From Dean Beck~Stupid Things I've Done … And What I Learned From Them~Vol.3 Rules

August 28, 2010 5 min read

Grad Student as a Efficiency Mania

During my graduate school years, I had more than one of my professors tell me that I would end up making my “own path through life”; that I probably wouldn’t follow a defined career pattern. And they were right. I’ve always prided myself on being a bit of a maverick. 

Those professors all knew this about me because they’d watched me pick my way through graduate school. My favorite “game” during my time in college and graduate school was finding ways to “double count” required courses. I learned my freshman year that there were certain courses on campus that could count for two requirements (a course on the History of Science for instance might count as both a Social Science course and a Science course at the same time!). 

I’m sure my rationale for doing this started with an interest in efficiency, but over the years I sometimes strayed from that original purpose and just looked for “shortcuts” because they are fun to find. In studying math, for instance, if there was a shortcut to solving a math problem, I wanted to know it. 

By the time I finished graduate school, it was pretty clear to me that some of the people I admired the most were the professors who also had a business career, or businesspeople who had once been professors. This combination of both a theoretical and practical background was something I aspired to in my own life. 

Immediately after graduate school, I started a full-time career as a professor AND a full-time career as a management consultant. Most sane people with my goal would have taken one job after the other, but in my “shortcut” mania, I fool-heartedly took both jobs and often put in hundred hour workweeks. I’d be in the office at 5 o’clock in the morning, work until evening, go home for dinner and put my kids to bed and then go back to the office until midnight or later. 

After four years of that, I was completely worn out. So in one month, I ended both jobs. And I decided to get a pilot’s license.

My professors would probably have said that my life was “erratic” at that point. Others might believe that I was downright crazy. But after four years of stress and day-to-day pressure, flying planes felt like the most freeing thing in the world. When I was up the air alone, I felt like I could see everything and do everything. There were no pressures — just me and nature (and a little 160 horsepower engine that was keeping me in the air!).

Efficiency mania broke pilot’s rules and…

But old habits die hard. And before long, I was finding ways of becoming more “efficient” as a pilot. One of those was to memorize a lot of the procedures so that I could get through them relatively quickly without having to look at the checklist. I became a pro at putting on my seatbelt with one hand while checking my electrical systems with the other. I could be in the plane and up in the air faster than just about any other pilot I knew on my landing strip. 

But then one day my flying career almost came to an abrupt end. It was a hot summer day and in the desert where I was flying, the air had no moisture in it at all. Sometimes you’d get a warm updraft on these days near the airport that would make it almost impossible to land a small plane because the air currents didn’t want to let you back down to earth. But usually on these days, the heat drove air particles apart, making the air less dense than usual and with humidity of around 5%, there were very few water molecules in the air to give the required lift to the airplane. Takeoff distances were always longer on these days and landing could be a little tricky. 

It was on one of these hot clear days that I’d had a stunningly beautiful solo flight over a nearby mountain range and was returning to the airport to land. I went through the landing checklist that I’d memorized and strapped in for the landing. As I neared the runway, the plane was simply not performing the way it was supposed to. It was rattling. And felt like it was going to tear apart. It was coming in a lot faster than usual and wasn’t getting any of the lift necessary to slow the plane on landing. I came down hard on the runway, bounced into the air and came down again and again. All the while the speed was not dropping as I expected it would and even though I fortunately had a long runway that was built to handle commercial planes, I ended up using most of it landing my tiny, single engine plane. I resolved to take the plane right back to the hanger and have the mechanics look at the plane really carefully — something was clearly wrong with it and I felt like I’d come very close to a serious accident in the plane because of a mechanical malfunction. 

As I taxied toward the hanger, I smoothly went through my memorized checklist of post-landing procedures until I got stuck on one of them. I knew I was supposed to put up the airplane’s flaps (the flaps are extended on landing to give the plane extra lift which allows the aircraft to slow properly), but I couldn’t put the flaps up. My first thought was “that is odd that the flaps are broken” and then I thought “oh, they must have gone back up automatically already.” My brain didn’t want to immediately process what logic was telling me: the flaps had never been put down in the first place. In my rush for efficiency, I thought I had properly memorized the checklist. But on this day, I’d left out one of the most important steps — lowering the flaps — in a landing sequence and almost destroyed a plane because of my efficiency mania.

Moral: Many times time-honored procedures and methods can actually be improved on; and a more efficient method of dealing with those can result in some real advantages. Those systems should be challenged and changed at every turn. But SOMETIMES there are rules and checklists that are in place for a reason. In those cases, taking a shortcut will make for less efficiency and less effectiveness — and possibly even danger.