Who Do You Think You Are?
"Just what do you think you're doing?! Who do you think you are?!"
I think every child in every English-speaking country has heard these words at one time or another. I've always found them rather silly. They imply that if you were somebody else, somebody special, you could get away with what you're doing—but you're not! The very idea runs counter to our American ideals of democracy and egalitarianism. "Who you are" isn't supposed to matter. It's what you do that counts.
But this silly phrase got me thinking about a deeper question of identity. In fact, who we think we are might be the most important contributor to the quality of our day-to-day experience, including our capacity to develop confidence. We often speak of people as confident. "She's a very confident person. She just goes for it," we might say about someone we admire. But as I've said many times in this blog, I believe confidence is situational. No one is confident all the time in every situation—and if they were, we'd doubt their sanity!
There can be many reasons for an appearance of confidence. Sometimes it's just a carefully crafted performance. We've learned to project confidence even when we don't really feel it. (This is actually a useful skill, especially for the pilot of an aircraft carrying nervous passengers!) Other times, we sail blithely into a situation, confident of the outcome, while being totally oblivious to the risks we face. This is complacency, however, not a true confidence, and life has a way of letting us know about it promptly! Finally, there's a true confidence, grounded in real experience.
I realize now that when I started my Commercial training, I expected it would be pretty easy. I think of myself as a good and skilled pilot. My landings are generally smooth. My ILS approaches are pretty good. My VFR descent planning is usually dead-on. Hey, I know what I'm doing, OK?
So why did my chandelles suck so bad?
"Hold that back pressure—you need to keep increasing it. Use the trim if you have to," said my instructor Bill as I was trying to get the speed down to something close to minimum controllable. "And the rollout has to be much more gradual. At these speeds, it's almost all rudder—the ailerons don't do much."
So I kept at it, first rolling out too fast, then too slowly, and then with too much airspeed. Intellectually, I understood that this was just the process of learning: repeated trials with observation of results and continuous adjustments until the desired outcome happens consistently. So why did I find it so frustrating?
I think it's because I was approaching my training wearing the identity of a "good pilot." But this identity was inconsistent with the pilot who was flopping all over the sky trying to do chandelles. Which brings me to what I learned from the experience: identity, self-image, who we think we are, doesn't have to be immutable. It changes from moment to moment and from year to year. In fact, I argue that our sense of identity at any given moment is never the whole story—it's just a convenient abstraction that serves to guide our actions.
So if our identity is just a transient image that we construct and adopt in the moment, why not choose that identity consciously? Who do I think I am right now? How about, "a student of the chandelle?" In this moment, that's a much more helpful identity than "a good pilot." A student of the chandelle expects to be challenged and more easily accepts the reality of his performance, allowing him to attempt, fail, adjust, practice, and perfect the maneuver, and in so doing, develop a true confidence based on real experience. A good pilot expects things to come easily and just feels frustrated and embarrassed when they don't.
So maybe the real question, rather than "who do you think you are?", is "who do you choose to be right now?"
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