Fly the Plane

But I remember him saying that lesson one from pilot school was “fly the plane.” Strange noises? Fly the plane. Zero visibility? Keep flying the plane. Stomach bug kicking in? Fly the plane. Whatever was going on, first you had to fly the plane. Then you could try to address everything else. He saw that as something of a life lesson. Whatever is most important is what you have to do first, despite distractions, interference, or a powerful desire to be elsewhere at the moment. And while you can be on autopilot a lot of the time, when things demand your complete attention, they have to get 100% of your attention.

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One of my old law professors, Charles Black, said that he didn’t think students retained a lot of the facts and rules and doctrines that they were taught in law school. Instead, they took away an image of how the professor’s mind attacked problems. Since, he said, most learning is imitative, it was important as a professor to show students not only the results of your thought, but also the process. As a law professor myself, I’m guided by that principle, and as a former Gilbert Merritt clerk, I’ve benefited from the example that he provided, in and out of court. I’ve tried to fly the plane.

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