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I was on a flight from LA to San Francisco, the first leg of a trip home to Virginia, and it was quite a beautiful trip. We passed dense clusters of people and buildings, packed into the spaces available along the shore or in the narrow valleys, all connected by sandy trails that squiggle along the crests of the intervening scrub-covered mountains. From 32,000 feet it looked like the world’s largest ant colony.Ant Colony

It was a smooth, uneventful flight, which is what I had expected. Airline pilots, after all, are brilliant professionals to whom every aspect of their jobs comes as reflexively as handwriting does for you and me. Or so I had assumed. It was for that reason that I was startled, as we were taxiing to the runway to take off, to see a huge orange sign on the side of the Tarmac, reading, “NO TURN BEFORE SHORELINE”. For a second I thought it was directing automobile drivers — maybe fuel truck drivers or those people who drive the mobile conveyor belts used to help load luggage — telling them to keep going straight until they reach Shoreline Drive.

But then I got it. Planes take off from LAX heading straight for the Pacific, and unless they are bound for Hawaii or Asia, once they are over the water they loop to the right or the left to aim for their destinations. Presumably there’s a rule that requires them not to turn early, before they reach the ocean. Maybe it’s a local noise ordinance. Or maybe there is a danger that the planes taking off immediately after you might be forced to take evasive action if your pilot unexpectedly pulls a uey right after wheels-up. Either way, seems like a sensible rule to me.No Turn Before Shoreline

Still, if it’s important enough a rule to put it on a big orange sign by the runway — not once but twice, I soon saw — wouldn’t that make it important enough for pilots to actually know? Does the fact that airport felt the need to provide cue cards mean that some of the people flying the jets there routinely overlook important details? Will there be other big orange signs reading “DO NOT RETRACT LANDING GEAR UNTIL YOU ARE OFF THE GROUND” and “DID YOU REMEMBER TO FUEL UP?”

That was momentarily unnerving, but then I thought about my own office. My desk and computer screen are usually festooned with yellow Post-It notes that are the equivalent of those orange LAX signs. After all, I’m busy, like other professionals (including airline pilots) are busy, and with so many tasks, deadlines, and other items to keep track of, any one item is in danger of being overlooked if it is not intentionally reinforced. So if a student drops by with a question I can’t answer right away, I usually end up writing it down and plastering it someplace conspicuous. In fact, once I realized that my monitor, lamp, and walls were starting to get shaggy with yellow stickies, I ordered a magnetic bulletin board for my office. Now I have a place to transfer and arrange my scrappy to-do list, and my reminders are always right in my face.

Remembering that, I could sit back in my airplane seat and relax. Using big obvious signs as reminders isn’t an indication of feeblemindedness. It’s a way of safely freeing up brain space for bigger or more immediate concerns without risking an oversight later. For me, it has eliminated a lot of the stress that comes from trying to keep mental track of everything — or from failing to. It’s a trick, sure, a little mental crutch; but it’s a crutch worth leaning on. After all, fulfillment isn’t just about figuring out what you really want to do; it’s also about figuring out the most comfortable and effective way to do it.