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Mistakes

My instructor Paul leaned over and looked at the instrument panel, asking, "What heading are you flying?"

"040 degrees," I replied.

"Oh, OK," he said, sitting back and looking out the window.

I had been flying gliders for a couple of years and had the opportunity to buy a friend's share in a flying club, but there was a catch: it was an airplane club and I needed to have an airplane rating to join. So, I started training with Paul, who was also a member of the club. We were on our first dual cross-country flight to Castle Airport, a former Air Force base in California's Central Valley. I was practicing my dead reckoning and pilotage.

On a hazy day at 5,500 feet, however, one landmark in that vast valley starts to look much like any other, and soon I could no longer match anything I saw on the ground with my chart. Then I looked again at my heading indicator.

"Oh, no! I've been flying heading 020!"

"Yes, you have," answered Paul matter-of-factly. "So what heading do you think you need now to get back on course?"

Chagrined, I estimated how long I'd been flying the wrong heading, how much farther we had to go, and took a stab at a new heading.

"050 degrees?" I asked Paul.

"Let's try it," he said, and we proceeded on course.

I was reminded of a story I'd read in Beryl Markham's incredible book West With the Night, about her growing up in British East Africa and becoming one of the world's earliest female bush pilots. She later went on to be the first person to fly from England to North America non-stop. On one flight with her instructor and mentor Tom Campbell Black, they were approaching a ridge that was clearly higher than they were. Even with full power and as much back-stick as she dared, the airplane just wouldn't climb fast enough. As the ridge loomed larger and closer before them, she wondered why Black, sitting in the forward cockpit, made no move and gave no sign. Finally, as the mountainside filled her field of view, Black took the controls and turned the airplane away from the ridge into a circling climb.

"Now you know what a downdraft is," he told her. "I could have told you sooner, but you deserve to make your own mistakes."

Paul understood this principle well. He could have corrected me right way, but he understood the value of my mistake. It let me learn firsthand how easy it is to misread to the HI, and I got to experience catching my mistake and figuring out how to recover from it.

What is a mistake? I define it as an action that produces results different from my intentions. Actually, few of our actions produce exactly the results we intend, so the "mistake" characterization is a matter of degree. Ultimately, though, I think there's not much value in this characterization. More important is focusing on actions and results. This is related to what I call true confidence, which can be thought of as a well founded faith that our results will usually match our intentions, and when they don't, they'll be recoverable, as they were when I caught myself flying the wrong heading.

This focus on results is a particularly powerful antidote to the embarrassment we often feel when making a "mistake." It allows us to learn from our experience quickly, which in turn improves our ability to reliably produce the results we intend.

"That's gotta be Castle," I said to Paul when the vast strip of concrete appeared a bit off our nose.

He smiled. "Yeah, a B-52 runway is hard to miss."

In other words, he had set up a perfect learning scenario and I had made the most of it—by making the right mistake at just the right time.

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