The Art of Clear Thinking: A Stealth Fighter Pilot's Timeless Rules for Making Tough Decisions
By Hasard Lee
St. Martin's Press; 384 pages; hardcover, $29.99; EBook, $14.99
Hasard Lee is a former Air Force F-35 stealth fighter pilot who graduated from the United States Air Force Academy. After serving as Flight Commander in combat, Hasard became the Chief of F-35 Training Systems for the largest training base in the world, where he led the development of new technology and teaching methods to train future fighter pilots.
The Art of Clear Thinking is Lee's first book, and he focuses on the decision-making tactics he learned from his years in the Air Force as an elite fighter pilot and pilot instructor, and applied it to the real world.
Lee had to push a fighter jet to its limits at almost twice the speed of sound, which meant that every split-second decision he made could have catastrophic consequences.
While most people don't have decisions that are that dramatic, there are still myriad choices and game plans people face in their lives, and he creates a foundation for making those decisions.
Lee distills what he learned in his remarkable career and put it into the ACE Helix - Assess, Choose, Execute - a three-part decision-making foundation that anyone can use. This is the guidepost for the book, as it is divided into three sections based on each component of the helix. He chose a helix instead of a loop as a graphed strategy because he has found that decisions are dynamic, with side effects that rarely end up at the point they started. A decision framework needs to be adaptable, and when graphed over time, it forms a helix.
The first step you must do is Assess the problem because, as Lee writes, "Without a proper assessment of the problem, it's impossible to consistently make good decisions." Then, you Choose your course of action because "the decisions we've successfully encountered before form an interwoven web that makes up our instincts." Finally, you Execute the plan when you "prioritize the tasks that arise from the decisions we make and how we can free up additional mental bandwidth to focus on the next decision that we inevitably need to make."
Lee also writes about amazing stories from his Air Force career, but there is one that served as a learning experience for him, and it was purely a teaching moment because he wasn't involved personally. He reflects on General Eisenhower's Four Quadrants of Importance as it pertains to the D-Day invasion in World War II. In Quadrant One, things are urgent and important; Quadrant Two comprises things that are important but not necessarily urgent; Quadrant Three has urgent tasks that might not necessarily be important; and Quadrant Four is distractions that aren't important or urgent. All of them can apply to daily life decisions.
In this excerpt, Lee writes about how he confronted decisions: "Boiled down, a fighter pilot's job is to make decisions - thousands of them each flight, often with incomplete information and lives on the line. The decisions start during the mission-planning phase where processes are developed and resources allocated to accomplish an objective. This often involves hundreds of people coming together from disparate backgrounds to align toward one common goal. Then the flight must be executed under the fog and friction of war, where no matter how well a mission is planned, it will change. This means that despite the immense effort that is put into planning a mission, there will always be difficult decisions that need to be made in the air that haven't been anticipated or that don't have textbook answers. Afterward, each decision must then be analyzed to glean any lessons that can be used to improve future decisons.
As fighter pilots, we've been at the leading edge of decision-making theory since Air Force Colonel John Boyd developed the OODA - observe, orient, decide, act - loop based on his experiences flying missions during the Korean War. In the years since, other fighter pilot greats, such as Colonel John Warden and General David Deptula, have made significant contributions to the field. It's a constantly evolving field that gives fighter pilots the best mental tools possible to solve the problems they encounter. Though we have talented pilots, the mantra that we bet our lives on is that a good pilot uses superior judgment to avoid situations that require the use of superior skill. Clean and clear decision-making will nearly always beat talent alone.
The ability to make a correct decision with incomplete information and a limited amount of time is not just for fighter pilots, though - it's a universal skill. From leaders to entrepreneurs to teachers to nurses to first responders, our success and ability to achieve our goals relies on making the right decisions at the right time. The world is a complex adaptive system where all decisions are interconnected - like the gears in a mechanical watch, each decision affects peripheral decisions, often leading to disproportionate changes in outcome. Everything in life is a trade-off; there is a cost - be it time, money, energy, or some other precious resource - for each decision we make. The key is to find the best long-term value for the given cost. And today, the stakes for our decisions have never been higher.
Technology has now automated many of our lower-level tasks. This has added leverage to each decision we make. The computer that I'm typing on can, by itself, perform the job of dozens of people from just a few decades ago, a car can travel over ten times faster than a horse-drawn wagon, a modern combine harvester can harvest crops hundreds of times faster than by hand, and the jet I fly allows me to be thousands of times more capable than I could be on my own. One way to illustrate this leverage is through the energy we use. The average person, despite physically generating only one hundred watts of electricity - about what a light bulb uses - now consumes over twelve thousand watts of energy. That energy powers the technology that amplifies our decisions. Today, the difference in outcome between a good decision and a bad decision has never been so great."