Wednesday, November 4, 2009

High Stakes, High Standards

I’ve always had high standards for other people.

It all started as a young girl, trying to get a ride in a particular airplane with a particular pilot. It may have looked like I was a typical “ramp rat” at the fly-ins and airshows, flying with anyone who would take me. But each pilot/plane combination was the result of careful observation as I calculated the risk/reward ratio—obvious then even to me.

I learned it from my Dad, actually. He taught me not to fly with anyone that I didn’t feel comfortable with. “Fly with only the best—it IS your life on the line, after all”, I remember him saying.

So I watched for evidence of “only the best”.

I watched how other pilots flew, the decisions they made, the way they cared for their airplanes, the stories they told before and after their flights, the way they swaggered (or didn’t), the claims they made about their own flying, and even what they said about other pilots.

I learned quickly who to avoid. I considered boasting crass, and hot-dogging the lowest of the low. But those too timid gave me warning signs just as obvious.

On my A-list: a humble confidence, a clear decisiveness, a quiet patience, an eye for endless detail, a love and trust of the plane herself, a joy in sharing the sky with another…that’s what attracted me every time.

As a result of my observations and my choices, I’ve flown in some magnificent aircraft with some magnificent pilots--the best of the best, in the best. Antique to Warbird to Classic. Wunderkind to Veteran to Legend.

A few weeks ago however, I felt an old stirring in my gut. And it hurt my heart to feel it, but I couldn’t deny it. My husband wanted me to fly with him, in an airplane I knew little about.

Now, you must understand, I hadn’t seen Kerry fly in a very long time. Years ago, he had been the finest pilot I knew, knowing his airplane, knowing the landscape, knowing the weather, knowing his limitations and those of his airplane. I’d seen him land hundreds of times, and they were landings beautiful to behold, grace in motion, the perfect harmony of man, intention, and aerodynamics. He’d flown on land, on floats, in weather, in different planes.

Trouble was, here we were in 2009…and I hadn’t seen him fly on his own in ages. I hadn’t seen him takeoff, climb, get in the pattern, and land again. I hadn’t seen him taxi out, and taxi in again. I didn’t have enough data to make a good decision.

And so, my stomach aching, I told him that I wouldn’t fly with him…not yet. Not until he proved himself worthy.

Well, I didn’t actually tell him in THOSE words, but he knew it in an instant. I could see the reaction on his face. With all his hours, with all our history flying together in the past, how could I possibly not want to fly with him??? But he didn’t say anything. His face went a little steely is all, and then he told a friend of ours (in my presence I might add) that I refused to fly with him. (Aw, man…now what have I done?)

Still, I could hear my Dad’s voice, distant in my ears after so many decades, but just as powerful in my gut…”fly with only the best”. I just couldn’t force myself to do anything less. If this was a “deal-breaker”, well then, I’d have to live with that.

That afternoon, Kerry decided to go flying in a J-3 Cub (really, he wants to fly in this rain???) (Yes, the photos I included 2 blog entries ago are from this very event.)

I took shelter inside, overlooking the runway. The day was pretty dreary, but hey, Kerry was a bush pilot. He knew how to fly in the rain.

I had to see him meet my standards. And he knew very clearly, without me saying a word, what he needed to do.

He took off and it was fine. (Hard for anyone with as many hours as he has to screw that up, I rationalized.) He pulled up, got back into the pattern and back around, and the moment of truth….the landing.

Which I couldn’t see…

There was a big tree blocking the view. (Aaargh!)

He flew the pattern again….and again set up for a landing. As if he could read my thoughts, he floated farther down the runway so I could see it this time, before settling gently to earth (well done!) then up again… more time around, and this time he slipped it in sideways, and oh man….is that him landing on one wheel??? (A good practice for crosswinds, it had that definite element of “Look….See????? that was meant just for me. Not grandstanding, just simply demonstrating what he could do if necessary.) And again up and around one more time, this time to land on a very specific piece of grass, a landing perfectly timed to settle on that patch of grass alone.

When he came in, he grinned and said, “So…did I pass?“

I smiled, “Whatever are you talking about?”

But I hugged him, thrilled and relieved, and sighed “Nice job”.

That night on the drive home, I told him about what I’d learned from my Dad. And how my commitment to that wisdom had kept me safe all these years. I’d also learned what excellence looked like, sounded like, and even felt like, even if I wasn’t yet a pilot myself.

With that, he felt much better, knowing that it was advice from my father that I’d taken very seriously—so seriously that I didn’t even let the fact that it was my husband that was in question sway me from it.

Then he said a little wistfully, "I only hope my daughter values my advice as much as you valued your Dad's."

I hope so too.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Beauty of the Line

I don’t know how many clients I’ve had where these questions come up:

  • What should I be doing with my life?
  • Am I sure I’m doing the right thing for me?
  • How do I know when it’s right?
  • How do I get myself on the right track?

As part of the “provocative conversation” that makes up the framework of my coaching, we normally go and explore all kinds of things: strengths, preferences, joys, passions, talents, skills, and even the I-don’t-know-why-I-just-feel-drawn-to-it places.

That’s a beginning. Then we explore strategies…what has worked in the past? For others? What has failed miserably? What are the “best practices” that might need some reworking?

Then perhaps we go to some areas more subtle: What’s my image of myself, and could it use some reframing? What do I fear the most? What am I pretending not to know?

So many questions, yet after awhile, they all seem to come together to form a new picture and help bring on a transformation, filled with focus, purpose and power.

But lately, I’ve had those same questions for myself. I love the new focus on learning to fly, but in other areas I’ve felt like not enough of my own life was coming back to me. Like standing waiting for the tennis ball to come back over the net, and being really disappointed. Problem was, I hadn’t lobbed one over the net to start with. (Well, duh....No purpose or power in that!)

Somehow, I’d become very dependent on others’ actions, it seems. Waiting for others to make their move, waiting for others to DO something, SAY something, WRITE something...for something to HAPPEN…and only then would I respond. And little my little, my own momentum towards something great (okay…towards anything) was fading away.

It was a simple video on the internet that woke me up, part of my new passion to absorb most things aviation-related--an interview with the new National Champion of the 2009 Breitling Unlimited Gold Race at the famed Reno Air Races: Steven Hinton, Jr.

At only 22, Steven won the day with a blistering average speed of over 491 mph, and an elegantly perfect race. In so doing, he also claimed the Youngest Champion record from the previous record-holder: his own father, Steve Hinton, Sr. It’s a wonderful story, and a more humble champion you will never meet—except perhaps for his dad. (You can get the video podcast here. If this link doesn't work, go to the official site.)

In this interview, Steven talks about how he managed to take over first place from his starting spot in second. Here’s what he said:

”…with the line I fly, it was time to start turning, and Will [the pilot ahead of him] hadn’t started turning yet, so I stayed above him and gave him space, and started my turn, and he was gone underneath me and…[laugh] never looked back from there.”

Wow…In this simple description of what Steven did, I found 12 distinct coaching elements, with huge value for anyone pursuing anything!

Here’s what I heard (much more wordy, but you’ll see where I’m going with this):

“I have a very specific plan to achieve my goal; it’s one that I know well and am comfortable with, and it tells me what to do, and when to do it. My job is to follow that plan. What another person does, or doesn’t do, doesn’t affect my plan. I don’t need to push another out of his/her plan, since mine brings me what I want. When what I want is ahead of me, there’s no reason to be concerned with anything else.”

Now, I’m certain Steven didn’t think he did anything special with that interview; he simply described what he did. (But isn’t it amazing how we help each other, even unintentionally? He’ll never know the effect his words had on me, and he probably wouldn’t really care. He’s too busy focusing on the next perfect line for him to fly—as he should be.)

So with huge thanks to Steven anyway, I'm posing this question to myself and for all my clients in the future (you may take it on as well, if you like):

What exactly is the line that I’m going to fly?

Because, with the answer to this one question, everything changes.