My boss said this phrase to me the other day, and I absolutely love it.
Her and I were having a discussion about taking action without prior instruction, and how the source of that instruction can be internal or external to the process itself. In other words, sometimes you need to know what you’re doing before you do it, but other times you can use the process itself as the method by which you learn to master it.
You can build the plane as you fly it.
Now, this is a spectrum, for sure. Humans aren’t neatly divided into people who can do this and people who can’t, and nor are tasks neatly divided into ones you can learn as you go versus ones you can’t. Both of those things are incredibly wide ranges, and even their intersections differ. There might be certain kinds of “planes” that I personally can build as I fly them, but someone else couldn’t. But they in turn might be able to build an entirely different kind of plane in mid-air while I couldn’t.
However, spectrum or not, this is definitely a skill that can be developed overall. The ability to process new information in real time and incorporate it into what you’re doing quickly is very valuable, and you can get better at it.
You know what’s good practice for this? Cooking. Try this: go to the store with $30. Buy raw ingredients that you like – no prepackaged meals or things with the word “instant” in them. Don’t worry about a plan; just buy the raw foods you like. Whatever meats, dairy products, fruits and veggies, etc. that you generally know you enjoy.
Then go home, put them all on the counter, and turn the stove on. Throw something in a pan. Go! Make a meal! Stuff is cooking!
This is a great method because the stakes are low. You don’t stand to lose more than $30 and an evening. And there are many different paths to success – there are a lot of ways a random assortment of ingredients can turn out delicious. So this is a low-risk way to force yourself to have to incorporate information as you go: “That smells good, but it looks done! These don’t taste right, what do I add? This was awful, how do I salvage it?”
Like most things, if you want to get good at this, you should start with low-risk scenarios where you’re free to make a lot of mistakes. That’s how you learn anything, so give yourself the space to do it. Don’t worry if you’re not a master at first – no one is. But you’ll get there.
You’ll build the plane as you fly it.