A “Growth Mindset” Cures Burnout!

The repetitive nature of flight training with the cycle of practice area/traffic pattern, can defeat and deaden even the most enthusiastic aviation educator over time. Similarly, eager, excited new pilots also get caught in a rut of their “comfort zone” pretty quickly and eventually fly less or quit altogether unless they embrace new challenges. It takes intentional steps to keep your initial aviation excitement alive – and this should not take the form of greater risks, but new learning.  Otherwise, you will find yourself experiencing less pleasure in your daily flight activities (normalizing your familiar experiences). Every educator and passionate pilot needs to embrace a growth mindset to avoid burnout!

Burnout in any area of experience is from too much of the same continuous input and limitations. As humans, we naturally normalize (stereotype) all our experiences, even the good ones (hedonic treadmill theory). The most exciting experience can become “Groundhog Day” unless we intentionally vary the script and step out of our “comfort zone.” Here are some ideas to brighten and recharge your life and your teaching. These ideas are adapted to aviation education but make sense for every daily activity.

“The hand you are dealt is just the starting point for development.” —Carol Dweck

Embrace a Growth Mindset

The term “growth mindset” was popularized by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and grew out of Dr. Martin Seligman’s work on “learned helplessness.” The growth mindset embraces the optimistic life view that change and growth are natural human qualities; we are built to naturally learn, improve, and flourish. Unlike hard-coded organisms, up and running at birth, humans are born helpless, with only 256Mg of instructional data. Humans learn all the rest of their required skills in along period of dependency varying greatly with environment and challenges. Consequently we are the most adaptable (and numerous) species on the planet.

A growth mindset is the complete opposite of the cynical “hamster wheel view of life” which believes “we are entirely the cards we were dealt.” Growth mindset is the philosophy behind “The Talent Code” – “greatness isn’t born, it’s grown through deep practice” and continual learning; humans are filled with endless possibilities. The key mandate to achieve a growth mindset is to escape the comfort zone and pursue new and creative challenges; developing more resilient and flexible skills. This requires effort and some struggle though, not the easiest pathway.

Struggle is not optional—it’s neurologically required: in order to get your skill circuit to fire optimally, you must by definition fire the circuit suboptimally; you must make mistakes and pay attention to those mistakes; you must slowly teach your circuit. You must also keep firing that circuit—i.e., practicing—in order to [build and] keep myelin functioning properly

It Is OK to Make Mistakes!

One huge impediment to learning is ego. After a while in piloting, or as a professional in any field, the ego prevents taking chances and looking stupid – we aggressively avoid being a “beginner.” Mistakes in professional aviation in any form are totally not allowed. But mistakes and blundering are exactly what learning requires in new areas. Learning takes courage. This experience of complete newness and novelty is what recharges your batteries and brings joy through achievement. It is OK to suck at something new (provided a safe environment). Blundering and experimenting is a required part of learning.

I recently took some helicopter dual and in addition to being a (happy) klutz at the controls, I developed great admiration for my CFI who patiently guided me through hovering again. I felt a kinship with my students who tried hard but do not initially succeed.

Creatively Vary Your Presentation

If you are getting bored with your instructional routine, your learner is also probably suffering from this malaise. You need to break this cycle and instead of heading to “the practice area,” get creative and use nearby local airports as a new challenge (when this challenge is appropriate for your learner). Assign a destination farther away and then invent a weather scenario that requires a diversion to a nearby field that was not planned. Scenario training requires some time and creativity to conjure up the challenges but ends up being fun – adding excitement for both the learner *and* the educator.

Rev Up Your Curiosity!

In your ordinary environment, spend extra time to really look carefully and examine fully what you experience daily. Digging in deeper will reveal many details and meanings you missed in the daily grind and surface interesting new ideas. This is, of course, especially true of people who all contain a depth of surprises. We know that every learner is in reality a different person, but we unfortunately tend to treat them as another “Lesson Four” if we are not careful. To foster a growth mindset we need to go into each experience “Eyes Wide Open!

The first system can be considered fast thinking. It is thinking done almost automatically or instinctively.- The second system is slow thinking.It involves thinking that is more complex and more mentally draining. It takes concentration and agency of the person to process the thoughts

Pursue New Challenges and Adventure

Put yourself in a radically different environment where you are inexperienced and a total beginner. Challenge yourself with gliders, seaplanes, or helicopters. Try something totally out of your comfort zone. This not only enlivens your senses and aviation curiosity, it builds your empathy for the learners you deal with on a daily basis. To be an uncomfortable beginner is very therapeutic for an experienced educator. It takes real courage to totally suck at something and make mistakes again.

Vary Your Habitual Patterns

We are all guilty of just running a script for our daily activities. Psychologists estimate habits and scripts run 90% of our daily operations (Daniel Kahneman’s System One); we are not always creative intentional beings. An intentional pursuit of greater excellence is also a pathway to a “beginner’s mind” – Artful Flying! Keep flying and improving; fly safely (and often)!

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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

3 thoughts on “A “Growth Mindset” Cures Burnout!”

  1. The absolute worst thing an instructor can do is to set rigid inflexible goals for a student via a written in stone lesson plan.
    Lesson plans are fine and all instructors should know their way around one and use it…….but as a guide only; never as a strict worksheet that leaves no room for flexibility.
    ALWAYS have a basic plan in mind for a dual session but from the moment you begin walking out to the aircraft with your student be alert and ready to seize on any open door the student provides that allows the student to question and try something new.
    Good flight instructors realize from the getgo that learning is a wide open process. Instructors should be ready at any time to deviate, demonstrate, allow the student to apply, then come back again to the basic purpose for the dual session.
    Teaching people to fly is part science and part art form. And over emphasis on one without the other in the equation is not quality optimum instruction.
    Above all, you want your students to learn to THINK when flying, and this means being taught to be adaptable to change.
    ALWAYS be a friend to your students. Remember, your goal isn’t to impress the student with how well YOU can fly the airplane. Your goal is to impress the student with how well THEY can fly the airplane.
    Dudley Henriques

      1. Usually when an instructor teaches like this does the result is so negative for the student no learning is accomplished at all. In fact, the result of instruction such as this could be the loss of the student to aviation altogether.
        What happens is that the instructor, by tone of voice, sporadic and incomplete statements and frequency of command, drives the student into task overload. The student’s reaction becomes locked into the tone of the instructor’s voice. It’s an inverse equation. The louder and/or higher pitch the instructor’s ranting, the slower and less responsive the student can become to instruction until a complete mental breakdown where function becomes impossible can result.

        This film is a CLASSIC example of poor instructive technique.
        Conversely, proper technique indicates that the more difficult the in-flight scenario, say high gusty wind conditions, airplane bouncing all around the sky, etc, the more calm and simplified should be the instructor’s technique, where planning ahead and a soft tone of voice coupled with confidence building comment can become invaluable tools in the instructor’s tool kit.

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