I can't tell you how many times I've heard another pilot say to a good landing, "Well, that wasn't my best landing." I think specific types of people become pilots. They are thinkers, they are smart, they have a hard time sitting still in a cubicle or at a desk, they are competitive, and they are also perfectionists. How do I know this? I am a recovering perfectionist pilot myself, and I saw it in my students time and time again. But nobody is perfect, that's impossible. So for all those perfectionist pilots out there, this post is for you.
Yes, I think it is good to be a little hard on ourselves, because that is how we improve; however, if we are too hard, negative learning occurs. What do I mean by that? I was a stage check instructor for a few years during my flight instructor days. I knew when students came to me, they were a bit nervous as this was a test they had to pass before they could move onto the next phase of training or their checkride. Because of that, I always gave them a little bit of slack, just as an examiner would do for a student on a checkride.
There is one student in particular I remember having to fail because he was one of the first I failed... and it ate at me because I knew he could have passed. The ground portion went well, but when we got into the air things started going downhill. He messed up on a simple maneuver and couldn't move on mentally. I told him it was fine and that he could make a few mistakes, as long as he stayed safe and performed the rest of the maneuvers well, he would pass just fine. However, he kept beating himself up about that one little mistake.
Because his mind was still on the last maneuver, he screwed up on the next one, and the next one, and before we were even halfway through the maneuvers, he was mentally gone from the test. He'd already told himself he couldn't do it, that he had failed, that he had met with me before he was ready, etc. I wanted to pass him so badly, but I hadn't seen satisfactory performance and didn't feel safe letting him move on to the next phase of training without flying with him again.
I could tell when we got back on the ground that his spirits were dashed. But I knew he was better than that. I knew he could do it, he just didn't know that yet. He didn't understand why he had performed so badly. We sat and chatted for a bit and I explained to him what had happened- he was way too hard on himself and needed to just move on from his one mistake and let it stay at that... just one little mistake. I reminded him that he was a good pilot, and that he needed to start telling himself that. I knew once he was able to gain his confidence back he would be able to pass the checkride with no problems.
And guess what? I was right. He met with his instructor before meeting with me again, and when we did fly together again, he passed with flying colors. He just needed to know that he was good enough, and the he was being too hard on himself- he hadn't realized it before our flight together. He needed to know that it was okay to make a little mistake as long as he moved on and performed the other maneuvers well.
I'll be the first to admit, I was super hard on myself when I began my flight training. If I lost more than 100' during a maneuver, I would beat myself up about it. If I had a hard landing, I would insist on doing it again and again and again until I had a softer one. I was this way during most of my flight training... until I realized that I needed to simmer down, and stop being so hard on myself. I don't think I could have ever passed my CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) checkride without letting myself make mistakes and being okay with it. No pilot is perfect, and especially no CFI is perfect.
The good news about all this? Not even the Airman Certification Standards (ACS) requires us to fly perfectly, as that's impossible. The ACS has all the checkride standards set, but in the introduction, it says a student would have to consistently exceed tolerances to fail. Does that mean you can mess one thing up? Yes. Two things? Probably. As long as you aren't consistently exceeding the tolerances, you'll be just fine. The important thing is the examiner wants to see you fly safely and mostly within the standards. If you mess up once, realize you have made the mistake and move on. If you don't do it again, you are free and clear. If you dwell on it and make the same mistake over an over again, then it's game over.
Nobody is perfect.