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Death Before Embarrassment

In the early 1970s, astronaut Michael Collins (Gemini 10, Apollo 11) wrote a fascinating book, Carrying the Fire, about his experiences in the US space program. It's a book I think all pilots should read and one that anyone interested in flying and space exploration will enjoy.

I was particularly struck by a passage in which Collins describes a phenomenon he observed in test pilots and astronauts: an unspoken credo he called "death before embarrassment." He projected that this attitude contributed to many flight-test crashes. The idea is that the pilot is actually more afraid of embarrassing himself than he is of dying, and so avoids taking necessary actions in an emergency situation rather than admit failure.

Like most people, I tend to imagine that military test pilots and astronauts must be the most confident pilots around, and they have reason to be. They are among the best trained, most skilled, and most disciplined pilots anywhere, with extensive experience handling unfamiliar aircraft and situations. The thought that they might be afraid of embarrassing themselves had never occurred to me.

This got me thinking about my own experience. Like every pilot, I've done some embarrassing things in airplanes over the years (and they've been a rich source of material for this blog). I've always made a concerted effort to learn from these incidents to improve my flying, but if I'm honest with myself, I'll admit that perhaps an even greater motivation has been to avoid the embarrassment in the future. In fact, I realize that the fear of embarrassment has often been lurking just under the surface. It hasn't been a conscious fear, but more a of habit of anxiety that probably goes back to childhood (and is probably related to the high pulse rate I talked about last week). I find myself wondering how this fear of embarrassment has asserted itself in other areas of my life. What actions have I avoided for fear of appearing inadequate or incompetent?

Over time, as we have repeated positive experiences, the fear of embarrassment becomes less frequent and less severe. This is part of the natural process of developing confidence. But as we gain experience and confidence, and as others develop higher expectations of us, that old fear of embarrassment can reassert itself. Most people will forgive a student or low-time pilot a rough landing, but once you have a few hundred hours under your belt, you're supposed to know better. The likelihood of a military test pilot making that same rough landing is very small, but its potential for embarrassment would be that much greater. After all, these pilots are in a very exacting and competitive line of work, and I imagine that egos are built on the perception of competence and the esteem of peers.

This is why I prefer to focus on flying well rather than being a good pilot. The distinction is subtle but important. If my goal is to be regarded as a good pilot, I might be tempted to deny, suppress, and conceal any weaknesses in my flying. If I focus instead on flying well, I'm more likely to recognize and address deficiencies and improve my flying. I'll never be a military test pilot, but I can aspire to their skill level—not because of what it might mean about me, but for the sheer enjoyment of it.

As for that pesky and often hard to recognize fear of embarrassment, I've identified a few telltale signs. When I notice a vague anxiety that I find hard to explain, it's often a clue that that old fear is asserting itself. That's when I remind myself to practice observe-act-observe, focus on the results I want, and above all, not take the situation personally.

But what if our mistakes do meet with disapproval or derision from our peers? More about that next week…

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