WaldmanSeptember 7, 1990; 1000 hours: The air conditioned briefing room felt as cold as ice as I waited for the arrival of my instructor. I was a bundle of nerves. One more busted check ride would put me a flight away from washing out of one of the most intense and stressful training programs of my life — Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT). My dream of becoming a pilot hung by a thread. I began to doubt myself.

What if I mess up again? What if I forget to call “gear down” on final? What about the spin recovery maneuver? What if I miss one of the steps? I chair flew and practiced the maneuvers over and over, and I knew what needed to be done, but I began to second-guess myself. I kept replaying in my head the previous flights when I failed. My confidence dwindled, and I could feel the sweat pour down my back.

In walked the instructor who would decide my fate, Major Jerry Free. He was the commander of the UPT squadron, a former F-4 fighter pilot who had little tolerance for mediocrity and laziness. At 6 foot 3 inches and with buzz cut hair and shiny boots, he was the epitome of an Air Force fighter pilot. I was intimidated to say the least.

Not knowing what to expect, I stood at attention, braced myself, and saluted smartly.

He quickly saluted back, looked me in the eyes, and reached over to shake my hand. “OK, Waldo, it’s a new day, new jet! Are you ready to pass this flight, or what?”

He smiled.

Suddenly, the energy of the room shifted, and I instantly became more confident and empowered. All the stress and anxiety I had bottled up exploded out of me like a bullet and transformed itself into a shot of positive adrenaline. My mind became clearer as I thought to myself, “I can do this. Today, I’m going fly like Chuck Yeager.” Major Free believed in me.

New day, new jet. Wow! I never heard that expression before. But somehow, those four words and the man who spoke them instantly changed my attitude from fear to focus, from anxiety to action, just like that. I was ready to fly.

Focus on What’s Real

Some of you reading this may be facing similar predicaments in your life that are testing your resolve, skill, and focus. Perhaps you are experiencing financial challenges or are having concerns at work as your company and clients adapt to our volatile economy. Missed sales quotas, budget cuts, and lost customers plague us. Mistakes happen. No mission is ever perfect, and neither are we.

We’re all human and have our limits. But sometimes, when we’re stuck and full of doubt, we underestimate our power to overcome adversity and perform at our best. We focus on our past failures and can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel of success because our vision is darkened by our fear of future failure. We pull back the throttle of performance instead of pushing it up. We let our past define our future. This is the greatest challenge we face when dealing with adversity.

But I believe there is no reason for us not to live up to our potential and perform at our best. Fear and doubt are distractions designed to get us off course. While they may appear very real to us, they are not. The only things that are real are our skills, how well we prepare, our ability to focus, and the fact that we’re ultimately the pilot in command of our lives.

While I do believe it’s critical for us to remain positive in tough times, no amount of motivation is going to replace the fundamentals of hard work, preparation, and mental rehearsal. You have a job to do. You have the aircraft. When you face each new day, you are ultimately in control of your jet. The question is, are you better prepared to fly than you were yesterday?

When performing your pre-flight attitude check each day, ask yourself:

• Am I focusing on surviving or winning?

• How have I improved from yesterday to today?

• What actions will I take today to plant the performance seeds for tomorrow?

The key is to stop philosophizing your way to success. The world is growing tired of rhetoric and philosophy. Today, we need performers who make things happen!

But sometimes, it’s nearly impossible to break the performance barrier on our own. No matter how we try, we become strangled by our fear and can’t fly to our full potential.

So here’s the last and most important question you should ask when fear and doubt hold you back from flying your jet today: Who are the wingmen in my life I can call on to help me fly? Winners never fly solo.

A Helping Wing From Your Wingmen

Wingmen inspire us. Wingmen give us hope and lend a “helping wing.” Wingmen reflect our greatness back at us and add thrust to our potential. They help us release the brakes holding us back from success as we face each new day with courage. They don’t fly our jet for us but rather give us faith in our own abilities, and they alter our mindset from “I can’t” or “I won’t” to “I can” and “I will.”

My challenge to you is not to be inhibited from calling out to your wingmen for some encouragement when you’re not quite up to that tough mission. Give them a chance to make a difference in your life. Ask for help. Be vulnerable. I guarantee they won’t turn their back on you. Hey, we’re all taking hits. Today it may be you. Tomorrow it may be them.

But here’s the most important wingtip I can share with you: Don’t forget to be a wingman to others as well. Keep an eagle eye out for your friends, family, and colleagues who are struggling and who might benefit from a little lift as they prepare for that job interview or big sales presentation. Like Major Free, be a shining light and let them know you believe in them. Inspire them to realize their potential, and by doing so you will empower them to act.

In business and life, yesterday’s clouds can block us from seeing today’s blue skies. Let us not forget that each day is a new day. We’re given a jet, and we have a mission to fly.

I passed my flight with Major Free because he made me realize that I was good enough to fly.

You are good enough. You’ve got wings. It’s a new day, new jet. Now go and fly!

Publication date: 05/28/2012