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Pride and Predilection

"Did you all drive up together?" Dana asked as my friend Dave, my wife Janet, and I approached the welcome table at my high school reunion.

"We flew into Boonville and Dave picked us up there," I answered.

"You flew?" Dana asked, puzzled.

"Yes, I'm a pilot now!" I replied with just a slight puff of the chest.

I can't count the number of times I've engineered conversations like this. It's a rare social occasion when I don't find a way to let slip that I fly airplanes. It's pathetic, I know, but the response is usually positive (or at least polite) and I can't blame myself for feeling a sense of pride in my skills and accomplishments in the cockpit.

This kind of pride, however, can lead a pilot into temptation. One time I was flying as a passenger with a very experienced aviator at the controls—and he made sure I knew it. He flew the downwind leg with occasional chirps from the stall horn as he kept the speed just a few knots above stall. Abeam the numbers, he lowered full flaps and dumped the nose over into a sharp 45-degree-bank base turn, again maintaining just enough airspeed to avoid stalling. About 50 feet off the deck he executed a sharp, steep final turn and squeaked it down on the numbers. It was a very impressive display of aeronautical skill—and I'll never fly with him again. To my mind, this kind of risk-taking exemplifies not a healthy pride, but dangerous hubris.

I found myself asking what he was trying to prove with that behavior. But then, I might just as well ask what I'm trying to prove by boasting of my own aeronautical experience. Is external validation so important to me? Of course we all enjoy being well regarded by others. For me I suppose there's a kind of security and comfort in feeling that I'm regarded as bringing some value to this life. But do I really need this kind of feedback?

The answer is no, but I guess, like my erstwhile risk-taking flying buddy, I don't always remember that. In fact, the more strongly I believe that I need validation from others, the more likely it is that my healthy pride will turn to hubris. That is, the more I want to be seen as a "good pilot," the more dangerous a pilot I'm likely to become.

When I look at it this way it's clear to me that this dangerous kind of pride is antithetical to confidence. True confidence is a quiet, matter-of-fact faith in my skills, knowledge, and judgment based on real experience—and it's totally independent of what anyone else thinks or says. It must be if I am to trust that confidence to keep me flying and keep me safe.

Over time I've come to recognize the onset of false confidence—this hubris in the making—when it begins to arise and usually I can stuff a sock in it before it gets too annoying. After all, nobody likes a blowhard. Yes, I'll probably always find a way to regale random strangers with tales of my aeronautical exploits. But by staying mindful of the responsibilities I assume as pilot in command I can ward off my hazardous predilections and make good, safe, responsible decisions in the cockpit—even if I occasionally embarrass my wife at the dinner table!

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