More than a few years back, I called my cousin on the phone to ask him some real estate advice. He advised me against the deal I was pursuing, and added this bit of wisdom: “It’s the deals you don’t make that make you rich, not the deals you make.”
That was difficult advice for me. Ever since my early twenties, when I decided that I was done hiding from life, being alive meant engaging, taking risks and making deals. Saying no to something that looks like it might be a good deal feels like a retreat from life; there is no way to win if you keep folding your cards.
But then, knowing when to hold and when to fold is what makes a good poker player, and that is really what my cousin was saying. The poker expert Mike Skelza once said something very similar to my cousin: “It’s not how many hands you win, it’s how many hands you don’t lose.”
Of course, if you don’t ever make any deals, or take any risks, there can never be any gain. And every gain seems to require the pain of mistakes made along the way. Each of us has had it drilled into our psyches that we learn by making mistakes– so why do we fear them so much?
Sometimes it has to do with shame, and sometimes with perfectionism—an overly critical internalized voice that accepts nothing but the best from ourselves and others. Doing something wrong confirms an underlying self-hatred, a feeling of never being quite good enough.
That is why many therapists have their clients practice making mistakes. The iconic psychologist Albert Ellis developed a series of “shame-disputing” tactics that included walking a banana tied to the end of a leash as if it were a dog. Those clients whose fears of mistake-making were based more on perfectionism than shame would be encouraged to make mistakes intentionally and often, in order to ultimately get comfortable with the fact that few mistakes have disastrous effects.
But in aviation, small mistakes can have disastrous effects. Fortunately, it is rarely the single mistake that causes the mishap, but rather a series of bad decisions. That is why good aviation instruction includes intentionally making mistakes in order to learn how to recognize and recover from them. Or, as happened to me a couple of months ago, allowing students to discover their own mistakes before correcting them. After a complex instrument approach, I was told to do a “touch and go” in which I immediately took off after landing. I forgot to raise my flaps, which I didn’t notice until long after I should have. My instrument instructor, Michael Phillips, waited for me to figure out why the airplane was flying with its nose down and tail in the air like a downward dog in order to maintain the airspeed I was trying to get it to. I have done perhaps a thousand touch and goes, and never before forgot to raise my flaps, but now I know what happens when I do.
Focusing on not making bad deals, as my cousin suggested, is ultimately a way of not focusing too narrowly on winning. If we focus too narrowly on winning, we are less apt to notice our mistakes, and correct for them. I was so relieved that I successfully accomplished my instrument approach that I forgot the simple necessity of raising my flaps on my way out of the airport. You can drive full steam ahead toward your goal, but if you hit a deep pothole your axle will break and you’ll never get there. If, instead, you drive determinedly toward your goal but keep your eyes peeled on avoiding the potholes along the way, you may eventually get there.
Whether the arena is investing in real estate, making a business decision, flying an airplane, or teaching a child with autism, mistakes are going to happen. Given their inevitably, it is always a good idea to get a certain comfort level with making them, without letting our fixation on the goal get in the way. If you can’t, there’s always the leash and the banana.