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Embracing Doubt

The shadows crept slowly across the ceiling, cast by the passing cars on the street outside. It was 4am and I'd been awake for a while. My last few lessons in the glider had been a struggle. The landings that used to be so smooth were now teeth rattlers. My attempts to do a forward slip just resulted in a little extra wind noise, and I'd scared myself by failing to see traffic that my instructor had to point out. It wasn't feeling like I would ever be a pilot. I didn't know the term at the time, but I was deep in the doldrums of a learning plateau, and doubt was a constant companion.

Doubt comes in many forms. Sometimes I might doubt my physical skills, the adequacy of my knowledge, or my judgment and aeronautical decision making. But these are the relatively benign forms of doubt. When doubt goes deeper, it can call into question my innate capacity, tempting me to wonder whether I "have what it takes." Deeper still, and I can even question my self-worth.

It's those kinds of questions that make for sleepless nights. Too many of them, and I can even start to fear the onset of doubt, dreading the crisis of confidence that follows, convinced that my doubt is proof of a fatal character flaw. It might seem silly that such existential angst could arise just from learning how to operate a machine, but I suspect most pilots have had these dark moments, and it isn't always when we're first starting out. I've heard very experienced pilots at the height of their skills express these doubts and talk seriously about hanging it up.

That's why I think it's critical to learn to recognize the difference between doubting my abilities and doubting myself. Doubting my abilities is often healthy. It can be a simple matter of facing facts, and it can help direct my efforts at learning. In response, I can schedule some dual instruction or a practice session in an area where my skills are weak—and avoid doing something stupid in the meantime. But when doubt is personal, it becomes destructive. When confronted by doubt, just asking the question, "What can I do about this?" can help. If specific action steps come to mind, the doubt is probably related to my abilities, not me personally. If the answer is "I don't know," then maybe it's time to ask for help from a favorite instructor. But if the answer is along the lines of "There's nothing I can do—I just suck," then I know that I'm dealing with personal doubt.

When this pernicious form of doubt rears its head, I like to remind myself that it is, in fact, irrelevant. When I express doubt in my capacity to accomplish something ("I don't know whether I can do it!"), I'm just stating a fact. Of course I don't know whether I can do it because I haven't done it yet—and no one can predict the future. No matter how difficult something may be for me, or how much easier it appears to be for someone else, concluding that I can't do it would be to claim some supernatural precognition.

Another technique for separating personal from helpful doubt is dispassionate observation. Separating fact from opinion is a powerful way to "unhook" myself from personal judgments and focus on the specific actions I can take to improve my results. It's the difference between saying, "I'm consistently flaring high, causing a hard landing" and saying, "I suck at landings." One is dispassionate observation of fact and gives me something to work with. The other is just so much noise that leaves me nowhere.

There's no reason that doubt has to be a problem, so long as I can identify and let go of destructive personal judgments and crystal-ball gazing and focus on specific, factual observations that can help me improve my results, gain positive experience—and build true confidence.

After all, if I didn't have doubt, I wouldn't need confidence—and I wouldn't have the opportunity to develop it.

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