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Our fast mind and slow mind; the best use of …

March 16, 2023
Richard De Crespigny, captain of A380 Qantas Flight 32 that blew an engine out of Singapore in 2010, speaks of the value to him of having his slow mind ‘available’ such that he could problem solve scenarios that had never before been experienced in simulated or real flight.

In Richard’s second book ‘Fly!’ (his first was ‘QF32’) he says psychologists use the terms ‘fast mind’ and ‘slow mind’ to describe different parts of the brain in action. We all have both and it’s not about being smart and not so smart! It is about needing both for survival. In QF32 in particular, it was about making best use of both. And there are 468 people who are grateful Captain De Crespigny did.

Our fast mind is the auto connection between brain, senses and movement – our autopilot. It allows us to do things ‘almost in our sleep’. For experienced car drivers it’s the slight adjustment of the steering wheel as we approach a bend. It’s the going for the brake if an obstacle suddenly appears.

Our slow mind is the part that thinks through things, is much more deliberate. It’s optimised for consciousness, thought and rationality. It identifies that the footsteps you hear in your house in the middle of the night (that first alarm you – the fast mind) is actually your house guest.

(Of course, both ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ are relative terms as illustrated by the footsteps example.)

The slow mind consumes much more energy, it tires us. We tire much more quickly when we are learning and/or experiencing new things. Thus our natural reaction, often unnoticed, actually a survival mechanism from our hunter gatherer days, is to tend not to use our slow minds if we can avoid it. It’s harder, it’s often uncomfortable, it may well feel wrong.

So, what did Captain De Crespigny do prior that allowed him to free his slow mind when using it was essential to keeping 469 people including himself safe aboard QF32? He says it was ‘deliberate practice’, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of it, largely in a simulator, and in his mind, practising ‘known’ scenarios. His slow mind was then free to handle the ‘never before experienced’ situation.

Clearly few of us are in charge of technologically advanced machines loaded with 100 tonnes of fuel and 400 plus people for whom we are responsible. So the amount of deliberate practice is risk driven and/or desired outcome driven. However, considering the principles at bay, as I read ‘Fly!’ my developing hypothesis is this …

As leaders we must deliberately practice the habits and behaviours we determine are essential for being a good leader – the things we need to exhibit daily, pretty much without thinking. This will move them to the fast mind, and they will just happen. If we don’t, they will stay in the slow mind, tend to be uncomfortable and maybe feel wrong, thus we’ll tend not to do them. They will stay as knowledge – we know them, but we’re not doing them.

Keep an eye and ear out please, ‘deliberate practice’ may well be the theme for KataCon10 and the 2024 TWI Summit. (Thankyou Richard for such ongoing thoughts. By the way, I write this on a Qantas A380 as we cross the Pacific.)