Finding freedom in the unknown, Finding myself in the freedom
Last summer, I became the first Asian woman to fly around the world. I’m also the first Chinese person to fly around the world solo.
What “solo” means in aviation is the ordinary English language meaning of “solo,”“a thing done by one person, unaccompanied.” It means doing it alone. It is the same flying an aircraft as it is playing a musical instrument.
Flying solo, I was alone on board my little aircraft for nearly 40,000 kilometers. It took about 155 hours of flying to circle the earth. I stopped every evening for a few hours of rest, but there were no other passengers or crew. Just me. My attention became very concentrated and refined, and that really shaped my experience of flying around the world.
So, other than the fact that I flew around the world alone in a little airplane, what else can I tell you about my circumnavigation flight? Let me tell you just enough of the details so that you get the general idea:
Here are the ingredients: take a woman and a small single piston engine propeller airplane, add some extra fuel tanks so her plane has enough range to fly over the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, fill those tanks up so that the plane is overweight but still legal, make sure she can fly the thing with that heavy extra fuel, make sure she can communicate with everyone she’ll need to communicate with. Make sure over-flight and landing clearances are being arranged properly and have plenty of American dollars on hand since half the world only accepts dollars in cash for aviation gasoline. Make sure you eat something and figure out how you’re going to pee in that little airplane. (Drink enough water but not too much!) Don’t forget to keep transferring fuel to your main tanks and don’t accidentally pump your fuel overboard. And avoid all wars, civil strife and areas of terrorism. Don’t fall asleep and don’t daydream. Take lots of pictures. Keep your fingers crossed!
The experience of flying around the world alone changed my perspective of the world, and that’s what I want to share with you today, basically that all of life is flying in the clouds.
As a pilot, the first time you do this might be in a flight simulator but when it happens for real it will be uncomfortable because your guts are telling you there’s something wrong about travelling so fast and not being able to see what’s in front of you. You may even begin to feel sick in your stomach.
Aircraft have sophisticated navigation system but people not so much. We can’t see the road we’re on in life and we have very little, if any, idea about what’s coming around the next curve. There is no highway, no entrance ramp, no exit ramp, no signage. The best we can do is look backwards and make a story from what’s already happened, from the waypoints we’ve already passed.
Look, how many of you believe that you know where you are right now? You will say “in Tianjin,” right? And where is Tianjin? In China. And where is China? In Asia. And where is Asia? On Earth. And where is Earth? In the solar system. And where is the solar system? In the Milky Way Galaxy. And where is the Milky Way Galaxy? In the Universe? Ok. Where is the Universe?
So in a very real sense we don’t know where we are. Thinking you do know where you are is just relative thinking. It’s not incorrect that you believe you’re sitting at this TED talk in Tianjin but it’s hardly the whole story. It’s like looking at only one side of a coin.
As we travel through life – our natural condition is the opposite of what we think. Our “default” state is “lost” and we’re hardly, if ever, “found”. Life is an uncertain journey that we try to organize into an orderly thing. We don’t know where we came from, we don’t know where we are and we don’t know the final destination of our life journey. But don’t let the word “lost” be a trigger for panic. In reality, you don’t have to understand “lost” as a bad thing. If we can come to accept the reality of the unknown in our life — the other side of the coin– at least we can experience some freedom from the anxiety of being lost. If we ignore the labels that others attach to us and fully participate in a great boundless universe I guaranty you that you will feel more free.
I’m a pilot – for now anyway – so why am I telling you this story that may sound somewhat philosophical? Because this is my experience from flying around the world. When we change our perspective of the world, we can transform our own experience.
我是个飞行员 – 至少现在是 – 为什么我告诉你这个可能听起来有点哲学的故事? 因为这是我在世界各地飞行的经验。 当我们改变我们对世界的看法时，我们可以改变自己的体验。
My solo around the world flight was mostly compressed into 18 days of flying with many single flight legs lasting over 10 hours. Toward the end of the circumnavigation, Day 16, departing Lisbon, Portugal, landing Azores, Portugal, and preparing to do my second oceanic crossing — which would be around 12 hours from Portugal’s Azores across the mid-Atlantic– to Newfoundland, Canada, I set myself up for a very long day that ultimately would keep me awake for nearly thirty hours straight.
The Azores over the east Atlantic has one of the most beautiful oceans I had ever seen, where the pure, bright saturated blue of the ocean confounded all my expectations of the Atlantic as being dark and nasty. The Lisbon-Azores leg had already lifted my spirit dramatically.
One reason I took a west-bound route was to squeeze a little more daylight out of each leg, chasing the sun every afternoon. That day, even the Little Prince would have been amazed at the sunset, it seemed to be never ending.
Eventually, night fell and, with a bright moon above and a carpet of moonlit clouds below, I flew on toward Canada for another seven hours in darkness. At some point everything had become quiet. My mood had taken on a surreal feeling and I was as relaxed as I could possibly be. Flying above the ocean at night, there was no horizon, no city lights, no landmarks. There was only the light from the cockpit instrument gauges and the hum of the engine. I had never known feeling such a vast expanse. The feeling at that time was like my very being had expanded out to meet the vastness and I no longer existed just in my little body. The world was vast and so was I. At that moment tears were welling up in my eyes; for how unexpected it was, that on this journey in an airplane, all alone, I would meet myself.
As I approached St. Johns near midnight, I welcomed the lights of the city and the very bright, colorful lights of the airport runway. I felt that reaching North America was significant because I would be familiar with the air traffic system, have friendly controllers who spoke perfect English and the next two days would be a breeze. Well, not exactly.
As I stepped out of the plane and the brisk northern air pelted my face, a duo of Canada Customs and Border Patrol officers were waiting for me with a barrage of questions: “Who are you?” “Where are you from?” What are you doing here?” “Where are you going?” I was being interrogated like a criminal. Who said that Canadians are like Americans, only nicer?
The Canadians decided not to arrest me for what turned out to be a minor paperwork slip up by the St. John’s handling agent. What struck me, however, was the feeling of stepping out of the cockpit after flying those almost spiritual seventeen hours, and after being awake for 29 hours and then being barraged with all those questions; it was so strange, there was almost no one there to answer but predictably all the labels instantly returned.
I always tell people: follow your heart. But the hardest thing is to know your heart, to know yourself. Night flight crossing Atlantic Ocean alone, I had the amazing and rare good fortune to meet myself.
Childhood dreams are pure and naturally from the heart. That’s why they are powerful. If you plant a seed of your dream, it will grow when the conditions are right.
I grew up surrounded by aerospace engineering-professors. And I loved “The Little Prince” a story about a pilot who crashes in the desert and meets a little prince from another world. I was fascinated with space and flying to me was living in the sky. The seed was planted but didn’t grow until I moved to the United States.
When you’re fascinated with something, it won’t let go of you and you won’t let go of it. I was already in my late 30s when I started my life in aviation after a career in advertising. All of my friends and my parents advised me not to switch careers, “it’s too late” they said, “and you’ll lose all of your advertising career value.”
Bob Dylan has a song, that ends with: “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose. ”There’s also a Chinese rock and roll lyric by Xu Wei: “You stand on this bustling street, cannot find the direction you should go. You stand on this bustling street, feeling flustered. Your dream is a warm light, lighting up the darkness……”
I looked up at the sky. I was never afraid of failure but I worried that one day I’d be too old to chase my dreams and would regret not having tried.
Bob Dylan有一首歌唱到：“When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose. ”所有的患得患失都是自以为是地不敢放掉手上握住的一点点“财富”。中国的摇滚音乐人许巍的《那一年》这样唱到：“你站在这繁华的街上/找不到你该去的方向/你站在这繁华的街上/感觉到从来没有的慌张/你曾拥有一些英雄的梦想/好象黑夜里面温暖的灯光……”。