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"Hmm, this'll be interesting," I thought to myself. I was a solo student glider pilot on the downwind leg of the pattern abeam the usual touchdown spot. It was a gorgeous morning, my practice flight had gone well, and I had judged my pattern entry at just the right altitude. There was just one problem: the other glider parked on the runway at the approach end preparing to take off. The tow plane was nowhere in sight, however, and there were two people standing next to the glider, apparently helping the pilot. It seemed unlikely that he would clear the runway before I needed to land.

In an airplane the situation would clearly call for a go-around, but I was flying a glider—there would be no go-around for me! Fortunately, there was a large open field off the approach end of the runway that made a suitable alternate landing area. I planned to land in the field and extended my downwind leg accordingly. Soon I was touching down in the dry grass and bumping along the uneven terrain propelled only by momentum. I even managed my energy well enough to swing wide past the glider on the runway and coast to my tie-down spot. Sweet!

A few minutes later back in the office, I met up with Rick, a champion soaring pilot and airline captain.

"That was some sharp airmanship out there," he said with a smile. "Good work!"

I swelled with pride. "Well, I just aimed short and left myself enough energy to coast on in!" I answered.

His smile faded slightly and after a brief pause and a nod, he headed back outside. I realized belatedly that a simple "thank you" would have been a better response to his compliment.

I also noticed something else. Underneath my budding pride were the seeds of doubt. Even though my performance that morning was legitimate grounds for an increased confidence, my lingering doubts prompted me instead to respond with cockiness.

As I progressed in my training and gained more experience, I came to notice a clear difference between cockiness and confidence: they feel very different. Cockiness is loud and blind—and always masks underlying doubts. It just doesn't feel good. Confidence, on the other hand, feels quieter, simpler, and more matter-of-fact. It doesn't make a big deal of itself.

Furthermore, it's situational—dependent on context. It's true that as I gain experience, confidence comes more quickly and easily and I trust that it will. But true confidence is not a blind, blanket belief that I can do no wrong. It's the feeling that comes of operating within my comfort zone or stretching just a little beyond it.

That stretching allows me to gain experience and expand my comfort zone so that I can be legitimately confident in a wider range of situations. And that just feels good.

So nowadays when someone compliments me on my flying, I just look them in the eye, smile, and give them a sincere "thank you."

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"Argh! What the hell?!" I growled aloud to no one in particular.

I was sitting at my desk hunched over my laptop and a pad of paper struggling with an ADF bearing-intercept problem. I'd been studying for the Commercial Pilot knowledge test and it had been going pretty easily until I hit this group of questions, and for some reason I just couldn't get my head around them.

"I'm an Advanced Ground Instructor!" I thought to myself. "I'm supposed to know this stuff!"

I confess that this is an all-too-common experience for me. Even though I "know better," my life-long habit of perfectionism and black-and-white thinking has been very persistent.

In last week's post, I argued against using affirmations of the kind recited by Al Franken's Stuart Smalley character as a source of confidence, but I also acknowledged that they can be very useful as reminders of things we actually believe but often forget. To help counter my perfectionist habits, I made an audio recording of some reminders (I can't bring myself to call them "affirmations") that I listen to regularly. As I sat there fuming in frustration, a phrase from that recording came to mind about how I prefer to respond to mistakes:

"I accept my mistakes with good humor, valuing them as an essential part of lifelong learning."

This reminded me that regardless of the standards of performance I set up for myself, mistakes are absolutely necessary, and so long as I want to continue learning, I must continue making them. This gave me just enough mental distance from the situation to let me ask my observe-act-observe questions and the answers immediately leaped out.

What do I notice?

Well, for one thing, I just tried to add my wind correction angle to my ground speed. Maybe this Advanced Ground Instructor had an Advanced Case of Fatigue!

What can I do?

Go to bed!

What are the results?

I immediately felt better both emotionally and physically. My breathing was deeper and more regular and the tension in my gut, jaw, and shoulders had relaxed. I heaved a deep sigh, closed the laptop, and sacked out for the night.

When I woke up in the morning, I almost immediately realized what I'd been doing wrong with the ADF problem.

"Oh, right! Where I am relative to the station determines whether a particular heading will intercept a given bearing. First figure out what quadrant I'm in and then pick the heading that will intercept the bearing." After a good night's sleep, it was easy!

OK, so maybe affirmations have their place in the pursuit of confidence after all. Sorry, Stuart—I didn't mean to dis you!

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Remember Stuart Smalley, Al Franken's self-help guru character from the old Saturday Night Live show's "Daily Affirmation" segment? His catch phrase was, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!" It was funny shtick, poking affectionate fun at the self-help and recovery movements and their penchant for using affirmations to change mental attitudes.

Now, I think affirmations are a great way to remind ourselves of things that we actually do believe but tend to forget. I've written many times in this blog, however, that experience, not affirmation, is the only way to build true confidence. We can't talk ourselves into believing in our abilities—or at least we really shouldn't. A confidence based on mere affirmation could be dangerous because it might encourage us to ignore that "spidey sense" that tells us we're about to do something stupid. Such a confidence would make us much more prone to complacency and errors of inattention such as "get-there-itis."

On the other hand I think we often discount our positive experiences and magnify the negative. We develop a destructive kind of self-criticism. We don't realize that our observations are skewed, and despite their seeming gravitas, are no more accurate than Stuart Smalley's vapid affirmations.

I've often written about applying the observe-act-observe cycle to identifying and correcting errors, but I've come to feel it's more important to recognize and reinforce our successful behaviors. For example, when landing an airplane, we sometimes misjudge the flare and plunk it down a little harder than we'd like. We can analyze the situation to identify our error and think of ways to adjust the flare to get better results, and that's very helpful.

But what about when the landing is a "greaser"—a thing of beauty? I think it's very important to soak in that experience as consciously as possible, not to over-think it, which diverts our attention from the experience itself, but to commit our successful actions to memory. This is where heightened awareness, especially of sensory input, really helps. If we can remember vividly what that landing looked, felt, and sounded like, we're much more likely to duplicate it in the future.

In fact, we can probably learn even more from what we do well than what we do badly—but only if we're paying attention. Maybe that's the best way after all to affirm a true confidence in our abilities—one that we can trust not to lead us astray.

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I was sitting at my desk last Saturday afternoon, engrossed in some work I was doing for a client, when I heard my wife Janet come in the front door.

"If you don't want me to cut my hair, would you come here please?" she said from the other room. "Quickly."

That got my attention. A favorite columnist once wrote, "Men live in fear of their wives cutting their hair." I heard that! I walked down the hall to the living room. There was Janet holding our electric leaf blower about a foot from her head. As I looked more closely, I could see why. A large quantity of her very long, beautiful hair had disappeared into the air intakes.

"Help?" she said.

Out came the tools. When we opened the blower's case, we were confronted with the gravity of the situation. Her hair was wound so tightly around the motor shaft that it looked like a bulging spool of thread.

"We have to get the motor apart," I said, after it became clear the mess couldn't be unwound. There were only two bolts holding the motor together, but the impeller was blocking access to the heads. It looked like the impeller could just be unscrewed from the shaft, and a quick Internet search for the blower's service manual confirmed this, but there was a catch. The operation required grabbing the motor shaft with a pair of pliers to keep it from spinning—but said shaft was completely encased in hair.

We needed a plan B. The end of the shaft was clearly visible, which gave me an idea.

"We could use a cutoff wheel on the Dremel tool to cut a slot in the end of the shaft," I said. "That would let us hold it still with a screwdriver so we can unscrew the impeller."

"You know, I could just cut it. I haven't had shoulder-length hair for a long time," she threatened.

"No! We can do this! We've handled much harder jobs than this when working on the airplanes," I assured her.

It was true. I've done a lot of work on my club's airplanes over the years under the supervision of our A&P mechanic, so I'm painfully aware that airplanes aren't always built with ease of maintenance in mind. I can vividly recall lying on my back under the Cessna's instrument panel, the rudder pedals digging into my back, as I reached far up behind the panel to install the instrument air filter. Then there were the inevitable mishaps involving small, critical parts dropped into the bilges, requiring four hands, an inspection mirror, a flashlight, and an articulating magnet to retrieve them. And how could I forget servicing the Bonanza's shimmy damper? Compared to these tasks, this primitive electric motor with its plastic impeller and two little bolts was child's play!

"Turn your head," I told Janet. As she steadied the work piece as far from her face as she could manage, I carefully spun up the Dremel and started grinding away. After nearly twenty years together, it's gratifying to know that sparks can still fly between us.

"OK, here we go!" I said, grabbing the screwdriver and wrench. With all my might, I tried to break the impeller's death grip on its shaft. No dice. I stared at the motor.

Time for plan C.

"You know, if I drilled a large enough hole in the impeller, I could get a screwdriver through it to the bolt heads."

Out came the drill. A few minutes later, there was nice, gaping hole in the plastic impeller, perfectly aligned with the bolts. A few minutes after that, both bolts were removed.

"That should do it!" I concluded, convinced we were home free. There was just one problem. The motor parts still wouldn't budge.

Time for plan D.

"If I could get a better purchase on this thing, we might be able to get somewhere," I said. We both sat quietly contemplating our next move.

"Why don't I just cut it?" Janet said again, her patience clearly wearing thin.

"Please! Give me a few minutes. We can do this!" I pleaded. We were so close! What I really needed was a way to keep the thing steady. I just couldn't get enough torque on it with her hand-holding it.

"We have a vise at the hangar," I said finally.

Fifteen minutes later, we were hovering over the workbench in our club's hangar, trying to find a position for the two of us, the motor, and the half of the blower case that was hanging from her hair that would allow us to clamp the motor securely in the vise and still get at it with the tools. After a few Laurel and Hardy moments, we finally figured it out.

"OK, here we go," I said as I applied screwdriver and wrench with focused intensity. "This oughta get it!"

Then, unexpectedly, the motor slowly started to come apart!

"Hey, look!" I cried. There was no doubt about it. Millimeter by millimeter, the motor started to separate, until the core came free. "That's got it! I can unwind your hair now!" Sure enough, we were able to salvage all but a few of the precious strands.

"My hero!" Janet said, giving me a big hug and a kiss. "Who would've guessed that being a pilot could come in so handy?"

I laughed. "I told you all that training would pay off!"

She was teasing me, of course, but it really is true that flying and working on airplanes have taught me a lot about problem solving, patience, and above all persistence. That blower even still works after I (ahem) duct-taped over the hole in the impeller and put it back together! (Hey, it's a leaf blower, not an airplane!)

Now, I know what you're thinking. Why not just buy a vise?

You know, sometimes it's best not to ask too many questions.

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It's often observed that most aircraft accidents are caused not by a single error but by a chain of compounding errors. The NTSB accident database is filled with examples.

I've experienced this myself, having occasionally made a series of bad decisions that nearly led to grief, such as the harrowing go-around I wrote about last year. In that case, the error chain continued because at each decision point, I felt bound by previous decisions. I couldn't correct my distance from the runway on downwind because I'd committed to fitting into the flow of traffic in a certain way. I couldn't go around when I realized I was too high on final or when I realized I was too fast on short final because I'd committed to landing. It finally took a badly porpoised landing attempt to prompt my go-around, at which point it was nearly too late.

Ever have "one of those days" when everything seems to go wrong? We all have. I think those days are a perfect example of the same kind of error chain that nearly cost me dearly on that late Summer afternoon. For me the key moment on such a day is when I consciously decide "it's one of those days." In that instant I'm resigned to having a bad day. Actually, I'm committed to it. And sure enough, once that happens, I'm pretty much guaranteed a day of misery as I lurch from mishap to mishap, bemoaning my fate. This is what I've come to call the fallacy of continuity, the belief that the past determines the present.

But if I have the presence of mind to be more objective, I can see that past events, no matter how recent, are, well, in the past. They're finished, and while I might be dealing with their consequences in the present, I always have choices about what to do next. I'm not just doomed to repeat history.

By making an honest assessment of my situation, consciously choosing my actions, and paying attention to their results, I can stop "one of those days" in its tracks. It's the Observe-Act-Observe cycle again. Starting fresh in each moment, I can break the error chain—before it breaks me, my passengers, or my airplane.

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