The Art of Incompetence

by Anna Blanch on July 17, 2012

Some of us, me included, are burdened with the difficult trait of needing to be competent. My detail oriented nature sometimes slips over into perfectionism when I feel a particular need to control the details. The kind of perfectionism that is lauded in traditional educational environments can become paralyzing if instead of being motivating it becomes an obstacle or a limit to challenging yourself in areas where you are not yet competent. Indeed, even though I’ve found ways to work almost anywhere I still have patches of time when I have to go back to basics and knock out my hour a day whether I feel like it or not or whether the environment is optimal or not. Invariably, the situation will never be optimal.

Flying so much in the last couple of weeks in the right seat of a small plane has highlighted just how much I struggle with incompetence — my own incompetence.  There are just some aspects of our characters we don’t have to face unless we take life by the horns and get stuck in!

“Just take the yoke with one hand and remember that you control plane. Don’t let it push you around, it’s a machine.” He repeats these words calmly as the plane drops a little, the pockets of warm air throwing the plane around a little and making the little ball in the turn coordinator dip left then right, and I let out an unconscious yelp.

Flying straight and level is one of the most basic skills in learning how to pilot a plane and here I was struggling to prevent the plane from climbing or descending or drifting away from our heading, usually to the right. I could feel the gall of frustration rising in my throat. It wasn’t just that I didn’t like asking for help, after all here I was sitting next to someone who is the one person preventing us and the plane from crashing into the earth. what I didn’t like was feeling less than useful. I didn’t like feeling incompetent.

Maybe part of this is pride, but the dislike I have for that sensation of frustration at my inability to do something well gives way to a motivation to work at it until I can hold my own. I’ll work myself pretty hard to make sure I’m not dead weight.

I Sat up a little higher to see over the instrument panel to the horizon. Why do have to be so short?. Slowly, though, with guidance, I learnt how to watch the horizon and hold the yoke without strangling it.   It was in not holding it so tightly and controlling my fear that it started to make sense. Gently he taught me how watch my attitude and vertical speed indicator, and take note of my heading and altitude so i didn’t take us off course. It  became an enjoyable challenge to gently but firmly apply pressure to the yoke to keep it straight and level for about 30 seconds to a minute at a time. I found myself more aware of the instruments. I listened more keenly to the radio calls as we moved in and out of different airspaces.

Of course dealing with my own fears and learning how to manage these is also a key. It would be illogical and perhaps worrying if I wasn’t somewhat concerned about taking control of a hunk of metal hurtling through the air at 160 knots at 11500 feet.

Yesterday, I took off for the first time….this time using a simulator. It almost feels real with a yoke and trim wheel and throttle level. It felt good to take control. I’m not ready to do that in the real world yet. I still have a lot to learn about the basics of aerodynamics and about operating an aircraft. In the meantime i’ve also been reminded that the discomfort of incompetence just might be galling enough to make me push myself to learn new things and to explore new horizons. It also shows me that if I really want to keep growing and learning I can’t sit still and wait for things to happen to me, I have to get out there and grab hold of the yoke — even if it means letting out a yelp or two on occasion.

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