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Lower Your Standards?

There's an old, sardonic saying: "When all else fails, lower your standards!"

This isn't one you hear often in aviation. We have high standards and we're proud of them! As pilots we're always striving to fly as well and as skillfully as we can. And as passengers, we certainly don't want our flight crew lowering their standards! The minimum standards for various pilot certificates and ratings are spelled out in the Practical Test Standards published by the FAA, but most of us are taught to strive for better.

In recent posts I've talked about holding myself to a high standard in my own training, the pitfalls of ego, and the frustration that often results. My most persistent bad habit is a perfectionism based on an old, stubborn belief that my performance determines my self-worth. When I feel that old frustration burrowing into my gut, it takes all I have (sometimes more than I have) to remember to drop the drama and just observe-act-observe.

But does that mean I have to lower my standards? Does letting go of that pernicious perfectionism require me to settle for sloppy flying? Not at all! I think we tend to feel that if we're not tense and slightly anxious in our pursuit of high standards that somehow we're not taking it seriously, just as we often have the vague feeling that we're not working hard enough unless we feel some strain or discomfort.

While it's true that a small amount of stress does make us more alert and perform better, it doesn't take much to overdo it. After a certain point, tension and anxiety degrade performance considerably. It's hard to fly well when you have a death grip on the yoke! We perform much better when relaxed but alert. Flying well is still "hard work" in that it requires paying close attention and making adjustments, especially when learning a new skill. I've come to realize, however, that most of the stress I've experienced in the cockpit over the years has been completely self-inflicted! As I described in last year's post Death Before Embarrassment, most of my stress has been due to a fear of making mistakes, rather than any kind of fear for my safety.

Without all the ego-drama, it's much easier to assess my own performance objectively. If there's no shame in mistakes, I'm much less likely to ignore and deny them. By being willing to freely make a full range of "mistakes" in my learning, I have more valuable data to learn from. Limiting my range of action in an attempt to avoid mistakes just limits my overall experience and makes learning harder. Naturally, there's a limit to the range of mistakes I can safely make in an airplane, but it's a much wider range than many people realize, especially in a typical trainer. Besides, so long as I'm paying attention and making a sincere effort to improve my performance, I'm actually much less likely to make a serious mistake while relaxed than when I'm tense, anxious, and over-controlling the airplane.

For most of us it takes practice to maintain concentration and attention without tensing up, but it is possible. It becomes much easier when we respect our limits, ask for help when we need it, slow down, and consciously release the excess tension in our muscles. And sometimes I can even remember to do it! It also helps to remember that I can just relax and fly the airplane—without having to lower my standards.

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