Recently, my wife summoned me to our patio deck and pointed to puffs of smoke rising from the roof of a condominium complex below us. I ran down our slope, through brush and thorns, and approached a tall, thick perimeter fence surrounding the condo. My callouts to determine if someone was barbecuing went unanswered. My angst was raised by the smell of burning pine. Who barbecues with pine?
After making my way to the front of the complex, it became difficult to tell which condo had the smoking roof. I banged on several doors and told them about my smoke signal observations. No one confessed to barbecuing or seeing smoke in their backyard. OK, false alarm. Smoke happens. Slightly embarrassed, I removed the thorns from my trousers and made my way upslope to my office.
Twenty minutes later, I walked into the kitchen, looked down at the same roof, and saw smoke again—more smoke this time, along with the sounds of a smoke alarm. Instinct sent me down the slope again, through brush and thorns one more time. This time, however, I stopped midway. My feet insisted on moving, but the logical lobe of my brain called an impromptu damage control meeting. My rational mind asked, “What will happen if you yell smoke again and there is no fire?” Clearly, this wouldn’t increase my popularity with the slope dwellers.
Sometimes our ability to behave properly is delayed—often with fatal consequences—when we’re worried about how our actions will appear to others. After all, no one wants to be embarrassed, ridiculed, or expelled from their peer group because they failed to make the correct decision in a critical situation. Whenever I find myself in these situations, I ask a question that has never—never!—let me down in terms of producing good results. I ask, “What is the right thing to do here?” In an instant, my priorities became clear, and the answer was obvious: Save the slope people.
I continued down the slope one more time. On this trip, I lost a sandal, tore a hole in my T-shirt, had my face scratched by thorny bushes, and had the cornea of my right eye slapped by a juniper branch. The slope people must be saved, regardless of personal cost.
At the same perimeter fence, I yelled out again to determine if anyone was barbecuing, all the while smelling burning pine. No response. By this time, the smoke alarm had ceased wailing. I ran around to the front of the housing complex and banged on a few doors again. This time, Slope Man Number 1 walked out; took a long look at my “hobo-sapien” hairdo, partial footwear, red facial scars, and twitching right eye; then said, “Dude, you’re spacing out. There is no fire!”
That’s when Slope Man Number 1’s neighbor, Slope Man Number 2, made an appearance and confessed to barbecuing. He apparently left his rear patio door open and walked to the back of the house to take a phone call. A wind shift drew smoke from his barbecue into the house, activating the fire alarm until he eventually deactivated it. Slope Man Number 2 admitted to using wet pine logs to cook a steak (for that authentic “forest fire” taste). This is a good reason never to miss “briquette day” at barbecue school.
Embarrassed? You bet I was. I did, however, do the right thing, despite my hesitation to act.
There are many occasions in an airplane where we’re likely to delay doing the right thing as we contemplate how our behavior might appear to others. Declaring an emergency, asking ATC for assistance, or executing a go-around after a botched approach are potentially embarrassing events for some pilots. The amazing thing is that most pilots know the right thing to do in these instances. Sometimes, however, they don’t do it—or don’t do it quickly enough.
Here is where the question “What’s the right thing to do?” moves us beyond our concerns for image and appearance. The question prods our logical mind to identify the behavior needed to protect our passengers and ourselves. It inspires us to act with a sense of moral authority and honor, and provides the ultimate justification for behaving the way we did.
The next time you hesitate making a critical decision because you’re unsure how others will interpret your actions, ask, “What’s the right thing to do?” Hopefully, you’ll choose wisely and save the slope people.
Rod Machado’s newest book is the How to Fly An Airplane Handbook.