Dealing with the Fear of Failure
The best way to deal with the fear of failure is to recognize it as a potential learning experience.
When I upgraded from the right seat (navigator) to left seat (radar navigator), I found myself struggling to deliver weapons on target. The typical Cold War mission profile we trained for required us to deliver four weapons on four separate targets at low altitude within roughly a five minute time frame. The objective was complicated by the fact that we were flying extremely close to the ground (sometimes as low as 400 ft.) at a ground speed of 300 miles per hour. Since our target simulations were almost always missile silos that didn’t have surface profiles that would appear on a radar screen, we’d have to place our crosshairs on distant offsets which were usually some sort of land feature like a peak or the end of a ridge line.
I must have flown 30 missions dropping at least one theoretical weapon out in the boonies somewhere and the errors were erratic. On one run I might miss the first target and get the last three. On another, get the first, miss the second, and cash in on the third and fourth. Finally, the errors started getting to me and I started feeling like a failure. It was then that Lt. Col Pozas, the bombnav chief ordered me into his office.
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“What the hell is going on with you?” he asked directing me to sit in the chair in front of his desk after he had shut the door behind us.
“I don’t know, Hank,” I responded head down and tail between my legs. “I guess I’m not cut out for this.”
“Cut out for what?” Hank asked.
“Being a RN,” I responded. “I can’t seem to get it right. I keep making stupid mistakes.”
Hank opened the lower left drawer of his desk and after a couple of seconds pulled out a folder with my name on it. Scanning the top paper inside and proceeding to a second, he nodded his head as though confirming an idea in his head that he intended to validate.
“Yup,” he said. “Looks like you’ve made just about every mistake in the book, Ron. Get out your checklist,” he said.
I did as I was instructed and it was then that he handed me a pen and told me to write down the following series of letters at the top of the first page of the bomb run checklist. He waited a second or two until he had confirmed that I had recorded each in turn.
“Lima,” he said. [Pause]
“Echo,” he said. [Pause]
“Alpha,” he said. [Pause]
“Romeo,” he said. [Pause]
“November,” he said. [Pause]
“India,” he said. [Pause]
“November,” he said. [Pause]
“Golf,” he said. [Pause]
He hesitated for a second to observe the deer in the headlights look I must have had on my face and then proceeded to ask — “What does that spell?”
“Learning,” I said a few seconds later with a puzzled look on my face.
“That’s right. I’ve been monitoring your progress these past few months and I haven’t been oblivious to the fact that you’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’m not worried about you because you aren’t repeating them,” he said placing great emphasis on the word ‘repeating.’ “You’re learning and that’s all anyone can expect of you.”
Hank went on to explain that I was perfectly capable of flying errorless missions. The only thing I had to do was continue focusing on not repeating my mistakes.
Taking his advice to heart, I refocused my efforts ignoring the natural tendency to get down on myself when I failed to meet my own unrealistic expectations. As a result, I quickly gained the confidence needed to do my job well and in the process came to be greeted by Hank every time I returned from a successful mission as “The Inferior Wizard.”
The lesson to be learned from this experience should be obvious. Never waste time getting down on yourself when you make a mistake. Just focus on not repeating it.