Pursuing excellence and striving to be better is a positive piloting trait and the heart of professionalism. It is unfortunately often confused with “perfectionism” which is a neurotic need to avoid any perceived errors – rooted in fear and insecurity. Perfectionists seek external validation and are often driven by shame. Being perfect “every day in every way” can be seriously disabling in both life and in flying. It is also a serious impediment to learning anything new since this requires some humility and vulnerability (not a “know it all”). Perfectionism causes indecision and procrastination since no action can be taken until it is absolutely “the best.” And in flying, “no action” is definitely the “enemy of the good.” By contrast, aeronautical decision-making strives for the “best possible” solution in a timely manner; “satisficing” not maximizing. TLAR (that looks about right) is from the military; extemporaneous improvisation in the heat of battle. The pitfalls of perfectionism go way beyond the usual “pilot OCD.” To be safe we need to fully understand the difference.
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth.”
Dr. Brené Brown
Perfectionism can cause serious psychopathology because perfectionists relentlessly drive themselves to achieve an impossible standard—no hesitations, deviations, or inconsistencies. (This is the driving force behind anorexia) They can become hyper-sensitive to imperfection (in themselves and others) and can fall easily into helplessness and self-recrimination. Perfectionists believe their acceptance from others (being a good pilot) is dependent upon never making any mistakes. For true perfectionists, there is never “good enough,” since by definition, “perfect” is always out of reach. Psychologists catalog perfectionism as a defense mechanism with a rigid set of rituals designed to avoid failure and especially shame (failure in the eyes of others). 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 an outward sense of superiority and condescension as well as an unwillingness to adapt to changing situations. In this way, perfectionism is very different from “striving for excellence!”
Perfectionism, after all, is an ultimately self-defeating way to move through the world. It is built on an excruciating irony: making, and admitting, mistakes is a necessary part of growing and learning and being human. It also makes you better at your career and relationships and life in general. By avoiding mistakes at any cost, a perfectionist can make it harder to reach their own lofty goals. Amanda Ruggeri
If you see yourself in some of these descriptions, don’t be alarmed. Every psychological profile is a spectrum and pilots all have “tendencies.” There are good elements that can be salvaged, it is the core negative motivation that needs to be avoided. Though we should all maintain and aspire to the highest standards and ideal outcomes, we need to fight against rigid perfectionism as a weakness that is disabling. Flying is too dynamic and 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 “the best solution in the current situation.”
A common metaphor for decision making in aviation is the sport of football. As in aviation, football requires hard practice, drilling skills, and technique. It similarly runs all the hypothetical scenarios and even decides the perfect desired course of action in the huddle. But as soon as the ball is snapped and the whole situation evolves, everything is changing rapidly. This fluid world of multiple variables and limited time, requires fast action, improvisation and flexibility not the rigidity of perfection. Aviation decisions require “fast and frugal decision-making” rather than rigid and constrained pre-decided planning. As General Eisenhower famously said “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”
“Satisficing” is a decision making concept 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, and information. “Perfect choices” are impossible in a dynamic environment. Simon 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 (“that looks about right”) and is an anathema to perfectionists. When Apollo 13 blew up (the famous quote “Houston, we’ve had a problem”) and the playbook had to be thrown out requiring calculations on the “back of the napkin.” Flexible thinking 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 will always be better off acting decisively than frozen looking for an elusive “perfect choice.” Fly safely out there (and often)!
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