For Memorial Day weekend this year, my husband and I took the kids hiking up Sugarloaf Mountain—a moderate trail that climbs 690 feet to its summit, which looks out over the quaint Little Red River and surrounding countryside of Heber Springs, Arkansas. For our 5-year-old son, Matthew, the steep climb and relative proximity to the edge of the slope was downright terrifying. On the first day, he maintained a white-knuckled grip on his father’s hand, refusing to go off trail or climb any rocks that were higher than eye level. The second day saw less fear, and by the third and final day of hiking, Matt was running up the trail and crawling out on the rocks to take advantage of every lookout. While trying to catch my breath, I looked at his smiling face and asked if he was having fun.
“Oh yeah, mom. It’s really high and a little bit scary and soooooo cool!” It was impossible not to notice the new bit of swagger in his Batman tennis-shoed step.
In moments like these, I can’t help but think about flying and how one of the things I love is that it constantly presents opportunities to grow out of the self-made borders of our comfort zones. There’s only one little problem: leaving behind the safety and security of something we’re good at is, by nature, uncomfortable. Remember the first time you flew the traffic pattern and felt that overwhelming amount of task saturation as you tried to hold altitude, perform a prelanding checklist, and make a call on the radio? That’s when the nagging voice of doubt starts to pipe up. “This is too hard,” it whispers. “Go back to something easier.” I’ve felt that way again and again whenever I play the role of student pilot, like when I got my first corporate gig and upgraded from a Piper Seneca to a Beechcraft King Air 90, or during that month of drinking information from a firehose when training as a new first officer at a regional airline, and again when I signed myself up for a six-day course for my pilot-in-command type rating in the Beechjet 400.
Whether you’re learning to fly the family’s Piper Cherokee or flying for a career and constantly upgrading to bigger, faster aircraft, you will have to step out of your comfort zone from time to time. No matter the circumstances, I think we have all wondered if there might be a way to make the growing pains hurt a little less.
As someone who loves a challenge (after I’ve mastered a new thing), I’ve come upon a few ways to make the process a little more enjoyable. Here’s the advice I typically give my students, and try to take to heart myself:
Accept that you won’t be the best or even very good at all. I know we pilots tend to be perfectionists when it comes to our flying skills, but do you think Steph Curry was draining three-point shots the first time he ever had a ball in his hands? Cut yourself some slack if you don’t nail the captain’s bars when learning short-field landings. Also don’t forget, there’s no shame in a go-around.
Chair-fly and study. The airplane is a terrible classroom. There’s just too much going on for your brain to successfully master several new skills at once. Do yourself a favor and spend as much time on the ground preparing as possible. It will, at the very least, give you the confidence that comes from being prepared.
Be patient with yourself, and remember that you’ve mastered new things before. When the voices start to tell you that you should retreat to your comfort zone before the stress levels get too high, try to recall the times you’ve successfully pushed the limits before. We learn most new skills in baby steps, mastering one small building block at a time before adding the next one. So, be kind to yourself during this process and be proud of every accomplishment. Maybe you didn’t master holding procedures today, but did you get better at maintaining altitude during that instrument approach?
Remember that stretching is good for you. When we push our comfort zones, it gets easier to do so in the future, so that growing and improving becomes the habit rather than staying in the rut of our current skills. Grab an instructor on the next windy day and see if you can get better at crosswind landings. I can’t promise you’ll be very good at first, but I can guarantee you’ll be grateful for the new skill the next time you get stuck up in gusty winds.
If none of these things convince you to take that leap, just remember my 5-year-old hiking buddy on our third day up the mountain. The climb can sometimes be stressful and uncomfortable, but nothing beats the view from the top.