Dark tunnel with staircase leading up to blue, sunny skyWho knows why most pilots felt the urge to learn to fly? Perhaps some grew tired of staring at cloud bellies and wanted to see their tops. Maybe others vowed to break free of the ground. For me, flight itself beckoned, the idea of soaring above the earth and feeling free. If I ever figure out how to fly without the plane, I will die happy.

But flying a plane is a lot of work. When students first learn, the whole process is overwhelming. We focus on yokes and rudders and throttles. We learn airspeeds: what is too slow, what is too fast. We learn altitudes and air space, the required distances from clouds. We work on coordinated turns and slips, how to lean the fuel mixture and when to turn on the carb heat and somewhere in that early process, we forget that we wanted to peer on clouds from above or to simply soar.

Before my checkride—an actual flying test to earn my license—the plane I’d flown during training had to go into the shop for an extended period. I borrowed a similar plane from an acquaintance who happened to be a flight instructor. We met at dawn to fly together so I’d be comfortable with any differences between his plane and the one I knew well.

At one point while we flew, he said, “Stop looking inside the plane so much; look outside more. Most of what can ruin your day is outside, not inside.”

He was right. I’d been concentrating too much on the gauges and avionics and not enough on the world outside the plane. Taking his advice, I made a switch that immediately felt more natural. Not locking in the gauges so much made flying more fun.

Afterward, I realized something while headed home. I realized that everything beautiful about flight was outside the plane as well—clouds laced with purple during a dawn lift off, the V formation of geese a half-mile off the left wing, the way the sun glints off the ripples in the lakes below.

The whole experience gave me pause as I examined my life and how I often drifted within my head from the present moment, wishing I were somewhere else or constantly planning my future. So much of what is beautiful about life is on the outside, not in our heads where we surround ourselves with worry, doubt, and fear. From that moment, I committed to get out of my head and:

  • Listen to my friends and acquaintances as they spoke instead of rehearsing how I’d respond
  • Admire the trees and flowers on my drives instead of rehashing to-do lists in my head
  • Notice the bustle of life surrounding me—birds, squirrels, butterflies—instead of wishing I were somewhere else and in a different activity

So next time you find yourself with brow knitted while problems course through your mind, vow to get outside your head for a while. Most of what can ruin your day is inside that dark space. Life awaits on the outside.

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