F-18.

Along these lines, Lt. Shaw told me that he had been joking with a friend that the Navy should give each of its prospective F-18 pilots a unicycle and tell them that they had to be able to ride it around a track in three days. “Those who did it could go into training for F-18s because they showed they could practice and learn something.” Those who didn’t would be out.

By Anna reg – Own work, Wikimedia commons

I thought this was brilliant because it captured—albeit in a light-hearted way—a fundamental dilemma of expert performance: How do you figure out ahead of time who will be very good at something? The basic answer to the question is that it is the people who are most able to use deliberate practice to improve who will go on to be the best in a field. But that, of course, begs the question of how to identify those people. Have them learn to ride a unicycle, Lt. Shaw said, and I don’t know that I’ve heard a better answer.

Whatever the answer is, there will be great rewards to anyone who figures it out. Consider, for example, professional football, where teams pay millions of dollars to rookies without knowing with any certainty whether they will ever be any good. Or business, where on-the-job learning is the norm, but hiring decisions seldom even attempt to take into account the applicants’ ability to practice and learn. Or medicine, where some doctors continue to improve over time, while others are little better after decades of “practice” than they were when they left medical school. Or flying F-18s. How do you identify those people who, as Lt. Shaw said, can practice and learn something?


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