Practice Makes Perfect

It’s a “low ceiling” day: that’s a technical aviation term. Less technically, but perhaps more accurately, the visibility sucks, as shown by my out-the-bus-window photos of the launch infrastructure.

NASA administration building out a rain-streaked bus window.

Picture of some launch infrastructure out a rain-streaked bus window.

As a result, we’re spending a little more time indoors than outdoors at the Kennedy Space Center on this rainy, foggy, you might even call it low-ceilinged January day, and I’m expending a whole lot more photographic energy on the indoor exhibits. So it is that I capture this iconic shot, likely already familiar to you from numerous magazine covers.

Graph showing 98:2 ratio between an astronaut's training and mission time.

No? OK, maybe not, but it is a great visual of the (typical) relationship between an astronaut’s time-on-task (you know, being in space) and time-in-training (you know, getting ready to be in space).

When I get home, I quantify this relationship more precisely, as befits the subject. My first calculation indicates that a (typical) astronaut spends only 1.35% of their time on task. When I remember to allow for weekends, statutory holidays, and vacation days, that (typical) percentage jumps to 2%.

I can’t help but compare this percentage to mine. (Typical.)

In the summer jobs I had in high school, I think someone took five minutes to show me how to work the cash register. In jobs as disparate as working nights at a burger-and-chicken drive-in and dealing out cash full-time in a bank, I got only on-the-job training (emphasis on “on-the-job”). In my professional career, I once had as much as one week of training in a year.

So my most training-intensive year saw me with the proportions exactly flipped; that is, 2% of my time in training versus 2% on-task for a (typical) astronaut.

“Yikes,” I think, “that’s pathetic.”

Or is it? Like other training-intensive occupations — pilots, air traffic controllers, submariners, firefighters, and combat arms spring to mind — being an astronaut is a job where a mistake can be fatal. Where you can’t build experience by failing in the real environment. Where training must, therefore, substitute for experience. My work, by contrast, was always amenable to learning as you go.

Whew. I feel better. I may not have had much training, but I’ve had lots of experiential learning, and that’s just as good. Yeah, that’s it.

Not so fast.

Even though a mistake in my work was never fatal, some targeted training could have saved me time, energy, and aggravation. Training would have helped me capitalize on my experience, making me more effective, sooner. While the right ratio certainly wasn’t the 98:2 of the (typical) astronaut, it seems just as certain that even my best-ever ratio of 2:98 was sub-optimal. Dagnab it!

But that was then; this is now.

And in this now, nearing retirement, I turn my mental beady-eyed stare on my non-employment pursuits, where I have full control over the training/work ratio.

In photography, for example, I can choose to take pictures, or to get ready to do so. That is, without even trying get a magazine-cover-worthy shot, I can take pictures that help me learn the camera’s controls. Or understand different shutter speeds and apertures. Or explore light conditions and practice composition. Without actually creating anything much worth looking at, I can close the gap between my creative impulse and my creative output.

“Put me in, Coach, I’m ready to play (clap clap clap-clap) today.”
John Fogerty, Centerfield

Well, there’s ready and there’s ready. At least with my camera, I won’t get any readier to play just by playing. That will take, you know, training, as well as the discipline to be my own coach.


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4 Responses to Practice Makes Perfect

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    We have a small group of men, here in Winfield Space Centre, aka the local United Church, that meets more-or-less regularly to discuss issues of aging. And what our grandchildren will remember of us. Etc. One of the questions that came up recently was, “Can you consider retirement to be a career? If so, what are you doing to enhance that career?”
    Retirement is something most of us go into with zero training/preparation.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – You make a good point: Who’s going to pay for training us for retirement? I guess here, too, we have to become our own coaches and seek out our own training, appropriate to our retirement mode. I wonder whether anyone is doing this, beyond the life coaches that most of us never get around to using.

  2. “And in this now, nearing retirement, I turn my mental beady-eyed stare on my non-employment pursuits, where I have full control over the training/work ratio.”
    Food for thought, indeed, Isabel. Is anything more difficult than discerning conflicting medical opinions, especially when your son is seizing and you might know more than either doctor about why both their prescribed medications are having that effect? I would not have said I was trained for this enterprise, at least, not in the conventional understanding of medical training. On the other hand, I have spent my “leisure” time in “retirement” developing a specialty that is within the sphere of medicine but that these particular doctors are not acquainted with, although the few doctors who are, also are inaccessible. In this case, the patient’s “leisure” learning about the effects of drugs on his body may have created an interior sense of what’s best for him in his current predicament. And it happens to confirm my view, but for different reasons. The sort of beady-eyed view one associates with birds that “slip the surly bonds of earth” to attain unique overviews probably mean anything but “free as a bird.” They fly and spy to survive. Yet, as you say, it may be in the beady-eyed pursuit of off-the-job learning we can control that we gain the greatest prowess, including, possibly, the ability to survive or to aid survival.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Experience doesn’t necessarily produce less valuable learning than any kind of training, professional or otherwise. Ideally, all professionals would be open to things that might augment or even contradict their training. But I’ve given up trying to persuade my local pharmacist that pseudoephedrine relieves my migraines. It’s not a listed use, and that’s it, as far as he’s concerned. But it works, and that’s it as far as I’m concerned, too! As for your son’s situation, I’m glad he has you as an advocate.

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