Eliminate your variables

by Steve Brock on September 4, 2014

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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Traveling in the dark – Part 2

by Steve Brock on April 2, 2014

Mount Hood

Driving in the fog and the dark to Bend, Oregon – actually, Redmond to be precise, just north of Bend – made for an interesting experience. Nothing was clear. We had no idea what was around us. Our world consisted of the fifty feet before us.

Driving the same route in reverse on a bright, sunny morning was like being in a different world. We left Redmond and drove for miles through the high desert, brilliant blue above, tans and browns around us. We passed the place that we had assumed in the dark was an alien staging area. Now, in the sunlight, we realized it was a merely concrete manufacturing facility…or so it appeared (those aliens can be pretty sly).

Eventually, we began to gain elevation. Trees appeared and soon surrounded us in a heavy forest. And that’s when it happened.

We rounded a turn of Highway 26 and suddenly, all three of us in the car were a united chorus of “Whoa!” For there, before us, was Mount Hood, all 11,250 feet of it entirely filling our windshield.

We’d glimpsed it in the distance many miles back and just from glancing at the map, I knew it was somewhere around this area. But we had no idea how close we were to it. We literally were at its base, our entire view filled with snow-covered slopes of this giant right before us. And that’s when two realizations pounded into me.

First, it had been here all along. When we drove here in the fog, we had passed by this mountain, a few miles from its peak. Yet we never knew it was there.

Second, and even more surprising, I was receiving an object lesson with a very big object lurking nearby. The lesson?

That’s how it is with God and me most of the time. He’s always there, bigger and yet nearer than Mount Hood but I never realize it. I go through life, driving in my fog, traveling in the dark not aware that something of even greater magnitude, splendor and beauty is as close as my next breath. Every single moment of life.

As dramatic a reminder as this was, I’ll likely fall back into my old ways over time, returning to a place of fog and darkness, consumed only with what I see right before me. That is, until that moment when I can count on God to gently – or, as in this case, dramatically – pull me out of my fog and remind me again of this simple yet profound truth.

“I’m here.”


Read Part 1 if you haven’t already done so.

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Traveling in the dark – Part 1

by Steve Brock on March 28, 2014

Foggy RoadSeveral months ago, my family drove down to Bend, Oregon. We left the Seattle area after work, had dinner along the way and crossed the Columbia River just east of Portland.

By then, it was quite dark and our route – chosen by our trusty GPS on my phone – took us through what seemed like miles of twists and turns through Portland suburbs. Eventually, we found the highway – marked only by the street name, at least at first – that would take us to central Oregon.

I’d never gone this way before, so I had no idea what to expect. But one think I certainly did not plan on was the dense fog that soon began to engulf us.

In the limited visibility of the fog, we could just make out a string of rustic hotels and restaurants along the way, indicators we were nearing some sort of recreational area. I knew that Mount Hood was out in this general direction, and I wondered if these were places serving people as they traveled there.

By the time the buildings started to thin out, the fog lay like a dense blanket over the highway. It got to a point where for miles – scores of miles – we could barely make out the edges of trees lining the road. Occasionally, we could detect the dim glow of some light – we assumed for some building – as we passed. But with the exception of the occasional oncoming car, our entire world was a wall of gray illuminated by our headlights, the only distinguishing feature being the highway stripe down the center of the road.

As we drove, we were listening to a book on CD. And depending which of the three of us – me, my wife or my son – you asked, the fog made the story better…or too intense. We’d chosen a young adult fantasy from the library – the “Beyonders” series by Brian Mull – and at the densest point of our foggy journey where I actually considered pulling over due to limited visibility, the story got very suspenseful. We listened as the main character worked his way down hidden passages to find a book covered in human skin with a live eye that suddenly opened on its cover.

“Cool!” said I. “Ewwww! Creepy!” said my wife. “Shhhhh!” said my son.

After several more miles of this, we saw a haze of lights off to our left, evidently some sort of industrial space. Orange lights glowed from apparent towers and spotlights attempted to cut through some other area, with limited success. It was bizarre to see and, I’m sure influenced by the book we were listening to, our general consensus was that it was a staging area for an alien invasion. That seemed the obvious choice from its appearance in the fog.

You never know…

Eventually, about fifty miles from our destination, the fog lifted. But the night was so dark and we were so far from any town that the visibility only increased marginally. We still had no idea what was around us.

Journeying with limited senses changes your perception of travel itself. Driving for several hours with so few visual cues was initially novel, then a bit scary and finally, a new normal. It’s funny how something like fog can take a routine experience and radically change it.

But it wasn’t until we returned home via the same route in reverse a few days later that we realized how truly amazing our journey through the fog had been…

To be continued…

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