Mindworks’ Weblog

Thinking Matters

Follow the energy

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 18, 2008

There are two activities which I have heard described as being ‘the most fun you can have with your clothes on’.  One of them is gliding.  It certainly is enormous fun – until about 11 years ago I flew gliders at Lasham Gliding Club in Hampshire.

During my last few years at Lasham I owned a third share in a glider called an ASW20.  Let’s pause for a moment and look at one of those doing its stuff.  This is what it’s like inside the cockpit when you’re thermalling – using rising air to gain height  The beeping noise is the variometer (an instrument which tells you whether you are in rising air or descending).  Because it’s quite important to look through the window, as it’s not called,  to ensure that you don’t bump into any other gliders, an audible signal is used.  When the pitch rises the glider is climbing, when it falls it’s either sinking or not rising so quickly.

Here’s what an ASW 20 (and some other types of glider) looks like from the outside.  (If you want to save some of your valuable time, I’ve just noticed that you can play both videos at the same time.)

That may not be your idea of fun but we’re all different, which is a point to which I’ll return in a moment.

If you want to fly any distance in a glider, you need to learn how to exploit the energy contained in thermals.  I once read that a British Standard thermal consists of roughly 40,000 tons of rising air, so it’s not very surprising that when you stick your highly aerodymanic half-ton glider into one it’s pushed upwards.  And I mean pushed – when you fly into a strong thermal in a glider you certainly don’t need the vario to tell you that you’re going up.  I once remember being in a strong thermal with a hawk. He was much better at it than I was, obviously, but we flew in circles for maybe a minute eyeing each other: pure magic … anyway I’d better get to my point before I hit my 500 word cut-off.

Here’s some of what I wrote in my introduction to the Mindworks Approach, using gliding as an analogy:

‘Cross country flying in a glider isn’t like powered flying: we rarely fly ‘as the crow flies’.  Instead, we ‘follow the energy’.  This means that we look for thermals  (masses of rising air which will keep the glider aloft) and plan our route to make the best use of them.  Often thermals don’t lie on the direct track along which you want to fly, and it is necessary to take a detour or even to simply ‘mark time’ by flying in circles until the conditions ahead improve. ‘

When you are developing an idea it’s just like this.  Some people are sources of energy.  They typically say ‘great, and…’ and then go on to think of ways of improving the idea you are discussing and spin off in new directions.  They provide lift.  Other people say ‘yes, but…’ or just ‘but’ or ‘no, that will never work’.  In gliding the opposite of lift is called ‘sink’ and talking to some people about ‘the idea’ I’ve been hinting at here certainly gives me a sinking feeling.

But – and here’s a vital point – it’s very important to talk to both kinds of people.  A long glider flight (my longest was over six hours) inevitably consists of periods of flying in both lift and sink.   And although flying in lift is great fun, and you need to learn how to seek it out, dealing with the sink is just as important.

Engineers are always good people to talk to.  As I’ve already noted, I like engineers.  They are practical, can-do types who can really test your thinking.  They don’t like bull-shit, to be frank.

When I fly back and forth to Africa it comforts me greatly that the aircraft that make those magical journeys possible are built by practical people who test ideas and don’t put up with bull-shit.  I really don’t want them to be zany lateral thinkers who say things like ‘hey, let’s try gluing the wings on instead of making them integral to the structure’ and ‘that’s great, and why don’t we try using Blu-Tak?!’.  That would be a bad thing.

So, as I say, developing an idea is exactly like gliding.  You need to follow the energy otherwise you’d get nowhere.  But you really do have to deal with the sink as well, and learn from the experience.

More on gliding, engineers. and adaptors versus innovators later.

Oh yes.  The other activity that’s been described as the most fun you can have with your clothes on?  It’s creative thinking.  I agree with that thought as well: very difficult to choose between the two, but the latter is a heck of a lot less expensive.

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One Response to “Follow the energy”

  1. […] and the children took up much more of our time as they got older.  However, it’s still a good source of analogies. […]

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