The short read
What does a flock of geese have to do with Critical Thinking?
When the flight path of a flock of Canada geese intersected with that of flight US1549 two minutes after it took off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport it was not a pretty sight. Nor a safe one. With big birds covering the pilot’s view, flames engulfing both engines the flight deck realized that they would not be able to stay airborne for long.
Five minutes later, the plane was in the Hudson.
The great news: Everyone was safely rescued off the plane, thanks to the quick thinking and quicker reflexes of Captain Sully. It was quite a dramatic scene, with passengers lined on each wing, looking like little bumblebees in their bright yellow life vests, a flotilla of ferries and speed boats headed out to make a quick rescue on a cold winters day.
He employed Critical Thinking. He thought outside the box. But that worked because he knew precisely what was IN the box, how it should work, and how it probably wouldn’t.
The longer read
Do you remember when Captain Sully landed US1549 in the Hudson? I recall watching footage of the passengers, each with their bright yellow lifejackets, gingerly walking out on the wings of the plane as it hovered precariously on the surface of a cold river in January, with local tug boats and ferries making a bee-line to rescue them. Not a single life of the 155 people on board was lost that day. And the credit goes to the quick thinking of Captain Sully.
The problems start when the flight path of a flock of Canadian geese crosses that of US1549 in the minutes after it took off from New York’s La Guardia airport. Both engines were severely damaged and the plane started losing altitude. Captain Chesley Sullenberger III quickly evaluated the situation, assessed the risk, weighed the options and then took the decision to land the plane in the Hudson River.
This was not your average take-off. And it would not be your normal landing. It was a set of uncommon conditions that happened. And we watched as the crew, led by their captain, showed tremendous discipline and creativity in response. (Click on the links above for photos)
As humans, we are drawn to tales of such human courage and creativity. They become the stuff of Hollywood scripts. Only some are not fiction.
- 3 stranded astronauts and a world working together to bring Apollo 13 back to earth safely.
- William Kamkawamba in The Boy who harnessed the Wind.
As we watch, we are drawn into the story.
First comes the crisis — the situation that causes us to depart from our normal routine.
We engage in the obtuse connections that are evaluated, run the highs and lows of the various ideas contemplated that fail and are left on the floor.
And then finally, we have that moment of triumph.
These are some high-profile examples of a very special emotional quotient or EQ skill called critical thinking.
Watching movies such as Apollo 13, Sully or The Martian, you would be forgiven for thinking that critical thinking is very rare, and reserved for a special band of people.
But in fact, it happens all around us, every day.
So, let us look for some more frequent examples. I was going to use the word common, but there is nothing common about critical thinking because at its core it implies that we are able to create a resolution to an unforeseen aggregation of circumstances.
Simpler everyday examples
- The decisions made by a paramedic in an ambulance.
- Your hairdresser giving you a fresh look for a new season.
- The way you masterfully created an omelet for dinner from the leftovers in the fridge.
These are all examples of critical thinking. Because they share a consistent set of skills. They involve:
- Being systematic in the way the problem is approached
- Linking ideas
- Categorizing between options
- Being able to create test cases and quickly evaluate them
- Identifying errors in reason
- Being reflective
- Taking action
Wax on. Wax off.
Sully’s ability to take decisive action in a matter of seconds was because he had spent decades of discipline, progressively improving his Critical Thinking over a variety of years in the simulator, decades of real flights, and years as a US Air Force fighter pilot. His instincts were to ignore the clearly established guidelines for managing a plane that has lost both engines, and land somewhere quickly and safely. He processed the new information in front of him and made a different decision.
In multiple tests and simulations later, there were no situations where a pilot was able to safely return their plane to a local airport runway without tremendous loss of life and equipment.
Next steps: Make. Take. Talk.
After reading these examples what did you think?
- Make: How can you nurture your own critical thinking skills? Do you let technology make a lot of decisions for you? Do you know when and how to turn that off?
- Take some time: Do you notice some examples in the people around you?
- Talk: Remember to comment and credit them with their innovative approach, so that they realize the value and importance of critical thinking.
Millennials, Gen Z, parents, educators or employers, — read/listen to the related topic One of Employers Most In-Demand Skills to discover why employers are searching for this EQ skill, and why it is important that we nurture and recognize it. These are also available as podcast episodes if you prefer to absorb your content that way.
Related episodes in the Critical Thinking EQ series:
Next week, If “Think Outside the Box” is the idiom that rhymes with Critical Thinking, what is the Box?
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This post was previously published on Medium.
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