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Respecting the Craft

When I was a boy, my parents and I moved to the small town on the Northern California coast where my dad grew up. On one of my first trips to the beach, I remember playing in the wet sand along the shoreline. Something caught my eye and I bent down for a closer look. The next thing I knew, my mother was snatching me up off the ground just as a big wave came surging up the beach.

"You have to respect the ocean!" my mom said. "Don't ever turn your back on it!"

That early lesson was clear. Respect things that can kill you! As the years passed, though, I learned about other kinds of respect, such as showing admiration for a person's skills, regard for their accomplishments, or consideration for their well being. My schoolwork also taught me a respect for learning and study, but like most kids, I found it a bit onerous. This kind of respect always seemed tinged with the resentment of subordinating what I "wanted to do" to what I was "supposed to do." I think I approached learning as a chore. Even when learning fun things that I wanted to do, such as swimming, kayaking, or driving a car, I wanted to get the learning over with so I could get to the fun stuff.

When I first started flying lessons, I approached them just as I had approached other recreational activities. I figured there were skills to be learned, and once I had them under my belt, I'd know how to fly. How much different could it be from anything else I'd learned? Of course, I soon found that flying has its own unique challenges. Among all the usual highs, lows, and plateaus of my training, though, there were moments when everything seemed easy and clear-cut. Hey, I was getting good at this! These were moments of genuine self-confidence, but if I'm honest, I'll admit there was often some cockiness and complacency in there too.

Here's a definition of complacency: the belief that you'll do the right thing just because you're good at what you do. In my experience, this attitude breeds inattention. I stop paying close attention because I don't think I need to anymore. I'm good at this, so what could go wrong? But, like anyone who flies long enough, I eventually realized that there would be no definitive "now I know how to fly" epiphanies in my future. The process of learning to fly is never-ending, and fulfilling my responsibilities as pilot in command means always paying attention, following my procedures, and respecting my limitations. There are no shortcuts.

Over time, I've come to develop a deeper, more subtle kind of respect for the craft of flying. I recognize that I will do the right thing in the cockpit only if I pay attention, notice everything that seems important, and act accordingly. Being "good at it" guarantees nothing. This is why I regard the observe-act-observe cycle as the key to true confidence. It gives me my best chance of noticing important information and responding effectively.

And there's another important aspect to this kind of respect. Because it's what I choose to do, not what I'm supposed to do, I can relax, enjoy the experience, and just feel grateful for the opportunity to practice this craft. This insight, learned in the cockpit, also informs my experience of life in general.

So these days, when I go to the beach, I don't fear the ocean. It can only kill me if I fail to give it the attention it's due.

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