Reflections from the Cockpit
"Time for Reflection"
January 2004

Hadley & I like spending New Year’s Eve at home with the doggies while we reflect upon the last year. It gives us a chance to compare where we were a year ago to how we are doing now. As I reflect I think about the enjoyable and the difficult experiences. The enjoyable ones are stored in the "good times" portion of my brain and usually bring a smile to my face. The difficult ones are the ones that provide me with the greatest learning. Even though I say "difficult" I don’t feel negative about them. I can be sad, unhappy and even feel physical pain from these difficult experiences. The optimists of the world like to refer to these difficult experiences as "learning opportunities." I don’t know how the pessimists view these experiences. Perhaps it is "just another day where nothing goes right." The important point is "how do you learn from your experiences?"

As an experiential educator I have learned that "reflection" is the key component to the learning process. Reflection provides the opportunity for examining experiences with your goal to extract lessons from your experience. Just because you have an experience doesn’t mean you have learned anything. Even though learning does occur at a subconscious level I want to focus on the conscious level.

There are a number of questions that I use to help me in my analysis of an experience. "What did I learn from this experience?" is the ultimate question but it is not specific enough to get to the more subtle lessons possibly learned. Here are some of the questions I use when reflecting on an experience:

What happened was supposed to happen?
What didn’t happen that I thought would happen? Why?
What could I have done differently before, during or after to change the outcome?
How did it affect others?
How could it have affected others and who are they?
Did the others affect me or could they have affected me?
What is the long-term affect on others and me?
What should I do differently next time to prevent this from happening again?
Why will this change keep this from happening again?
What would have happened if this difficult experience continued?
What could I do in the future to anticipate and/or divert this from happening?
Why was I even in that situation?

I have learned the better questions I ask the more I learn. Some questions are not obvious. Your scope of experience and awareness will also affect the questions you ask and how you answer them. I will relate an incident to demonstrate my point. During an early May clinic in Alaska (over ten years ago) a student came to class with a plastic sea kayak without bulkheads and no float bags. I asked if he paddles with this kayak on open water. He replied yes. He wanted to know why I was concerned. I recall some dialog about "are bulkheads or float bags really needed?" Since the class was in a small lake (very controlled setting) I thought experience would be the best teacher here.

When we got to the capsize recovery portion of the class I decided to work with Mr. No Flotation. Before he capsized I attached my towrope to his bow loop so we wouldn’t loose his kayak if it sank. This was one of those priceless situations you wish you had on videotape but it is only in my minds eye. Needless to say it was at best very difficult to get the water out of his kayak. When everyone else finished doing their T-Recovery I was still trying to get the bow of the submerged kayak up on my lap in normal "T" configuration. Being 6’7" I have a lot of leverage and I am fairly strong. I have zero fear of capsizing or getting wet so I fully commit to a maneuver. Even with these advantages the only way this recovery was accomplished was through our combined strength (mine and the guy in the water.) I would not have been able to get the kayak into the TX position without help. The T had to become a TX. The top deck of my kayak was crushed by the weight of the water in the other kayak. Lucky I had a plastic rental. I know I would have cracked a composite kayak.

When the class was over I asked the student if he was going to buy float bags. He said he was going to make a planter out of his kayak and buy one with bulkheads and keep float bags in the compartments as a back up. I know he learned a valuable lesson about floatation. At the end of class everyone was cold, wet and trying to keep out of the wind on shore. The class debrief covered the major goals of the class but given more time and the proper setting much more could have been learned in a reflection session. Here are some additional questions that could have increased the lessons learned:

Do you think the average person in this class would have been able to assist you?
What would you have done if you couldn’t recover the kayak?
Do you think it is possible that the person assisting could have capsized while trying to help since the kayak was so difficult to manage? If they had, what would you have done?
How long could you have stayed in this cold water given the clothes you were wearing?
Were there any other ways of trying to recover your swamped kayak other than the TX-Recovery?
Could more than one person assist (if available) and how could they have helped?

I will add a small amendment to one of my favorite quotes (unknown author) to emphasize my message, "Good judgment is learned from experience. Experience is learned from bad judgment." – "If you take the time to reflect"

The more questions you ask in reflection the more you can get out of an experience. The important step is taking the time to reflect. In this very fast paced world it is more and more difficult to find some quiet reflection time. Reflection doesn’t have to be alone. I have had great group reflections because other questions and points of view have accentuated points I never would have pondered. If you do not take the time to reflect you are not taking full advantage of your experiences. You may learn the big lessons but the subtle ones could get lost. The tragedy is when one of the lost subtle lessons could have prevented a major incident or emergency in your future. "If I had only thought about it…"


Wayne Horodowich


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