It’s been a tough couple of weeks for many people. Unfortunately, at least in the United States, it looks like it’s going to get worse before it gets better. It’s frustrating not being on the front lines of this war. For all the doctors, nurses, and first responders out there, Salute! Thank you for answering the call despite the risk to you and your family.
With the difficult times ahead, there are many decisions to be made. Hopefully this article can help you out.
Make sure to check out my podcast, The Professionals Playbook, for more insights.
If I had to boil down my job description as a fighter pilot I would say it’s: make decisions. For each flight there are thousands of decisions to be made. From mundane ones such as what airspeed to fly, to complex ones such as balancing the acceptable level of risk throughout the mission. We have to triage the situation—because there is always more to do—and make a decision. Not all of them will be the correct one.
Making decisions is a skill. We spend a tremendous amount of time learning what constitutes a good decision and why. But, equally important, if not more so, is remaining resilient after making a bad one.
As an instructor, I get a chance to fly with a lot of F-35 students. One of the most common errors is the “snowball effect.” A student makes a small mistake that affects their next decision which perpetuates until the sortie is out of hand. The key to preventing this is to not dwell on your mistakes.
Tactically employing fighters is difficult and as I said earlier, there’s always more to do than what you’re capable of. When you make a mistake and divert some of your brain’s resources towards non-productive thoughts such as “I can’t believe I screwed that up” or “I’m probably going to fail this flight” you’re wasting energy that can be applied to the next decision. With closure rates averaging a mile every 3 seconds, it’s easy for a sortie to snowball out of control.
For me, having a short memory while flying is the key. I try to stay in the present moment and if I have a non-productive thought, I push it to the side and tell myself that I’ll worry about it in the debrief. I also don’t grade myself while flying. I just try to put together a string of as many good decisions as possible. When I make a mistake, as I inevitably will, I try to focus on the next decision.
I use the word “try” because it’s incredibly difficult to remain mentally resilient when the stakes are high and you’ve made a mistake. I read a study that we’re seven times more prone to negative thoughts than positive ones. I don’t know how accurate that is, but I do think we’re biologically wired to bias in the negative direction. Like any skill, it takes practice to stay in the present moment and not dwell on the past.
About 3 years ago, in Afghanistan, I started meditating each morning for 10 minutes. It helps me to identify negative, unproductive thoughts and let them go. I treat it as a workout for the mind. The goal is to eventually apply these skills automatically during chaotic environments. I don’t think anyone ever masters this skill, but even a 25% reduction is a big performance boost.
I wanted to talk about resilience this month because with the COVID-19 shutdown we’re all now forced to make high stakes decisions with limited data. There are many variables to balance—health, finance, mission, charity, convenience to name a few. Some decisions will be wrong and will potentially have large consequences. If you make a mistake, focus on the next decision—they’ll be time to debrief when the dust settles.