I gazed down at the golden, rolling hills beneath me illuminated by the warm, raking light of early morning. Visibility was unlimited in the cool, clear, California Winter air, and the view from the glider's big bubble canopy was breathtaking. My eyes swept the horizon, taking it all in. Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed the back seat. It was empty! A jolt of adrenaline brought me to attention. I was all by myself, and in less than two minutes, I had to land this thing!
Like every pilot, I remember my first solo as if it were yesterday. (Actually, much more vividly—these days I can barely remember yesterday.) Aviation milestones like first solo, first cross country, and passing the checkride are so memorable because they mark the accomplishment of personal goals that are deeply important to us.
Flying by it's very nature tends to attract people who are goal-driven. We enjoy meeting challenges and overcoming them. Countless books have been written about goals and their importance in our lives. There's general agreement that to provide effective motivation, goals need to be specific, so we can know unambiguously when they're complete, and they must have a deadline, to keep us focused and tracking to a definite plan.
But what if, despite our best efforts, we miss the deadline? It happens all the time. There are lots of reasons, but they usually boil down to things being harder than expected, taking longer than expected, or other priorities cropping up that divert our attention. After over twenty years in high tech, I can count on one hand the number of projects I've worked on that finished on schedule. Almost invariably, unknown obstacles, over-optimistic scheduling, and "scope creep" combine to delay projects long past their original targets.
So are deadlines meaningless? Are they just arbitrary targets? Not if we sincerely believe they're realistic. When setting my own goals, I do my best to make an honest, good-faith estimate of how long they will take to complete and add some "padding" for the inevitable unexpected challenges. Even so, sometimes I'm wrong.
Back in January, I set the goal of completing my Commercial and CFI certificates by the end of this year. Well, that didn't happen, and I'll admit to feeling pretty disappointed about it. I take my commitments seriously, so there's a strong temptation to interpret my missing this deadline as a personal failing, and my confidence and self-respect could take a hit. This is the point when it would be easy to give up on a goal, talk myself out of it, or pretend it wasn't really that important after all. This is the point when it would be easy to quit.
But it's precisely self-respect that makes it so important to accept reality and strive to be as objective as possible. The truth is that my failure to meet the deadline doesn't mean anything about me. It's just a fact. The important question is why did I miss the deadline? What choices did I make that let to this result? Applying the observe-act-observe cycle to goals means re-assessing them whenever circumstances change or I learn some significant new information. In the case of my goal to earn my CFI this year, I do think I made the right choices overall, but I also see ways I could have used my time more efficiently. I can now apply those insights to setting a revised target.
When encountering any setback or delay, I also find it very helpful to refocus on why a goal matters, rather than allowing myself to get stuck in disappointment. Why is becoming a flight instructor so important to me? Because I love flying and I love sharing it with others. Teaching people to fly will allow me to do both and help keep me connected with the inexplicable magic that airplanes make possible. I can't wait to see that giddy grin of accomplishment on my students faces when they climb out of the cockpit after first solo, first cross-country, or passing the checkride.
And I look forward to cutting those shirttails!