On November 17 residents of the small town of Omak in northern Washington State looked up into an otherwise clear blue sky and saw a giant penis drawn with the white exhaust trail of a jet aircraft. Some, like Twitter user Anahi Torres (see photo), were amused. Others were not. The U.S. Navy was definitely in the latter category, as one of its jets was thought to be responsible, and naval authorities quickly announced a full investigation into the matter. A statement released by the Navy read in part: “The American people rightfully expect that those who wear the Wings of Gold exhibit a level of maturity commensurate with the missions and aircraft with which they’ve been entrusted. Naval aviation continually strives to foster an environment of dignity and respect. Sophomoric and immature antics of a sexual nature have no place in Naval aviation today.”
After a chuckle or two I thought nothing more of the prank until I got an e-mail from Navy Lt. Steven Shaw, a Navy flight instructor I had previously interviewed (see that interview here). His comment was typically insightful: “Unfortunately, and ironically, the effort, planning, and focus that went into the execution of that drawing far surpasses what is normally expended on a typical training flight.”
And that set me to thinking. The “drawing” looked like something a five-year-old might have produced with crayons on construction paper, but it was not done with crayons and construction paper — it was done with the jet exhaust of an F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Earth’s atmosphere. That crude sketch actually required a tremendous amount of flying skill developed through many hours of deliberate practice.
And that is the lesson I ultimately took away from this incident. After learning about and writing about deliberate practice for much of the past decade, I got into the habit of thinking about it in “respectable” terms, if you will. People used deliberate practice to become good at performing classical music or dancing ballet or playing chess or doing heart surgery or writing novels or . . . well, you get the idea. All “respectable” pursuits. All things that people get admired for doing well.
I’m not sure how much admiration the pilot of that naval jet got for his drawing ability, however, even though he was also exhibiting great skill. And that’s the point, really. Deliberate practice is just a tool. You can use it to develop skill in an area that is productive and useful and helps make this a better world, or you can use it to . . . learn to draw a penis in the sky. It’s up to you.