Learning to fly - steering towards goals

Taking first steps into the realm of flight is a daunting experience. But as with aspiring to achieve dreams in life, you have to start small, put the ego to one side and acknowledge that this is a process that will nevertheless lead to greater things. With risk comes exponential reward, and a little humility can open a path to self-mastery..

In my blogs I put forward ideas from Adventure Psychology to help people figure a way to thrive in uncertain times, and make sense of the crazy world. By adopting an Adventure Mindset (I'll gradually reveal how) you can approach the challenges of life with an adaptable resolve, and embrace the chaos knowing full well that it's a wild ride so you might as well enjoy it!

“our preferred direction of motion is counteracted by forces beyond our control. Frustration, and defeat, will invariably result in trying to oppose that which is unyielding. But to acknowledge the situation, go along with it but ‘steer’ towards the goal one holds will be a more effective strategy down the line... "

From idiot to expert in a fell swoop (eventually)

Adventure pursuits, whilst providing challenge, also serve as metaphors for striving to achieve goals in life. This can also involve stress! Being adventurous, going on adventures can be an excellent means to become more adept at dealing with stress more generally, overcoming adversity, and thriving under pressure. Increased motivation can result along with enhanced resilience, flexibility of attitude and improved self-awareness of strengths and limitations!

I have been recently extending my own capabilities: learning to fly. For some time now I have borne witness to extreme sports feats involving flight (BASE jumping), which has of course given me plenty opportunity to study how others perform in this domain at close proximity.

So it was about time I took flight myself.

I am completing the first stage of my paragliding pilot journey. This serves to give me that firsthand experience of being in control of my destiny whilst airborne, learning new skills, and undertaking the challenges and risks of course that being hundreds of feet in the air involve! But equally importantly it informs my research into how people perform in extreme situations. Insights concerning how environmental stress impacts on the individual functioning can help others cope with stress more generally in life.

I’ve been putting this off for some time (many years!).

In fact, what stalled me previously was anguishing over the the ‘tangle’ of lines connecting my harness to the canopy. I just couldn’t fathom this out (yet it's not rocket science). It wasn’t the prospect of coming a cropper plunging hundreds of feet through the air to the ground with terminal finality. It was a perceived stupidity, an ineptness to take in basic information and extrapolate that multifold as limiting my ultimate ability to perform in mid-air.

They say that the biggest hurdle to running a marathon is tying up your laces before leaving the house.

What is it that prevents us pursuing our dreams? Often it is that trivial initial step, as if the reality of doing something about it is too much to bear! There is something exponential about this though. The fantasy of acting out our dreams is rendered as a vast unattainable goal when one realises that the initial steps are incremental. The fantasising ego encounters the harsh reality that baby steps render us helpless, bamboozled by the simplest of things when realising that we have little knowledge about what we are undertaking.

Yet taking these first steps, propel us much further towards enlightenment than staying put and shying away from the magnitude of the task!

In fact, momentum builds rapidly as the process of learning exponentiates! Soon, confidence and understanding builds and launches us to the next level up. At which point we have ascended an hierarchy of sorts and are now in a position to reflect on how far we have come, perhaps even being able to mentor others with our newfound knowledge and expertise...This takes humility, and it is that self-protective ego which prevents giving in to the novitiate status required to progress from a blank slate.

With a little extra wisdom gained over the years I decided to approach my journey into paragliding with this attitude in mind. I might make mistakes, I might feel utterly stupid and inept, but that phase will pass and the path to progress will be non-linear, indeed exponential.

One learns to handle the canopy at ground level initially, coming to terms with counterintuitive actions. When the wind catches this powerful kite, a tendency to pull against it must be overcome. You will not win out against a paragliding wing that is pulling you backwards. Instead, you must go with it but steer in the opposite direction. Your momentum coupled with this steering of the wing will eventually convert into forward motion (and flight!).

We find this in life of course: our preferred direction of motion is counteracted by forces beyond our control. Frustration, and defeat, will invariably result in trying to oppose that which is unyielding. But to acknowledge the situation, go along with it but ‘steer’ towards the goal one holds will be a more effective strategy down the line.

Having a goal in sight is all important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there is a focal point that gives the impetus to counter the forces that pull us randomly and involuntarily in a certain direction. Secondly, if we do not fixate ahead, we end up instead focusing on an indeterminate point that we will crash into. It’s referred to as ‘target fixation’. On take-off, particularly in short ‘hops’ that are the first stage of progress towards flight, the tendency is to stare at the ground right below and in front, in a sort of panic at leaving the security of terra firma and the reality dawns that you are entering a new realm of agency and untethered experience! The problem is this will dominate your attention and override any newly acquiring skills that require countering immediate instincts of self-preservation. The result: you will head straight back down towards that spot, unceremoniously dumped on the ground.

Handling a canopy requires instinctually feeling out how it moves in the air, shifting weight, sensitive application of brakes and steering, and being attuned to the environment and dynamic conditions. All the while mindful of distant target, and a flexibility to adapt in-situ.

In this respect the new pilot is learning to focus and control their attention whilst cultivating sensory awareness to the environment and one’s motion within it.

Rapidly, I had progressed from short hops to longer flights at low altitude, and then to higher altitudes up the hill. The exhilaration of flying free and being lifted suddenly up in thermals shifted my mental gears to the next level of aspiration! With each progressive step comes an increasing load of instructions, including adjustments to technique. However, with the exponential mindset being developed, this encourages further capability to fly, to manage any perturbations that occur, and to adjust the flightplan as needed.

Taking on any challenge, or indeed breaking down one’s dream into attainable goals requires something of this exponential mindset. That means realising that progress occurs from baby steps to ever larger strides. Setting aside the ego and it’s overblown (or limiting) expectations is a necessary starting point to gaining momentum on that journey. But do not be discouraged by the feeling of being an inept novice as soon this will give way to a feeling of becoming adept, and a desire to expand to greater levels of potential accomplishment.

In the next installment, I will relate this flightpath to my research which focuses on different components of adaptive response to stress. As an analogy, taking flight is a useful example to breakdown experience of stress in stages. Life events and demands can elicit a stressed response before an event has even occurred – the anticipation (and exaggeration of expected effects) of stress. This is akin to the pre-launch stage as we prepare ourselves to take flight from the comfort of a hillside. Circumstances can provide ongoing or intermittent stress, and we must be capable of dealing with this lest it disrupt performance, possibly to our severe detriment – akin to becoming overwhelmed in mid-air and crashing to the ground! On landing, when the source of stress has been removed we are left to come to terms with what just happened – how we process that has implications for future behaviour, motivation and wellbeing...

More on that next time.

Meanwhile, happy flying!

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