There are old pilots and bold pilots but no old, bold pilots. Caution, judgement, self-mastery and restraint have prolonged many a career. The real professionals maintain a healthy self-doubt
The only thing scarier than a bug-eyed, white-knuckled, map-shuffling lost pilot is a bold one who is blithely, confidently, flying in exactly the wrong direction to a dark and brief future.
Canny pilots learn early that they are never lost, only ‘temporarily uncertain of their position’. And the difference isn’t semantics. A pilot, or anyone, in a ‘lost’ state is tense, confused, adding error to error, ploughing further onwards into the unknown, hoping to find something familiar. Working from false assumptions and literally on a wing and a prayer. But a pilot who is temporarily uncertain of his position is in a quite different mindset – managing, calculating, averaging, observing and surmising – narrowing down the possibilities, scoping the parameters and homing in on the certainties. It’s the art of making reality your friend, of rough accuracy, circles of error, broad certainties and ultimately of good, safe judgements. Finding the precision can come later.
On my commercial pilots licence course, way back when, I kept getting the mysterious acronym ‘RTFQ’ on test papers returned from the hoary aviation veterans supplementing their retirements by coaching bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, would-be pilots. So I asked. “READ THE QUESTION, lad”, the old man of the air replied, with a dour smile. For no matter how clever and brilliant your answer, or plan, if it’s answering the wrong question or solving the wrong problem, it’s ultimately useless.
One of the criticisms of MBA graduates, in years past, is that they became SAMBAs – Smart Assed MBAs – who, unburdened by self-doubt, regressed to a teenage certainty about the world in general and the world of business in particular. And the fault was not theirs so much as that of the business schools. The second generation of business schools, post Harvard, promoted analytical precision and a 2×2 matrix-driven certainty about the world of work, often deaf to the views of the veteran thinkers such as Peter Drucker or the critics such as Henry Mintzberg. Armed with these tools – that often worked wonderfully on the tactical problems of the day – their graduates risked becoming very precisely wrong about the strategic issues and blind to the unanticipated consequences of their actions. An MBA or manager on autopilot can became persuasively, precisely and confidently inaccurate on a grand scale. It’s important to teach people the fact that every strategy and every KPI is at heart an experiment. It’s necessary to attune our managers to nuance and context, and to share the dictum of that great poet and pilot Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “That which is most essential is invisible to the eye.”
Flight schools create a generation of simulator trained and electronics-attuned pilots, perfectionists who are immersed in continually more capable and intelligent flight management and autocontrol systems. How can they simultaneously create a healthy and detached scepticism about both their own and the instruments’ perceptions? How can they ensure the capability to actively interpret, not simply analyse and operate? And to a great extent it’s the same with managers.
The art of being vaguely right is a noble one, useful in all areas of our lives and crucial when immersed in complexity. And who among us isn’t? Our assumptions dictate how we interpret the world and to a large extent even determine what we see and notice. “We see the world as we are, not as it is.”
Take our lost pilot. He’s reading ‘map to ground’, trying to fit what he’s seeing to where he thinks he is, or even wants to be. But our ‘temporarily uncertain’ pilot is reading ‘ground to map’. Having worked out where he was last certain of his position, and rationally calculated roughly where he must be now – a circle of error – he’s looking for big or definitive features on the ground and fitting them to the map, maintaining a healthy scepticism until the picture fits.
Rules of thumb and rough scoping are vital tools for a pilot and can be for a manager too. Here’s a simple game to show how we know answers, more or less, even though we don’t like to be vague. Or seem to be unsure, uninformed or painted into a corner. The next time someone comes to you with an idea or project, ask them how much it will cost. Mostly they’ll say they don’t know and would have to work it out in detail. Then say: “Well is it closer to 500 or 50000?” or whatever an appropriately broad range is. When they say, for example, “Nearer 50000” say: “Is it closer to 20000 or 40000”. Normally after a couple of iterations you will have a ball-park range of the project scope to help you start thinking about it. It’s likely that good entrepreneurs think like this automatically,
So in a world that increasingly sees perfect answers and professionalism as the gold standard, being vaguely right can seem, well, amateur and sloppy. But make friends with your inner amateur, and let it guide you to increasing effectiveness in your life. And passion. After all, ‘amateur’ comes from the Latin word ‘amare’ – to love.