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Confidence

John Spiteri, a pilot and blogger in England, recently contacted me in response to my Go Around post from a few weeks ago. One of the topics from our email exchange that particularly struck me was the relationship between confidence and experience. I realized it was time for a post addressing confidence directly. This blog is The Confident Pilot after all!

Webster defines confidence as a "faith or belief that one will act in a right, proper, or effective way"—which begs the question of whether such a faith is justified. Recently, several employees of electric car company Tesla Motors took off in a twin Cessna from Palo Alto airport in the San Francisco bay area. The ceiling was 100 feet with 1/8-mile visibility. For reasons yet unknown, the airplane crashed shortly after takeoff in a residential neighborhood, killing everyone on board. Miraculously, despite extensive property damage, no one on the ground was hurt.

The NTSB hasn't yet determined the cause of the crash, and I won't presume any insight into the mind of the accident pilot. I do feel bound, however, to consider what might induce a pilot to make choices like his, and I keep coming back to complacency and overconfidence. Whether the cause was mechanical failure or pilot error, I can only imagine that the pilot either underestimated the risks or overestimated his abilities. If so, what could cause this?

The first thing that comes to mind is, well, experience. Confidence is essentially a trust in ourselves, and trust grows out of repeated positive experiences. We tend to trust people, for example, who have repeatedly met their commitments; we describe them as trustworthy. Similarly, we develop confidence in ourselves when our actions repeatedly meet with success. When we're learning to fly cross-country, for example, we gain confidence with each new airport we visit, as we learn that we're capable of navigating to the airport, identifying it from the air, following the right procedures for entering the traffic pattern, and landing on an unfamiliar runway.

The tricky thing is that complacency develops in exactly the same way. When we repeatedly take risks and experience successful outcomes, we tend to minimize the risks and exaggerate our abilities. In my post Where You Gonna Go?, I described how I caught myself needlessly flying over remote, rugged terrain at night, completely vulnerable in the event of engine trouble because I'd done so before with no negative consequences. I have to wonder whether the twin Cessna pilot had himself taken off in very low IMC many times before and had become comfortable with doing so without really considering the risks he was taking.

This is why I argue that true confidence must be based not only on repeated success, but also on accurate assessment of both our abilities and the risks we face. Without this due diligence, confidence can easily become complacency, and that can be very dangerous.

How can we go about accurately assessing our risks and abilities? I believe the foundation is a habit of observation and conscious action consistent with our observations. (See my Observe-Act-Observe post of several weeks ago for more about that.) We can start by observing our own experiences, both present and past, with a clear-eyed honesty. This is one of the main themes I'm exploring as I write my book The Confident Pilot.

In our email exchange, John told me he's planning to write up the lessons he's learned in his first year of flying. I look forward to reading those stories, and I'd like to see more of us sharing our experiences this way. Observing and learning from our own experiences and those of others can play an important role in the due diligence that makes true confidence possible.

But what if we don't have repeated experiences of success to draw on? What if inexperience, or bad experiences, have left us questioning our abilities? What if the risks we face seem insurmountable? What if we find ourselves paralyzed by doubt?

More about that next week.

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May 26, 2010

Bill Tuthill @ 3:39 pm #

If it was engine failure that caused the Tesla plane to crash, wouldn't the black box have revealed that by now?

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