This week, the progression of my flying lessons began with more advanced maneuvers. The first one in this phase was “steep turns”. As we took off from the Asheville Airport and headed for the practice area just west of Lake Lure, I was feeling moderately confident that steep turns would be no big deal. However, as it came time to level off and begin configuring the plane, I noticed that I was having a difficult time maintaining straight and level flight. That’s when my brain started firing some not-so-useful thoughts at me. “If you can’t fly straight, what makes you think you can do a steep turn?” What I failed to remind my oh-so-ever-helpful brain in the back seat was that it was an especially hot and bumpy day. It’s always more challenging to fly on days with thermals (pockets of hot air) everywhere.
My instructor pilot said, “OK, let’s do a left turn,” and then proceeded to give me the steps to bank the airplane 45 degrees, while maintaining my altitude and not hitting any mountains. She asked, “Would you like for me to demonstrate?” Well, surely you don’t expect me to do it on my own, I thought. “YES please,” I said.
She began to bank the plane to the left and I immediately realized that this was a lot steeper than a normal turn. It felt like I was in Top Gun, rolling a fighter jet for air-to-air combat. However, my brain sent me a much less useful thought: “You are about to get dumped out of this plane. That ground sure looks close. Did you notice that you don’t have a parachute?” In my grown-up voice, I said, “Wow, this sure is uncomfortable.”
When she finished the demonstration, she asked if I would like to try it myself, or would I rather go back to the airport for touch and go landings. My mouth said “airport” before I could arrest and redirect my brain to take a breath and summon my courage.
After the lesson, during which we did several touch-and-go practice landings, we reflected on my decision to postpone my steep turn lesson. She said not to worry, the conditions were very challenging. Now, my brain tried to beat me up with not-so-useful thoughts like “You should have stuck it out. What happened up there?” and other nonsense I’ve come to recognize as the imaginary Sports Mom that sits in the stands, criticizing my every move. (I bet she can’t fly an airplane!) This from the same brain that sent me back to the airport! However, I was able to arrest and redirect these thoughts with more useful ones. “You will do it next time. Remember, you can stop when you are uncomfortable and retry. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time.”
My next lesson happened two days later, when it was thankfully 15 degrees cooler. We headed out for the practice area, this time north of the Asheville Airport. We started again with steep turns. This time, I reviewed the procedure with her and then started the turn. First to the left, then to the right. At the end, she said “Your left turn was a little shallow; your right turn was on the money.” I answered “Well, I guess I must feel better about dumping you out of the plane than me.” Then we did the left turn again, this time with the proper bank angle. For the rest of the lesson, we did several other maneuvers, like stalls, a spiraling steep emergency descent with no engine power, instrument only flight and other previously scary things. Throughout the entire lesson, I stayed in the “froth”, that useful zone of discomfort where I am able to reach for my mental tools, remind myself to relax and arrest my negative thoughts.
Reflecting on the two flying lessons, I’m reminded that this is how true learning works. It’s critical to remember that there are two parts. The most obvious, or visible part is the skill we are trying to learn. The invisible part encompasses our mindset, which includes our inner dialogue, our ability to remain relaxed and composed under pressure and our willingness to feel uncomfortable while trying something new. Working on our mindset and developing our mental (or invisible) tools is as important, if not more important, than the skill itself.
When we focus on our mental tools (like listening, problem solving, curiosity, courage, timing and feel), we elevate our ability to respond effectively under pressure.
Between my two flying lessons, I found myself vacillating between self-support and self-criticism. I’ve experienced all too well how both thought patterns feed on each other. Criticism begets more criticism. Support begets more support. Both are uncomfortable. One way leads to self-imposed limitations and constantly feeling like I’m falling short. The other way leads to feeling a sense of accomplishment and a hunger for more opportunities.
If I seek only comfort, I can give up on true learning and growth.
In what areas are you seeking learning and growth? What keeps you in the froth? In what ways can you arrest your self-critical thoughts and redirect them into self-supporting thoughts? Who would you be without self-limiting thoughts?
My new book Dancing the Tightrope is in the final round of edits! This book is for anyone who wants to “get back on the horse” after failure – either literally or figuratively.