Striving for perfection is a very worthy goal. But being driven by a deep need to achieve personal perfection in every case can cause serious problems. I believe all good pilots value excellence and strive to meet the very highest standards. But in flying, true perfectionism is often not just tolerated but occasionally encouraged; this is a bad idea. If perfectionism is about high standards, persistence, and conscientiousness, what’s not to like? Hopefully, I can explain the dark side without offending any friends.
Perfectionism can cause serious psychopathology because perfectionists believe they themselves also have to achieve an impossible standard—no hesitations, deviations, or inconsistencies. They can become hyper-sensitive to imperfection (in themselves and others) and can fall easily into helplessness and self-recrimination. Perfectionists believe their acceptance is a function of never making mistakes. For true perfectionists there is never “good enough,” and the “perfect” is always (by definition) out of reach. Psychologists catalog perfectionism as a defense mechanism with a rigid set of rituals designed to avoid failure and shame. Operationally, perfectionists are vulnerable to distress and cognitive rigidity; haunted by a chronic sense of failure as well as indecisiveness, procrastination, and shame. Perfectionist pilots can be truly painful to work with since they often display a sense of superiority and condescension as well as an unwillingness to adapt to changing situations. Perfectionism is very different from “striving for excellence!”
If you see yourself in this description, that is not unusual, since pilots are statistically well represented in this group, (and we probably all have “tendencies.”) I would personally argue however that though we should maintain and aspire to the highest standards and ideal outcomes, we should also fight against rigid perfectionism as a source of weakness. Our game is just too fraught with variables and surprises to be amenable to the rigidity of perfectionism. Our best strategy for decision-making in a rapidly changing, high stakes environment is “satisficing” and heuristics.
My common metaphor for decision making in flying is a football game. We of course practice hard, drilling skills and technique. We even run all the hypothetical scenarios and decide the perfect desired course of action with detailed execution in the huddle. But as soon as the ball is snapped and the situation evolves, everything can change rapidly. In this fluid world of multiple variables and limited time, fast action, improvisation and ingenuity are the more successful strategies. We must employ “fast and frugal decision-making” rather than being frozen and constrained by a perfect pre-decided outcome.
This decision making concept was developed by a genius (and Nobel prize-winning) computer scientist named Herbert Simon way back in the 1950s. He was the first behavioral psychologist and debunked the Renaissance idea of “perfection in knowledge and action.” We live in a fast-changing world where we have limited time, resources, or the information and can never make “perfect” choices. He advocated the best choice limited by circumstances which he called “satisficing.” This is also the core concept which pilots call “aeronautical decision making” (ADM). We cannot freeze the action, we must decide on the fly and achieve the best outcome given the limiting factors of time information and resources.
The aeronautical origin of this concept was Colonel John Boyd, the famous developer of energy management fighter tactics (and later the F-16 aircraft at the Pentagon). Boyd ran the Nellis AFB “Top Gun” fighter school for years and created the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act model for decision-making in fluid, rapidly changing (usually wartime) conflicts. This was gratefully accepted by the Marine Corps and is taught at every business school in America for business decisions. The book Team Of Teams by Gen. Stanley McChrystal incorporates many of these ideas employing fast-cycle iterations. When the action is fast and furious, decision making is fast and frugal.
The heart of fast and frugal decision-making is the application of “heuristics” or rules of thumb. These predetermined scripts simplify the decision-making process through mental shortcuts. Heuristics bypass the careful, rational (but time-consuming) deliberation process and occur decisively and immediately in areas with a clear need for action. These also encompass the habits we, as pilots, work so hard to embed almost instinctively in our operating system. Another term from the military that often describes this ability is TLAR and anathema to perfectionists. This translates to “that looks about right.” When Apollo 13 blew up (the famous “Houston, we’ve had a problem”) and the playbook had to be thrown out, calculations on the “back of the napkin” brought this crippled craft back home with the most accurate splashdown in history. So trust the force a little and work with “satisficing” to achieve the best outcome given the circumstances. You might be better off than frozen looking for the perfect choice.