Eliminate your variables

Salmonfly nymphsOn page 14 of the book The Care and Feeding of Ideas, author James L. Adams writes in part about how we learn to problem solve. He notes that we move through four stages which he illustrates with the example of learning to tie our shoes:

“There is a certain time in life when we do not know how to tie our shoes but are unaware of it (unconscious and incompetent). We then reach a stage where we become aware that we do not know how to tie them (conscious and incompetent). We then learn to tie them (conscious and competent). Finally, tying our shoes becomes a habit (competent and conscious). We know how to tie them, but do not need to think about it.”

This is a helpful framework to understand when you’re learning a new skill like, oh, say, fly fishing.

When I went out with the guide down near Bend, Oregon, I was at the stage of mostly being conscious and incompetent. I knew I didn’t know what to do, at least not in every way. And therein lies the problem.

When we try to become competent in a new area, there are normally so many variables to consider that you can’t manage them all at once. So a lesson I’ve learned that applies to fly fishing, marketing, travel and most of life is this: eliminate your variables. In short, concentrate on learning one aspect at a time and reduce the number of unknown factors or areas of incompetency. In so doing, mastery will come much faster than if you try and get good at a dozen things all at once, or at least that’s been my experience.

When I got back from my fortunate/unfortunate trip to Oregon, I jotted down a list of things I didn’t know a week before. They include the following (which may make no sense to you if you don’t fly fish: welcome to my realm of incompetency):

  • Tippet is just the missing part of your leader, not a separate concept or different kind of line.
  • Fly fishermen and women use bobbers. Only they use a more dignified term: strike indicators.
  • You can use two flies on one line (e.g. a nymph and a streamer).
  • Mending isn’t just a sewing procedure. It gets you a better drift and drift matters. A lot.
  • Small casts are more useful – and common – than large ones.
  • Caddis flies look like little moths when they fly.
  • Some “flies” are used as “wet flies” below the surface of the water.
  • Fish will strike a pattern they like but spit it out if it is the wrong size. Size matters.
  • You don’t have to use much effort to cast. Less is actually more when it comes to accuracy.
  • Set the hook (lifting your rod when the fish strikes) too hard and you’ll lose the fish.
  • Current is stronger and harder to walk in than I ever imagined.
  • I seem physically unable to cast two flies at the same time without tangling, at least most of the time (see point 3).
  • I like small rivers better.
  • Bald eagles chase ospreys for the fish the latter has snatched. But the eagles don’t always win.
  • Scary-looking insects aren’t all that scary in reality (see photo above of salmonfly nymphs on the Deschutes River).
  • It’s different fishing on your own versus going with a friend who eliminates most of the variables for you.

I wondered, “How could I not have known all these things?” But I didn’t. And as a result, I had to keep track of so many variables that it got overwhelming. Only after stepping away from the river for a while and coming back one evening where I just tried one fly pattern and one casting technique did I have success.


Because I eliminated my variables, reduced the number of things I had to consciously keep track of, and finally began to enjoy this wonderful sport of fly fishing.


If you haven’t already, you might want to check out other entries in this series on lessons on learning through fly fishing: Gone Fishin’, Hardware vs. Software, Knowing and Doing and Learning in Small Bites

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