All I Really Need to Know I Learned From My Flight Instructor

Ten tips to help tech professionals navigate toward greater career success.
If you travel on commercial airlines, and are still alive, thank a pilot.

It's a myth that airplanes are safer than cars -- in fact, airplanes are much more dangerous. So why is flying safer than driving? The reason is that pilots are better -- far better -- at flying airplanes than we are at driving cars.

My respect for professional airline pilots increased by a few orders of magnitude when I started working on my pilot's license a few years ago. The amount of knowledge, skill and self discipline required to safely pilot a dinky, slow "trainer" airplane is huge -- and for commercial airline pilots, astronomical.

What secrets can we learn from aviators in piloting our own careers? Here are ten things I learned from my flight instructor that can make us all more successful.

1. Create, manage and follow checklists.

Pilots need to manage huge complexity, and failure is not an option. One of their most powerful secrets is checklist management. Pilots usually start with published checklists, but then modify and improve them as they learn. Importantly, they meticulously follow the exact checklist every time. You can do the same. If you travel on business, maintain a checklist of things to bring. If you're an IT professional, meticulously document all the steps to usefully fix, upgrade or roll out something, then refer to it next time. If you give PowerPoint presentations, use a series of checklists to make sure you do things like turn the sound off, pause antivirus software, turn off the screensaver – all the little things that can ruin a presentation.

2. Study, train, then study some more.

You already spend time learning about your area of expertise. What else could you be studying? My instructor always told me I had to learn everything about any airport I fly into. Before you step into a meeting, always prepare: Know who you're meeting with. Review the objectives of the meeting; know who is going to be there.

3. Stay current.

If you're an IT pro, make sure you're always getting certified in the areas that benefit you and your company. Be methodical about it, and don't wait until you have time. Schedule regular time to study, and set goals for new certifications.

4. Eyes outside; head on a swivel.

Novice pilots can fixate on instruments during flight. My instructor always emphasized the need to look outside the airplane, and constantly look around (for things like mountains, radio towers, clouds and other airplanes). The lesson for non-pilots is this: Don't get fixated on one small aspects of your work. Look around and see the big picture. Always be on the lookout for sudden dangers and opportunities.

5. Maintain situational awareness.

Situational awareness is a great concept for both pilots and anyone who wants to succeed. While flying an airplane, situational awareness covers everything, including speed, altitude, attitude, surroundings, weather, location, heading. In business, always strive for situational awareness. Know what projects are going on, what direction the company is headed and how well you and your department are contributing to the company’s objectives.

6. Be ready to go low-tech.

Pilots nowadays use GPS, sophisticated electronics for weather and traffic. But my instructor always hounded me to always be ready to go low tech at a moment’s notice, which means be able to navigate even with the sudden loss of GPS and fly without any gadgets. This advice is especially applicable to small things, like making PowerPoint presentations, and big things, like business continuity. When you're about to present, assume the worst-case scenario -- laptop dead, no power in the room. Always have printed handouts for all and be able to deliver without any projector. For business continuity, ask yourself -- what's the worst that could happen? Then prepare for that.

7. Follow all the rules.

My flight instructor brags that he never violated an FAA regulation. And that's the way to go in business, too. You may see "creative accounting," "situational ethics" and questionable practices all around you, but be disciplined and follow the letter of the law.

8. Get good at resource management.

Pilots call it "cockpit management" or resource management. When you need facts fast while flying, you don't have time to start filtering through a disorganized kneeboard trying to find information. Go minimal, but always be ready to find the information you need, whether you're in meetings, presenting or no matter what you're doing. Get organized, and set up your system so you can find facts fast.

9. Think ahead.

My instructor always demanded that I think five minutes ahead, and be prepared well in advance for entering new airspace, or starting a descent. The same goes for your career. What’s coming up tomorrow? Next week? Next month? Be ready.

10. Talk to peers; absorb their knowledge.

Pilots spend as much time in the hangar talking as they do in airplanes flying. The reason is that they gain knowledge in this kind of interaction unavailable in books or online. Talk shop every chance you get.

It’s a good idea to learn from pilots, not about flying, but about strategies and techniques for success and competence. Pilots have to be great at what they do, because lives are at stake every time they go to work.

You don’t have to be a commercial airline pilot to take your work as seriously pilots do – or to make your career soar by learning their secrets.

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