Florida, Simulators, Pi, and Sales Mastery

Note: I’ve been reluctant to write posts that are a bit more personal.  The reason is every time I do a bunch of readers unsubscribe from this blog’s RSS feed. (I guess they just want knowledge. The fact that some stay on as long as they do must mean I deliver some of that to them.)  On the other hand, loyal followers and clients tell me they want me to write more about the experiences I have and how that relates to sales effectiveness.  So, this one’s for you.

The story

My wife and I are back home in Massachusetts after spending five weeks in Florida.  Regretfully this wasn’t a vacation, but rather a temporary (and evidently yearly) relocation of ES Research Group’s headquarters to a considerably warmer place.

This year we decided to fly our plane down. There were two reasons:  First, it’s been a while since I flew this distance.  I certainly enjoy the short hops to visit family and friends here in the Northeast, but to fly again from the top to the bottom of the U.S., along the coast, is a special treat. The second reason was more practical. I head off to Ireland on business next week and didn’t want to spend too much time before I leave in a car driving nearly 1,500 miles.  Doing 750, or even 500 mile days isn’t an option due to all that’s going on at ESR and my need to take care of business during business hours. So, it would have been a four-day drive.

The flight down was uneventful.  We landed at Fernandina Beach airport on Amelia Island on the second day and spent six days at a friend’s ocean-front condo before heading down to Naples, a two-hour flight.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the weather and the significant preparation and planning the flight home would require.

Moonwalking with Einstein

While I was in Florida, I read a fascinating book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (Joshua Foer), about how memory experts remember things. It’s always been a subject of interest for me.

What prompted me to again think deeply about mastery (memory, flying and selling) begins on page 171.  The author discusses how experts tend to “engage in a very directed, highly focused routine…deliberate practice.”  Top achievers develop strategies for staying out of (pardon…) autopilot mode. “They force themselves to stay in the ‘cognitive [learning] phase.'”

I love this one:  “The best ice skaters spend more of their practice time trying jumps that they land less often, while lesser skaters work more on jumps they’ve already mastered. Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.”

And, this one as well. “…To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.”  What the author was describing was how to become a memory master, but the parallel to increasing, rather than merely maintaining, my flying skills resonated with me through every word of those several pages—in fact, the entire book.  I highly recommend it. (You too can learn how to remember Pi to the 10,000th decimal place.)


In previous posts I’ve discussed mastery and I’ve discussed how the FAA requires pilots to comply with certain reviews and standards, depending on their rating.  As a private pilot, I must complete a flight review every two years with an instructor, which includes discussion and questioning on the ground and a series of maneuvers in the air.  This is at least a two-hour session.  In addition, as a single-engine instrument-rated pilot, I must have executed six instrument approaches, entered and flew a holding patterns, and intercepted a virtual course in the sky (an airway or signal from a navigation broadcasting station on the ground, for example) during the previous six months. (Wouldn’t the profession of selling be different if there were any standards at all.)

Part of my ongoing personal learning and reinforcement plan includes at least two hours in an FAA-approved flight simulator every spring.  This is not required by the FAA to maintain my rating, but I find that the time in the simulator returns significant value for me.  The fine instructors with whom I consult provide me with challenges that just wouldn’t work for a practice session in an airplane: failing the engine, disabling critical instruments at critical moments, simulating difficult weather conditions, such as an un-forecasted 30-knot wind across the runway on short final approach.

So I spent that time on a simulator with an instructor prior to the trip.  Although I’ve logged nearly 1,700 hours, for about half the session I felt like a beginner. I left the simulator exhausted, having been stretched, tricked, manipulated, and pushed past my limits.  But I sure nailed those last few instrument approaches.

The flight home

Among all the other skills pilots must master, understanding the weather is one.  We were dealing with unstable weather in Florida and an impending cold front across the mid-Atlantic states. Wet weather is no problem for a single-engine Cessna when its warm, but at 6,000 feet, where it’s more than twenty degrees colder than on the ground, moisture freezes on surfaces that don’t have anti-icing protection as larger planes do.  I spent at least three hours during each of three days in advance of the trip home reading weather maps and forecasts, and consulting with Lockheed Martin’s Flight Service for pilots trying to figure out the best game plan. Planning this trip reminded me of the sales opportunities I coached sales teams on how to win over the years. Assess, determine an objective, devise a strategy and layer in the tactics.

What was supposed to be a two-day trip, Naples, FL to Wilmington, NC, then on to Martha’s Vineyard the next day, would have to be done in one day to beat the weather—but only if it was safe. My planning included backup contingencies. Land and rent a car anywhere along the route, drive home (with our two dogs that wouldn’t do well at all in the cargo hold of a commercial airliner), go to Ireland, then fly back to wherever I had parked the plane once I returned home to the States. I wasn’t into taking chances, although some might say flying a plane from Florida to Massachusetts is a risky thing to begin with.

We left Naples at 9:00 am on the 29th. We flew three legs averaging three hours each, IFR (instrument flight rules) all the way.  First, Naples to Savannah for refueling and a nature break for people and dogs, checking conditions ahead, and filing the next flight plan. Savannah to Norfolk, VA. Same routine. At Norfolk I checked weather one last time to see whether we might stay in the area overnight, but wet weather was coming in along with 43 degree temperature on the ground first thing the next morning.  If that happened we’d be stuck there for a few days or have to resort to Plan B. We decided to fly the final leg home. (The three screen shots are actual FAA radar tracks of the flights, available on FlightAware.com. Click the graphics for full size.)

After we landed, I realized I had accomplished the most competent and precise flying I had ever done. Safe, focused, and, as pilots say, ahead of the plane, predicting what would happen and having options and alternatives if they didn’t. Why? The instruction, practice on the simulator, all the time analyzing the weather, making sure the plane was in perfect working order (I had to replace a broken radio in Florida), the contingency planning, and just flying the plane with a greater degree of precision than what I had accomplished previously.

Here’s the question for you.

Have you invested in what it takes for your sales people to achieve mastery in selling?  The infrastructure, the tools, the methods and processes, the learning, the reinforcement, the coaching, the metrics, and the rewards?  Or are they just winging it?


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  1. says


    I couldn’t agree more. What a great metaphor for training. I would also say that you can’t do the more advanced techniques and tactics until you have mastered the basics. So, organizations need to embed these before they do anything more advanced. My 16 years of experience working with sales organizations is THAT MOST DO NOT do this. They assume their people have done this but they haven’t.

  2. Mark Gardner says

    Excellent “personal” piece! And the comparison to selling is very apt. Mastery of skill is of course critical in both flying and sellling, but even more important is mastery in know how and when to apply which skill. Effective decision making – i.e., determing the best next thing to do – is critical to safe flying and successful selling. As you point out, this takes a lot of data gathering, analysis and thinking through scenarios. Something I find all living pilots practice diligently (thank goodness since I’m always the passenger), but too few sales people.

  3. says


    Echo what Jonathan said–what a great metaphor indeed! And how rightly the result showed up for you. Practice makes perfect; assuming you’re practicing correctly.

    Great post, thank you.


  4. says

    I love this, Dave. It’s a spot-on metaphor and I think it’s fun to hear about colleague’s outside-the-office life.

    BTW, my 15 yo daughter is VERY interested the Moonwalking With Einstein book. Glad to hear you liked it!

  5. says

    Dave: A great article; it was interesting both factually and metaphorically.It is impressive – and humbling – how much preparation is required to do a really thorough job. As a person with more than 40 years’ experience in sales, and now business coaching, I am still amazed how little even good sales professionals know about the DNA of professional selling.
    It’s even more amazing to me how little sales trainers and recruiters know about the basic requirements of effective sales recruiting and training.
    I work primarily with financial services professionals and entrepreneurs, so my observations may not pertain to the bigger companies with marketing departments and specialty trainers .
    Regardless of company size, I firmly believe your main points of having excellent preparation and monitored training are especially valid today – regardless of company size.

  6. says

    Hi Dave. I’m sure that I speak for all your I.S.P. friends in Cork, when I tell you that I am glad your flight went well and that you got to Ireland in one piece to share two amazing days with us. Enjoy the rest of your trip here and thanks again for your entertaining help.