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Everybody's a Critic

"Look at your altitude! What the hell's the matter with you?!" the instructor bellowed.

The student, already frustrated and overwhelmed, was now also feeling embarrassed and angry at a time when he needed to be flying the airplane. At that moment, flying seemed like more hassle than it was worth.

Fortunately, this story is entirely fictional. I personally have been extremely fortunate to train with very competent, professional, and empathetic instructors, as have most of the pilots I know. We all hear stories, however, about instructors like our fictional Mr. Bellows. My friend Dave told the story of his instrument checkride with an examiner who spent almost the entire time shouting and deriding him. To Dave's credit, he managed to filter out the abuse and focus on flying the airplane. He passed. Still, I find it hard to imagine any valid purpose for the examiner's behavior. To create a "realistic distraction" as mandated by the practical test standards? I don't buy it. A few instances of subtle misdirection such as a dropped pen or some extraneous conversation are enough to determine whether the applicant can stay focused.

Of course, we pay instructors and examiners to give us criticism, but there are plenty of other critics in aviation. We only have to look at ourselves to know that. Have you ever read one of those "never again" stories or accident reports and thought, "What was that bozo thinking?" Yeah, so have I. It's not that I think we shouldn't be critical of our own actions or those of others. Constructive criticism is essential for our development as pilots. It's the personal judgments—the "what's the matter with you" or "bozo" comments—that can be damaging, especially for new pilots who don't yet have a solid confidence in their abilities.

So everybody's a critic and a lot of people aren't very sensitive about it. What to do? My friend Maria and I were having lunch and discussing a challenge she was having at work. I'd been Maria's manager for several years, so we'd seen our share of office politics together. She told me about a colleague who was probably in over his head, feeling insecure, and looking for someone to blame, so he picked her.

While I was deciding how much to pity him, Maria said, "You know, I finally figured out that I don't have to take it personally—even when it's meant that way!"

Amen, sister! As it turned out, her professional, results-oriented attitude made her colleague's attempts to scapegoat her transparent to everyone. She came out of the encounter with her credibility enhanced, and her colleague was left with little choice but to play ball.

We can follow Maria's example whenever someone gives us grief over our flying, whether it's an overt attack, a subtle dig, or "that look" that implies that we just don't have the "right stuff." Over time, I've come to decide that others' opinions about my value as a person (whether positive or negative) aren't relevant to me. Opinions about my actions and results, however, can be very instructive. Filtering out personal judgments from criticism allows me to identify the kernels of truth that might help improve my results. This means regardless of how people express themselves, I can absorb whatever can be learned from their criticism and let the rest roll off. I won't claim this is easy—it often takes concerted effort—but I can start by reminding myself that it's possible:

I don't have to take this personally—even if it's meant that way.

That said, I don't think it's ever necessary to tolerate abuse, especially when we're footing the bill. Here's how I'd hope our little fiction story would continue following Mr. Bellows's outburst.

The student leveled the airplane on a safe heading and then responded to his instructor:

"Mr. Bellows, I'm your customer. Please keep your comments constructive and respectful and avoid personal judgments. If you're not willing or able to do that, I'll find an instructor who is."

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