January four years ago I had a little lesson in, among other things, self criticism.
I was tired, from a combination of a new three month old addition to our family, the silly season’s social commitments, several days of 40°C without – at that time – airconditioning at home. Having little chance to ride the motorcycle in the past fortnight I’d organised with a friend to ride through the bush from Perth to York this particular Sunday.
Some images from that ride would have been at home in a documentary: Two wedge-tailed eagles eating a feral piglet in the middle of the road, a pair of kangaroos hopping across our path, or a steep sandy slope that our bikes (which had road tyres) weren’t really equipped for.
But it was another 40°C day and I was starting to question why I’d gone riding on such a hot day. As the ride wore on, conditions got rougher and our speed dropped, and I started to question the sanity of our schedule. Were we going to make it to lunch in York after all? Or would we be there for dinner? Would my riding buddy be annoyed at the pace? Would the bike overheat if I’m riding so slow in these conditions?
Then the GPS showed a sealed road up ahead and around a corner. At the same time we turned onto some decent graded gravel. I opened the throttle and picked up the pace.
Then I crested a hill. The hill.
About a minute later my riding buddy took the following photo from the top.
As I picked that bad line, the front wheel dug in and I found myself airborne, there was an overwhelming feeling of “Gosh, what an idiot” and “This is so embarrassing.”
Riding the broken motorcycle back is a story in itself, but that’s not for here.
I now have a piece of titanium in my right foot and, I have hoped, a healthier degree of self-analysis when it comes to get-there-itis, analysing tiredness, skill and planning.
This weekend I got to ask whether I’ve truly learned when to listen to the internal critic.
I had my first solo flight since August. A busy schedule on the weekends, holidays overseas, bad weather and whatever else meant that I hadn’t been able to fly very much in the last five months, so I was really looking forward to Sunday. Perfect weather for soaring and I hoped for a nice long flight.
Check ride went well, so I fitted my GoPro camera where I could completely ignore it during the flight. Then off I went, being towed up 2,700′ and climbing another 1000′ in a thermal before deciding to leave the lift and head to the west to stay upwind.
(For the uninitiated, a glider flies by – on average – staying in air that’s moving upward faster than the aircraft is descending. It was by all accounts a buoyant day with lift to spare, so my theory was that if I thermalled off to the west, the prevailing westerlies would tend to keep me within easy reach of the airfield area.)
The image to the right is snipped from the video. The instrument on the top is the variometer, which indicates the vertical movement of the air through which I’m currently flying. As I’ve been heading west it’s started pointing down further and further until I’m in a good 10kt downdraft with no end in sight.
Crunch time comes, I’ve lost 1,300′ and I decide there’s no way I can be here any longer. A rapid U-turn and I’m flying the aircraft back to the airport, knowing I’ve got to fly through all that sink again to get back to the field. At least I have the wind on my side, and in a pinch I can land in several non-optimal locations there if I need to.
Final approach, made worse by turbulence, is hairy but the touchdown is perfect and I’m able to roll to a stop where I want to be. Nevertheless, I’m feeling shaken up by the flight:
- Why did I leave lift early?
- Should I have turned back to lift sooner?
- I entered the circuit low, which cramped everything up much more than the more comfortable, relaxed circuits I’m used to. Should I have landed on the cross strip, or even in the opposite direction?
- I was trying to set up for a landing at the flight line so I could go again. By pressuring myself to do that, was I also cramping that final approach and adding unnecessary risk?
- Couldn’t I have managed a flight longer than 13 minutes?
Four years after my motorcycle incident I find I’m frustrated at my performance and the internal critic is in full swing. And its best question is am I letting a sequence of small mistakes contribute to a potentially much more disastrous outcome?
Some discussion with the instructor, a little soul searching and I come to a few realisations.
- There’s no mission, no goal I must achieve on this flight. I’m here to enjoy myself.
- It’s a sport: You fail? So what. Try again.
- If you’ve stopped learning, you should stop flying. And you can’t learn if you know it all already.
- I had other options available should conditions have deteriorated further.
So after a short break I went for another flight. This time I stayed in the lift. After attaining 9,200 feet altitude – the highest I’ve been in a glider so far – there was no concern about whether I’d reach the airport. I only landed, nearly two hours later, after I ran out of water, had watched all the cross-country pilots returning and began to wonder if I’d be hangaring the plane by myself.
The day’s two flights were instructional, and a gentle reminder of the two-sided nature to self-criticism. Yes, it has its place in avoiding complacency, or getting so stuck in the zone or white-line fever that we forget planning and safety. But it also demonstrated how close it can come to being an emotional destabiliser, and how easy it is to have a bad run and turn around and stop playing.
When Jeff Atwood wrote recently on the suicide of Aaron Swartz, he drew some parallels with ragequitting. And while I think the circumstances surrounding Aaron’s tragic death are more complex than any blog post could hope to address, I do wonder if Jeff’s concerns over ragequitting in general touches on this aspect of self-criticism.
Ambitious, goal driven people can be very self-critical, and failure in sight of our biggest critic (ourselves) easily leads to emotional decision making – fear to keep playing (what if I fail), or questioning our identity (am I cut out to be a pilot-motorcyclist-programmer-writer-artist-whatever). One of the biggest causes of writer’s block can simply be the internal editor telling us that the first words on the page are going to suck.
If I’d given up after the first flight I could have gone home, convinced that the internal critic was right, and that giving up was the safest option. Instead I said to myself yes it might all go wrong, and then fronted up and flew again to – literally – reach new heights.
And perhaps that’s at the heart of resilience, this giving ourselves permission to suck, make mistakes or risk annoying people.
Because perhaps only when we embrace failure ahead of time do we free ourselves to really achieve.