The Value of Decision

Lexi, my Red-tailed Hawk hunting partner, has taught me a great many things over the last two-and-a-half years. I have a deep respect for her hunting style, which centers around an uncluttered capacity for decision.

Human beings have it relatively easy. We don’t, generally speaking, have to risk life and limb every time we eat. We don’t, in our homes or at a restaurant, have to perform death-defying feats that push us to the edge of our physical and mental envelope to keep our food from escaping before it is served. Hawks do, each and every meal.

There’s nothing like facing a life-or-death situation to test your capacity for decision and your resolve once you’ve committed. Lexi approaches the split-second decisions she must make when chasing her quarry with with an intense focus and an inimitable grace. She is not, of course, endowed with the complex (and often overly and unnecessarily complicated) consciousness that her falconer and his fellow humans possess; nevertheless, her majestic example serves as an inspiration and a challenge, a call to continuous refinement of the capacity for decision.

The greatest single impediment to decisiveness is found in a troubled heart. The mental faculties are not typically the root of indecision, in fact, it is the overly and unnecessarily complicated emotional environment in which we tend to flail around as we move pillar to post instead of steadily forward on our journey through time. A troubled heart disrupts the normal thinking processes, creating a state akin to hypoxia.

As a pilot who has had specific training in hypoxia-awareness, I can aver to the fact that hypoxia’s debilitating effect on the mental processes is secondary to the peril of the false and misleading sensation of well-being that accompanies it. The problem with hypoxia is that you tend to feel great, if not euphoric, at the very moment that you should be most concerned.

So it is with a troubled heart. When your heart is troubled – either overjoyed or dejected – your perception of what is really occurring, that is, the truth of the matter, is skewed. As such, when you are faced with a difficult decision you are wise to first come to the point where your heart is as untroubled as possible. When your heart is at rest your mind has a much better chance at working as it was designed to work, i.e. a tool for rational thought rather than a tool for rationalization.

When your heart is troubled your mind will tend to waste its energies trying to make sense of the distorted and unreliable information it is receiving from your heart. Like walking through a hall of mirrors or making your way through a busy room while wearing a pair of your friends glasses, you have to think extra hard to find your way through the situation and the course you take is rarely optimal.

How you let your heart come to rest is for you to decide. Sometimes a couple of deep breaths and counting slowly to ten will do it. Other times indulging in a brief distraction to “take your mind off of it” for a moment can help. Some, I’ve heard, even benefit from “sleeping on it” as the opportunity permits. There are many techniques that can help you in this regard, but ultimately you’ll find that deliberately cultivating an unflappable appreciation for the privilege of decision and adopting a radiant stance in all that you undertake is the key to maintaining an untroubled heart every waking moment of your life.

If you have a better day today because of what you’ve learned, don’t thank me. Thank Lexi. Thank the natural world around you. Give thanks and give freely of yourself and better days will no longer be the exception, but the rule.

On Parenting and Flying

Prepare for the unknown, unexpected and inconceivable . . . after 50 years of flying I’m still learning every time I fly.” ~ Gene Cernan

I’ve learned a great many lessons as an aviator over the years, all of which have left me a better pilot. What I didn’t expect, however, is that those experiences would also improve my parenting skills.

Here are a few of the lessons I discovered in the air that, properly heeded, can make a you a more capable parent on the ground:

  1. A good pilot doesn’t manhandle the controls. A good many pilots are “Type A” personality and they must learn to resist the temptation to force the aircraft to submit to their will. Most aircraft are inherently stable and as such respond more favorable to a gentle touch. Lesson learned: Just as a thumb and a finger on the yoke are almost always more effective than two clenched fists, finding the least forceful intervention when dealing with children provides for an overall smoother experience for both parent and child.
  2. A good pilot uses all available resources. This is true in both pre-flight planning and during the flight. In small aircraft a pilot may even enlist the help of his passengers to keep an eye out for traffic on a busy day. Lesson learned: children love to participate, long to be helpful and love new challenges. Look to include them creatively in what you are doing, especially around the house. And don’t be afraid to ask for help from others who have more experience than you.
  3. A good pilot stays ahead of the aircraft. Many aviation accidents occur because an inexperienced (in relation to the craft or the mission) pilot gets behind the aircraft in his thinking. This is an uncomfortable and unsafe position that every pilot finds himself in at some point in his flying career. In such critical moments he must take a deep breath and say to himself: “Fly the airplane.” Lesson learned: Your children are going to get out ahead of you every now and again. Don’t sweat it! You’re an adult and there is no better time than this to take a deep breath and bring your experience (both to-do and to-not-do) to bear on the situation.
  4. A good pilot learns not to let distractions consume his focus. Distractions are inevitable. A strange noise, an unfamiliar sensation, an unusual sequence of events can happen when you least expect it (if not during every flight over large bodies of water). Take note, keep it in perspective, but don’t forget to…yes, you guessed it…fly the airplane! Lesson learned: Be willing to be surprised by your children. They will inevitably come to you out of left field, despite your best attempts at making them good little girls and boys. Stick to the basics where you can…there is no replacement for a loving, caring and attentive parent. By the way, don’t be afraid to do the unexpected with your children. They will love it!

As I mentioned previously, parenting is a sacred trust and there are many lessons which can be translated from other activities in your life if you are observant and keen to connect the dots. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!

Fly the Airplane

Hutchinson’s Law: If a situation requires undivided attention, it will occur simultaneously with a compelling distraction.

Pilots face the interesting challenge if navigating in a third dimension, often at double, triple or more the speed of any other mode of transportation. As with driving a car, catching a ball or starting a new business, distractions pop up regularly in the flight environment. A passing bird, a strange noise, a passenger issue and any of a thousand other events can come up, usually at the most inopportune time, say on take-off, landing or during any one of a number of critical phases of flight.

The way you handle the distraction has a significant influence on the remainder of the flight. A friend of mine was flying a twin engine Beechcraft Baron that he was recently rated to fly and was cut off by another pilot at an uncontrolled field (an airport with no control tower) while turning onto final approach. The fellow who cut him off was well-known for his blatant disregard of standard protocol for entering the landing pattern and in this instance he made no radio calls as he barged his way into the airport.

Knowing this and in hindsight, my friend admits that he shouldn’t have let it bother him, but unfortunately he did. His fixation on the disrespectful pilot now ahead of him interrupted his normal landing checklist and flow and as a result, he forgot to extend the landing gear. Fortunately for him, another pilot taxiing to take off announced “Gear up! Gear up! Go around!” as my friend was in his landing flare, no more that 15 feet above the tarmac.

Such distractions come up all the time in life, especially in situations that require your undivided attention. You might have noticed that they tend to come up during critical phases in your life, such as when you are moving through a significant transition.

Times of change bring with them an uncomfortable pressure and distractions provide a useful body to the phantom pressure. After all, nobody likes a ghost! Beware of distractions during times of intense change, especially in the final moments before the newness sets in. Just like a pilot on final approach, it behooves you to to be ready for anything.

Distractions will come up, but don’t bite. Don’t let the surprises consume your attention. Take note, but get back to business as soon as possible.

As any pilot will tell you, the best thing to do when something unexpected happens is to “fly the airplane.”

the 6 Ps

“Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance”

I had a pleasant conversation with a stranger in a coffee shop yesterday about America, being American, the U.S. military, Lake Sidney Lanier, shortcuts, contracts, retirement, in-laws and planning. This fellow peppered his captivating stories with funny sayings, a healthy dose of similes and a number of instructive, memorable phrases.

One he was particularly fond of came to him via a Drill Sergeant in the U.S. Army: “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.” His version had 7Ps, but the seventh word I’ve omitted doesn’t add anything to the meaning, just a little color. I can attest to the veracity of this statement as a small business owner, and you’ve no doubt had experiences where sufficient planning led to a favorable outcome and others where insufficient planning led to a less than spectacular performance.

Planning prepares you well for for the expected, and gives you the chance to think through how you would handle the unlikely, yet possible eventualities. One of the elements I love most about flying is the need for both planning and the occasional adjustments to the plan when the weather shifts unexpectedly. The weather is dynamic and every good pilot must make judgment calls based on the available information (of which there is typically plenty) when the weather changes, especially for the worse.

On a recent trip Michigan I met unexpected weather that moved in quickly over the local area of my final destination while I was flying northward through clear skies. Low clouds and freezing temperatures aloft caused me to question my plan for a visual approach into a small field just north of Detroit, so I circled for a bit in the clear air just south, in northern Ohio. After reviewing the weather, I decided it would be safe to make an approach and then filed an instrument flight plan while airborne. The instrument approach was uneventful (how I like them) and the landing was smooth, despite the winds that ushered in the weather earlier than expected.

Planning provides you with a cushion – in space and time – that makes handling the unexpected less stressful. It is much better to meet chaos from order, rather than chaos with chaos, as would be the case if you were tumbling through a project, a presentation or a life, without some type of prior planning.

Whether you’ve thought about it this way or not, one of your central responsibilities in life is to bring order out of chaos. It is one of the deepest impulses universal to our species. We bring order out of chaos, we transmute matter from one form into another, as is the case with our digestive processes and we have unique distinction among all other creatures great and small that walk, swim, crawl or slither on the earth of giving thought to the future. It’s partly what separates us from the animals and it is also what differentiates those who make use of the shadows of the future cast on the present moment from those who fear and hide from the shadows.

If you take time to consider the future, organize your thoughts into a coherent plan about how to handle the factors you foresee, based on your field of responsibility. I have to do this constantly in my businesses and it is the source of much of the thrill I experience in management. What you see coming down the pike gives you a head’s up, allowing you to marshall whatever resources you have at your disposal in relation to the need at hand.

If you guess correctly, you move ahead with efficiency and grace. If not, you learn from your mistakes.

Either way you progress!

Life is Risky Business

Scanning my instruments gives me peace as I cruise at nearly three miles above safety of terra firma through billowy and bouncy cumulus clouds. The clouds issue a sinister smile as I enter their mouths and while in their belly I feel almost entirely at their mercy, but for the tenuous grasp of control I derive from my faithful instruments.

Piloting is part knowledge, part experience and part chance. Pilots try to minimize the latter using all within our power, but hurling ourselves at high speeds through the air high above our natural domain is a chancy proposition, no matter how you cut it.

All of life involves risk. Learning to effectively manage risk is a vitally important life skill. Children at a young age learn that if they lean back on a chair, they risk falling. Young adults learn from their peers that if they dare to be different and fail, they will be ridiculed. The calculation of risk versus expected reward is an important one.

The failure or refusal to calculate risks is often at the root of life’s regrets. Don’t be blinded by the expectation of a big result! The bigger results typically come with greater risks.

People exist along a wide spectrum of risk tolerance and they tend to become more risk averse as they grow old. I am often surprised that as many people – especially daredevil boys and tomboyish girls – survive their childhoods. Risk after risk is taken, often for little more reason than to see if it was possible!

Rather than advising against risk taking, I advocate teaching children about assessing and managing risk. My mother always said, “it is better to teach a toddler to use the stairs than to worry about him falling on them.” if you do not let a child take reasonable risks, you will likely stunt his ability to handle risks wisely on his own later in life.

You cannot not take risks, but you can work to keep them at a manageable level. Go beyond your comfort level and you will feel out of control. Take too few risks and you will likely experience the doldrums, where sluggishness reigns supreme.

Whatever your risk tolerance, be sure to actively and consciously manage risk. It should be an active process, not one that works out by default, by rote or by habit. The odds will stack in your favor on occasion, which is another way to describe when the customary risk-reward equation is altered – a rare opportunity you don’t want to miss!

Professional Skepticism

In a previous post entitled The Honest Skeptic and the Alternate Plan, we considered the importance of honest skepticism in the living of life. The honest skeptic, as opposed to the lesser skeptic, or worse, the “yes man,” recognizes the need to question when things don’t appear right.

In the world of aviation, pilots, air traffic control (ATC) and ground control share are mutually responsible for detecting and correcting errors. It is this cooperative atmosphere that make air travel as safe as it is. There are roughly 5,000 aircraft airborne over the United States as I write this blog (see http://www.flightaware.com) and I can assure you that coordinated the safe passage of each of those flights is a monumental task.

In 1986 Atlanta Tower manager Harry McIntyre wrote a Letter to Airman titled “Professional Skepticism” which outlined how the spirit of cooperation can make air travel safer:

Safe, orderly, expeditious – the watchwords of the U.S. Air Traffic Control System. These words, from the beginning of ATC, have carried the missionary message to the controller and pilot on priorities and purpose.

Our ATC system has produced many successes as it has evolved from its rudimentary beginnings to today’s sophisticated technology. The most important ingredient to this success, however, has not been technology but the cooperative relationship between pilots and controllers communicating with one another – exchanging data, making judgments, executing decisions, and yes, correcting errors committed by each other.

The person in the best position to identify and correct human errors is obviously the person who made the error. But as we often say – “to err is human.” I suspect we say this because we tend to overlook our own performance or see it better than it actually is.

In the ATC system, there’s another person, either the pilot or the controller as the case may be, who can identify and correct the error committed by the other. This does not mean that pilots and controllers need to assume an adversarial relationship or even be each others’ critic – rather, it means we must “question” when we are in doubt in any aspect of the operation at hand. As a term of reference for this need, let’s call it “Professional Skepticism.”

“Professional skepticism” is objectively reviewing the operation at hand and questioning or seeking clarification when communication or events don’t appear right. As professionals, we must be sure of our data and therefore question and seek clarity whenever we are in doubt.

A review of several incidents reveals that too often we avoid the direct method of seeking clarity and opt for the indirect, vague style. We probably tend to do this in deference to the other professional. For safety’s sake, we must avoid this “gamesmanship” and be a “Professional Skeptic.”

I encourage such questioning in my company at every level of the organization. Each of my staff is tremendously valuable to me and each brings a unique perspective to the oversight of our corporate activities. As a company, we do not dwell on errors any longer than necessary to ensure their prevention in the future. Nor do my employees hold another’s errors over his or her head. The Golden Rule applies.

Where there is a shared concern for a larger goal it is easy to come together, to put aside petty differences and to help each other perform at the highest level possible. Receiving correction graciously from a subordinate or from someone from another department requires humility and sensitivity on both parts. Treating others as you would wish to be treated makes the the necessary tone and approach clear in ways that no handbook or conflict resolution policy could illuminate.

We need one another. No one person is complete in and of himself. It makes no sense to alienate those who are there to help you in the achievement of your larger shared goal and it makes all the sense in the world to support those around your success ultimately depends upon their success.

In an emergency, FLY THE AIRPLANE!

Image by Channel 2 Action News

Well, the Great Recession is now over, there is a plague of locusts in Australia and a Piper Saratoga made an emergency landing on the freeway just down the road from me in Atlanta after an engine failure. What a day! Whether the world is moving at an accelerating pace or the increased flow of information is making how fast life moves all the more obvious, I’m tuckered out!

I did take a few minutes to learn about the pilot who landed the single engine plane similar to the one I fly on one of the busiest freeways in town today, as much out of self-interest as for its general newsworthiness. You see, pilots learn from other pilots and I’m no exception. The more I hear about the successful escapes from the clutches of dire situations, the better the pilot I feel I can become.

One of the greatest qualities I know of is the ability to learn from mistakes, whether or not your were the original doer of the misdeed. In this case, the pilot was likely not at fault. In fact, his engine failed as he was approaching Peachtree Dekalb Airport, known by its FAA designation, KPDK.

With little altitude to spare and very few landing options in that part of town, he likely ran a quick check to see if the engine would restart while pitching up for best glide speed and then scanned quickly for the best landing sport given the known winds, the visible obstacles and the quickly approaching terra firma.

The first thing a pilot is trained to do in an emergency is to FLY THE AIRPLANE. Many pilots have unnecessarily panicked and flown a perfectly good airplane into the ground. Some people mistakenly think that a single engine plane cannot fly without its engine running, but in fact virtually every airplane can glide safely, sans engines. New pilots are trained to first fly the airplane and then troubleshoot. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If you forget to fly the airplane and spend your time troubleshooting, you will eventually find trouble.

The pilot of this particular airplane kept his wits about him, landed the plane safely, injured no one on the ground and incurred relatively minor damage to the plane. The best you could hope for in a challenging situation!

Image by Channel 2 Action News

The same advice fits perfectly in everyday life. When you meet unexpected turbulence, an unforeseen obstacle or if you encounter an emergency of any type, continue to FLY THE AIRPLANE! Don’t give up the controls or go running around screaming and yelling about how out of control your life is, how unfortunate you are or why it had to be you of all people, FLY THE AIRPLANE!

I went flying in a glider recently (which I must say is an incredible experience if you haven’t tried it) and one of the pilots came back moments after being towed up to altitude. He made a precautionary landing after hearing a loud THUD! just behind the canopy under which he was perched. Fortunately the noise was nothing more than a hatch that had opened and smacked against the fuselage, causing no damage to the glider, but perhaps more importantly, the pilot (and me for the reason outlined above) was reminded of the value of focusing on flying the plane, first and foremost.

Panic is rarely of value. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but you can remain in control no matter how urgent, dire, nasty, boring or frightening the situation might be. You can remain in control. When you are in control you can think. When you can think you can see options. When you can see options you can plot your way out of the mess you’re in. Follow the logic?

I hope that this incident does not stop you from enjoying flight, especially in small aircraft. Flown by competent pilots they are as safe as a trip to the supermarket in your car and the views…oh my, the views are priceless.

By the way, please spread the word. The recession is officially over, but look out for the locusts!