The great masters always regard themselves as beginners, with minds open to new experiences, the momentary adventure of life. A close-to-retirement Boeing 777 examiner, who had also instructed in the T-37, F-4, F-15, B-727 & B-737, once told me he still learns something on every flight. If he does, I must.
Beginners Mind, Shoshin or 初心, is the right attitude of a child learning. Absorbing, accepting, always in touch with the wondrous new. Watch a kid do something, anything, new. Then think of the amazing number of new experiences and the amount of information a baby or small child has to process every day. They breathe it in with eyes and heart wide open. And if it knocks them down, they happily (most of the time) get right up and try again. A child lives in the moment, knowing only now, not worrying about the past or the future. Sam was much more experienced with kids than I was, and would take time when some visited the airport to open my eyes to how natural and immediate and honest kids are in relating to the world. How creative, loving, emotional, excited, dynamic, fluid, and flexible they are. Children are open to the joyful learning experiences that are literally re-wiring their brains with new synaptic connections and changed neurons while as adults our eyes and minds and hearts are much more closed. We lose the wonder. And so we lose some of the continuing education.
How far from Beginners Mind are we? Most of us think that rather than a beginner, we are already better than average. One study found that most general aviation pilots believe they are less likely than other pilots to experience an aircraft accident (Wichman & Ball, 1983). Another found 95% of pilots estimate their chance of being in an accident at a rate that is less than reality (O'Hare , 1990). Both these papers found pilot believe they are safer, are less likely to take risks in flight, and possess greater flying skill than their average peers. It’s human nature. The examples are seemingly endless; ranging from 94% of college professors that feel they do above average work (Cross, 1977) to ????. This over-optimistic mindset is pretty funny, but has serious consequences for those of us that want to actually get good. It hurts us because it does not allow much room for Beginners Mind. Researchers Dale Wilson and Marte Fallshore found for the specific accident scenario of VFR flight into IFR conditions, pilots were overly optimistic regarding their chances of experiencing such an accident and were also overconfident in their ability to avoid or successfully fly out of IMC (Wilson & Fallshore, 2001). They concluded that widespread optimistic and ability biases endanger pilots as, “they may not see the need to take the appropriate preventive measures to reduce this risk.” One appropriate preventive measure is to learn about, and then practice, Beginners Mind. Try not to allow yourself to become over-optimistic. A great example of this humble attitude was revealed in an interview by F-18 Blue Angel pilot Jerry 'JD' Deren: “There is no easy maneuver.”
In a famous story told many times — maybe most famously by Bruce Lee at the beginning of his last movie Enter The Dragon — a noted professor of world religions makes the journey into the countryside to see a Zen monk. The famous professor, who has many students and has published many papers, wishes to add to his vast knowledge of various religions by studying simple Zen practice. The monk and the professor talk, but the monk is frustrated by the lack of learning by the professor. The professor picks every sentence apart, then compares and contrasts it with his knowledge of other religions. He talks a lot to the monk about all he knows about other religions. He right away tries to fit the monk into his known world. Eventually the monk gracefully has him sit down to have a simple drink of tea. The monk slowly starts to pour tea into the professor’s cub. The monk keeps pouring more and more tea into the professor’s cup. Seemingly unmoved, the monk continues to pour tea, completely overflowing the cup. Hot tea spills onto the professor’s shoes. He yells “Stop! What are you doing?”
The monk says the tea cup is like the professor’s brain. “You must empty your mind so we can begin. The value of a cup is its emptiness.”
Bruce Lee owned over 3000 books.
However much we know — however full our cup — we must empty ourselves to receive more. We need to be ready and accepting of the new. This is Beginner’s Mind.
Asked if he was still learning new things about music after more than 40 years of playing and performing professionally, Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones said, “All the time, are you kidding? It’s continually fascinating. you’ll never get to the bottom of it, no matter how much you try.” Ten years later, the master musician was still a student solving what he sees as the ‘complicated puzzle’ of playing the guitar, saying “I’m still doing it, it still mystifies me, the damn thing.”
The legendary chef Ferran Adri created the insanely famous El Bullo restaurant in Spain that repeatedly won ‘best restaurant in the world’ awards from the gastronomic press. There would be 30 or 40 or 50 courses, each only a couple of bites of culinary bliss. Two million people were on the waiting list when it finally closed. Two million! Yet the master chef felt he was still learning, saying in a 2011 interview, “you need an entire life just to know about tomatoes”.
During WWII, the Royal Navy expanded at a great clip, which required staffing hundreds of ships with new officers. The shore training camp that turned civilians into Royal Navy officers was HMS King Alfred, in Hove, Sussex. It was commanded by one Captain John Noel Pelly, who was recalled from retirement at the start of the war. A few years later, in September 1943, he wrote a short book titled Officer’s Aide Memoire that brilliantly distilled hundreds of years of sea-going knowledge from the Royal Navy. It included:
Do not be too proud to study the Seamanship Manuals of other technical books; they are the teachings of many generations of experience.
Do not despise advice tendered to you by your subordinates. (Pelly, 1943.)
2007 book that contains John Pelly’s Officer’s Aide Memoire.
On taking up a new job, keep your eyes and ears wide open and, unless and until you know something about it, your mouth shut.
Never be afraid to ask questions. Bluff is a trait of the bad Officer. (Pelly, 1943.)
The master trainer of over twenty-two thousand naval officers clearly knew about Beginner’s Mind.
Hidetaka Nishiyama started martial arts training when he was five, never stopped, and wrote the 1960 book Karate: The Art of Empty-Hand Fighting. He was a 75-year-old ninth-degree black belt in karate when he said in an interview, “I am still a student, not a master”.
For Beginner’s Mind to be more than a game or an idea, for you to really understand and know it, you need to practice it, to internalize it. Then Beginner’s Mind becoms a valuable mind-set not just words read quickly on a screen.
In our more familiar technical terms, flight instructors are told to beware of negative transference. This is where a previous learned thing is blocking the correct learning of a new item. A primary flight student turning the yoke on the ground to taxi left or right is the classic example. You have to be open to the new to grow. You have to have beginners mind to correctly perceive experiences. Don’t filter the whole world through a tiny set of prejudices.
In addition to flight training, we need Beginner’s Mind on every flight. The oil pressure needle is below 50 units of pressure. Try not to immediately assign a reason for the reading. Accept the reading. There are many possibilities, some you maybe have not thought of before. It is fine to make plans and to test theories, but do not decide that (say) the oil pump has broken. Staying fluid, staying open to possibilities, keeping Beginner’s Mind will allow you to accept other reasons as you notice other facts.
From the 1943 book How to Fly an Airplane by Bernard Brookes.
NTSB Member Robert Sumwalt, an expert in aviation human factors, gives a presentation called Professionalism in Aviation. He defines a professional mindset to include precise compliance with regulations and other expected items. But he also includes this trait as a sign of a true professional aviator, “The ability and willingness to say 'I don’t know' or 'I am wrong'.” (Sumwalt, 2014.) This is powerful stuff. This is Beginner’s Mind.
Psychologists have a name for the opposite of Beginner’s Mind. They call it Confirmation Bias, and it is seen in human behavior after we decide something before all the facts are known. Having made a deduction, or after accepting a hunch, or after being told something, we tend to see confirmatory data rather than accept new data as really fresh information. This bias has been known for a long time. In 1620 Francis Bacon described it this way:
The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate. (Bacon, 1620.)
The confirmation bias has been replicated in many modern experiments, some showing the old advice that first impressions matter (if you look good or interviews have been tipped that you are above average, interviewers will find reasons to confirm their first impression). Part of this is what makes humans so smart, we can see patterns in limited incomplete data. And part of this is what makes humans so efficient, we’d go nuts questioning every assumption we've ever made all the time. But the flip side of all this fast efficient processing is that we are as open to new data as we should be. We don’t seek it out, we don’t see it, and we don’t place much weight in it. But weather forecasts change. What you thought was a minor problem is now becoming a land right now major problem. As pilots we must sometimes force ourselves to break free of confirmation bias. We do this by practicing Beginners Mind.
As a beginner, you look for help and instruction and inspiration for what you want to do, for what you wish to become. Even when you’ve read every pilot book in the biggest library, you can still be a beginner, you can still learn. As editor of a book of aviation quotations, I have read a lot of aviation books. Sam had me expand my horizons, showed me to look further and use Beginner’s Mind to continue to grow. A good university library can dig out papers with titles like In Flight Decision Making By High Time and Low Time Pilots During Instrument Operations (seems pilot training could be improved with event-based learning but what causes the variations in judgments between high-time pilots is not known, (Kemper, 1992.)) But sometimes better examples can be had by looking further, Sam found a musty book written by one Edward Whymper that had been sitting in a library since 1871. Scrambles Amongst the Alps speaks to us still: “Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.” He also read the 1915 book Human Nature and Railroads by Ivy Lee, and found this: “In an imperfect world perfection is not instantly available. Railroad safety, for instance, cannot be secured by mechanical devices alone. It is primarily a resultant of care and discipline.” Flying is new, but the limits of mechanical safety and human nature are old.
There are a lot of quotes on this website from Zen masters, none of whom have ever flown an aircraft. But many things about flying are like the supposedly simple Zen teachings that are so mind bendingly confusing when put onto paper, because only in practice do they make sense. The ground school instructor talks for hours of the sum and resultant of the forces present in a level turn. Slipping and skidding. You draw out vector diagrams. You learn of lateral accelerations and the slip-skid inclinometer. Then when you actually get into an airplane your flight instructor shows you the ball and says only “step on the ball.” The theory is confusingly complicated. The master teacher mysteriously simple. Step on the ball. All this physics and theory is for an action that can only be learnt yourself. First by looking at the ball, then by mental rehearsal, then by feel, then it all simply becomes second nature. Applying pressure on the rudders to coordinate the turn becomes an action you internalize and end up not thinking about. A master pilot’s feet just move on the rudders into the turn without the mind really knowing about it.
One of the joys of being an airline pilot is always flying with another pilot in the cockpit. I could be rude and say that with some new first officers it is instant Beginner’s Mind, but what I really mean is it often can force another viewpoint onto whatever we are looking at. And sometimes I wonder why I didn’t think of that? Why do I sometimes see something the might not look quite right, but I yawn and start to forget it, rather than freshly accepting the reality of the new thing itself. The ‘newbie’ will wake me up from the fog by asking, “Hey, what’s that mean?” Flying with new people all the time forces some Beginner’s Mind onto you. We must never stop learning.
A practical way to keep learning is to set up mental feedback loops from your performance back to your mindset, preparation and training. We achieve this by spending some time critically reflecting on every flight. What could I have done better? What did I learn? What did I forget? What surprised me? This is an important part of the Inner Art. Columbia University psychology professor Sheena Iyengar is crystal clear about this point:
If you want to improve, you must continuously observe and critically analyze your performance: What did you do wrong? How can you do it better? (Iyengar, 2010.)
Shipboard video of carrier landing.
US Navy aviators are the only pilots in the world that land on aircraft carriers operating out of range of land bases, in almost all weather conditions, both day and night. I’ve never landed on a carrier, but discussions with friends has made it clear what a peak performance this feat is. And one of the ways they achieve that performance is by using this active reflection technique. Every landing is graded by a landing signal officer (LSO, a pilot on deck watching the approach and ready to signal a go-around if it looks unsafe) and the grades are posted in the crew room. Every landing is also videotaped for the pilots review. We can’t achieve this level of independent critical analysis, but we can seriously reflect on every approach and landing. What did I do wrong? How can I do a little better?
Mindlessly repeating the same one hour flight a thousand times will not make you a much better pilot. Former US Navy, Pan Am and Delta Air Lines captain, aviation writer and formation aerobatic pilot, Bob Gandt said in a magazine interview:
Don’t be impressed by total flying hours. Some of the worst pilots I ever flew with were senior airline captains with tens of thousands of hours of flight time. (Hirschman, 2015.)
Aimlessly building total flight time is meaningless. But keeping a log of mistakes and triumphs, mentally reviewing the weather and what it made different, debriefing your performance, thinking after every flight about what you could have done different, done more efficiently, more smoothly, more simply, more elegantly, just more better, will polish your skills to a brilliant knife edge. You will have a thousand hours of valuable experience. Doing this, you can never stop learning.
RAF test pilot and renowned aerobatic champion Neil Williams wrote that flying is:
Perhaps the ultimate union between science and art, where men can all but bring a machine to life, and a machine in turn can bring to a man some of the highest pinnacles of achievement and self expression which he can experience. There is no limit to what he can learn.
Incredible air show pilot Sean D. Tucker said in 2013 that:
In my mind I’m still a student of the art form. I’m still a student of the game. And if I started thinking I’m the greatest airshow pilot that ever lived I’d be an immediate dead man walking.
Gene Cernan, fighter pilot, test pilot, aeronautical engineer, last man to walk on the Moon, general aviation pilot, told a safety conference:
Prepare for the unknown, unexpected and inconceivable … after 50 years of flying I’m still learning every time I fly.
Owen Zupp, 20,000-hour pilot and author, when asked to reflect on the greatest lessons from his flight instructor, a former combat decorated fighter pilot and also his dad, said:
You never perfect being a pilot, but the days you get close are kind of satisfying. And that the day you think you know it all that’s when you’re dangerous.
Another pilot father and son were the Generals Olds. The legendary triple ace of WWII and Vietnam who became a USAF General and Commandant of the Air Force Academy remembers his dad, himself a General and former WWI flight instructor, giving some last advice:
As my beloved father lay dying I held his hand and told him I was going to be a fighter pilot. He smiled weakly at me and said, “Robbie, listen to me. I never once went up in the air without learning something new. Never, ever think you know it all.”
Bob Gandt, at age twenty the youngest aviator on active duty in the U.S. Navy, flew the A4 jet off aircraft carriers for 2000 hours before becoming an airline pilot for Pan Am. Later he was a wide-body captain and check pilot for Delta Air Lines. He is still flying formation aerobatics at age 75. He said:
Just like artists or musicians, we’re constantly striving to master our craft, to try new things, to improve.
Before he retired, Dr. Key Dismukes was Chief Scientist in the Human Factors Research & Technology Division at NASA Ames Research Center. He is typed in the B737 and Citation jets, and is an active sailplane pilot. In 2019 he gave his considered professional opinion about being a pilot:
It’s a skill, it’s a wonderful skill, it’s like playing a musical instrument in that you can always go further.
(Stewart & Dickey, 2019.)
And glider instructor Dale Masters, after 12,000 hours of soaring, wrote
Never assume you really understand.
If these five fabled pilots were still learning about flying after incredible lifetimes spent in cockpits, so must I.
Thinking again of cups, there are said to be four kinds. The upside-down cup into which water never can flow. The cup with the hole in the bottom, where the water flows in, then flows straight out. The full cup, which can accept no new water. And the empty cup. Consider what kind of cup you want to be. Only one shows the Beginner’s Mind attitude needed to learn the inner art of airmanship.
It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.
As professional pilots, we owe it to ourselves to remain vigilant on safety and to never stop learning how to become better and safer pilots.
R. A. 'Bob' Hoover
I have learned the novice can often see things that the expert overlooks. All that is necessary is not to be afraid of making mistakes, or of appearing naive.
The more we study, the more we discover our ignorance.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and whatever abysses nature leads, or you will learn nothing.
We do not learn by experience, but by our capacity for experience.
Do not strut about proudly. You cannot possess the earth, and you cannot rival the mountains in stature.
Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it.
Throughout Apollo, everybody I knew was always saying, “What if?” and, “Is it possible that this could happen?” And, “What will we do?” Just that process of continually questioning built your confidence in your ability to handle whatever comes along.
If you stop learning, you will forget what you already know.
Education isn't something you can finish.
It is not knowledge, but the act of learning, not possession but the act of getting there, which grants the greatest enjoyment.
Carl Friedrich Gauss
I’m just trying to continue to improve and get better.
It’s been years and years and years I’ve been playing the drums, and they’re still a challenge, I still enjoy using drumsticks and a snare drum.
Practice will never make you perfect. Why should it? What fun would that be?
In three years [instructing] at Top Gun I never once witnessed flawless execution, and I never once heard anyone mention it as an objective.
What we do know is the greatest hindrance to our learning what we don’t know.
Not taking risks one doesn’t understand is often the best form of risk management.
Raghuram G. Rajan
Some people will never learn anything … because they understand everything too soon.
Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.
A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.
Our of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.
Failure is the key to success; each mistake teaches us something.
Not even the angels stand higher than the man who took the wrong way and then returned.
Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.
Don’t be too proud to take lessons. I’m not.
It takes several years for anyone to learn to handle a yacht reasonably well, and a lifetime to admit how much more there is to learn.
To learn anything significant, to make any lasting change in yourself, you must be willing to spend most of your time on the plateau.
No matter who we are, where we have been, how many hours or landings we may have, or how good we may think we are, we all are prone to the inevitability of making a mistake.
The pursuit of perfection is part of the immense satisfaction of each flight.
Enjoy each flight to the fullest, while also being your own toughest critic of your flying skills.
I’ll never achieve 100% perfection but I’ll enjoy the process of attempting to anyway.
Pilots never stop learning and should always aim to improve their skills.
Every flight is a learning experience.
Stephanie 'Stevie' Triesenberg
One of the greatest things about flying is that there’s always more to learn.
There is the constant pleasure of trying to achieve the perfect lap. I know I’ll never do it — I don’t think anybody will ever do it, but it’s fun trying. By a perfect lap, I mean a lap where you are not one centimeter off line anywhere.
If I did a perfect dance, I think I’d quit.
Every time you go out on the ice, there are slight flaws. You can always think of something you should have done better. These are the things you must work on.
Always interested in learning more, and becoming better, and to explore new places, and to learn to master the airplane better.
Never stop improving your fundamentals.
You can’t get much done in life if you only work on the days when you feel good.
A musician must practice every day. A baseball player must practice every day. Heck, even a clown has to practice. So why do pilots get to push buttons on an autopilot and consider that flying? That is not flying.
It’s unbelievable how much you don’t know about the game you've been playing all your life
No one's perfect, and every pilot makes mistakes.
You spend your entire life learning that you cannot learn everything.
Never stop learning. Always seek to be a student of the art of flying. It would be foolish (and dangerous) to think you know it all.
You never get used to it, each flight is new and different, each departure an adventure not just to be talked about but to be lived.
When you’re green, you’re growing. When you’re ripe, you rot.
Flying is always a challenge if you try to make every flight the best one you’ve ever had. Be motivated to do better each time you climb into an aircraft — this helps keep the experience fresh and rewarding.
R. A. 'Bob' Hoover
Most people are just trying to get through the day. Be committed to learn to get from the day. Don’t just get through it; get from it. Learn from it. Let the day teach you. Join the university of life. What a difference that will make in your future. Commit yourself to learning. Commit yourself to absorbing. Be like a sponge. Get it. Don’t miss it.
Mastery is not about perfection. It’s about a process, a journey. The master is the one who stays on the path day after day, year after year. The master is the one who is willing to try, and fail, and try again, for as long as he or she lives.
I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
A sailor’s joys are as simple as a child’s.
Experience is not what happens to a man. It is what a man does with what happens to him.
I was precise at the plate. Stand in the same place in the batter’s box every time. Picture a good ball to hit. Learn from every pitch.
The music is never the same for me, never. Each day is something new, fantastic, unbelievable.
There is a great desire in me for improving, getting better, that makes me happy. Every time that I feel I am slowing down, my learning curve is getting flatter, then it doesn’t make me very happy.
Don’t cling to your understanding. Even if you do understand something, you should ask yourself: Is there something I have not fully resolved, or perhaps some higher level of meaning?
After nearly 50 years of flying, teaching and testing I still learn … a lot.
24,000 hours and I’m still learning.
It is true that the more one learns the less one knows.
I could paint for a hundred years, a thousand years without stopping and I would still feel as though I knew nothing.
If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.