From Normal to Exceptional

Look, I’m a nor­mal guy try­ing to do dif­fi­cult things.

The idea is in reac­tion to the “that guy’s got hol­low bones” com­ment that paraglid­ers will say when they see a real­ly good pilot, espe­cial­ly one doing bet­ter than them*.  It’s the same kind of thing you’ll hear with climbers talk­ing about Honnold’s amyg­dala, or race car dri­vers talk­ing about [fill in the blank]’s reflex­es.

Yes, those things (well, when they’re real) mat­ter way out at the .00001% edge.  That’s not me.

What I’m find­ing, a lit­tle to my cha­grin, is that I’m a nor­mal dude. No excep­tion­al strength, or reflex­es, or eye­sight, or even hol­low bones. About the only thing slight­ly spe­cial is I prob­a­bly have a bet­ter base­line breath-hold than most peo­ple, but it’s only above aver­age, not excep­tion­al.

Does that mean I can’t be excep­tion­al?  No.  Nor­mal peo­ple will­ing to put the work in can go from nor­mal to excep­tion­al with­out lean­ing on any spe­cial gifts. The work is hard, it takes a long time, it’s not par­tic­u­lar­ly sexy except in a one-lin­er ret­ro­spect, but Work is the path that leads to results.

After the third fly­ing inci­dent this year that was a near miss, (write up on the first, write up on the sec­ond) I’ve been think­ing heav­i­ly the past two days on how I want to progress in fly­ing. Hurtling toward a rock, hit­ting it with my ass and not know­ing why I missed being par­a­lyzed, then tum­bling hard enough to crack my hel­met has made me re-think a few things:

-the risk of get­ting good fast
-what my actu­al goal is
-how I should get there, as thought of by a mature human

Pilots around me have been say­ing that I’m push­ing too hard. I was blow­ing that off with var­i­ous ratio­nal­iza­tions, from “they’re old­er and more risk averse” to “they’re not in as good of shape” to “they just don’t want to be excep­tion­al.”

While those might all be cor­rect, it doesn’t inval­i­date the core sen­ti­ment. I’ve been push­ing hard, and in this case I was push­ing the edge of how close to the hill I can turn. Obvi­ous­ly I went over that edge and just got bloody lucky.  The luck and the down­time heal­ing from con­cus­sion has led to three con­clu­sions.

First, at the risk of get­ting good at a slow­er pace, I’m going to slow down my push­ing, although I think of it more as being far more care­ful about the feel­ing I was get­ting of fly­ing “loose”, which had begun to sur­face in my mind.  I nev­er felt like I was push­ing hard.  In fact, I always felt like I was being more con­ser­v­a­tive than most pilots, but I had begun to feel that I was get­ting slop­py with fly­ing as I explored new ter­ri­to­ry like turn­ing tighter.

Sec­ond, what is my goal? The big goal is to fly the spine of Baja, but like all goals that’s finite. It’s a good dri­ver but at some point it gets accom­plished, and then what? My over­all goal is to enjoy the process of mas­ter­ing fly­ing. Infi­nite mas­tery takes a lot off the edge of get­ting good fast, which is, if I’m hon­est about it, dan­ger­ous.

Third is “how should I get there?” I don’t have this one answered yet ful­ly, although as a start I’ve decid­ed to be much more thought­ful about pro­gres­sion.  I’ve decid­ed to sit down and write out before launch what I want to accom­plish with the fly­ing that day, and to write down after land­ing what actu­al­ly hap­pened. For me as a writer that seems like the most log­i­cal thing to do; for oth­ers it may be too cum­ber­some.

That’s where I am now, and what I’ve learned from 3 near miss­es this year in a paraglid­er.  As long as I stick to those prin­ci­ples, I’m look­ing for­ward to anoth­er 30 years of slow, inex­orable, and safe pro­gres­sion, at the end of which I should be approach­ing the far end of “infi­nite mas­tery.”

See ya in the sky!

*to be clear, no one is say­ing that I’ve got hol­low bones. 🙂

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