Elevating the Threshold of Panic

Picking up from last week’s post in our series on Fighter Pilot Wisdom, here’s more from fighter ace Ran Ronen:

Why do we train? To perfect our flying skills, yes. But far more important, we practice to elevate our threshold of emotional detachment, to inculcate that state of preparedness and equilibrium that enables a pilot to function effectively under conditions of peril, urgency, and confusion.

If you or I were to hitch a ride in the backseat of a contemporary fighter jet, I’m betting our heart rate would hit 200 bpm before our pilot had completed the first barrel roll. And speaking purely for myself, by the time we had entered the Mach 1.3 power dive straight toward the deck, one of us would definitely be peeing in his pants.

The Mirage IIIC as flown by Ran Ronen and Giora Romm

Yet our pilot, male or female, would not have broken a sweat. Why? Is she superhuman? Is her courage DNA that far superior to ours? Here’s fighter ace Giora Romm describing part of the training regimen under his squadrom commander, Ran Ronen.

At the end of each training day, the squadron met in the briefing room. Ran stood up front. He went over every mistake we had made that day—not just those of the young pilots, but his own as well. He was fearless in his self-criticism, and he made us speak up with equal candor. If you had screwed up, you admitted it and took your medicine.  Ego meant nothing,  Improvement was everything.

You and I, in the bowels of a year-long or two-year-long solitary creative project, will strike Panic Point after Panic Point. Resistance will hammer us. We will be tempted over and over to freak out, to pull the plug, to self-destruct, to quit.

What will keep us going is training. Self-training in our case because we don’t have a squadron commander to help us.

On our own, we must train to elevate our threshold of panic. The pilot who flew us on our imaginary joy ride stayed calm because she had executed those same aerobatic maneuvers five hundred, a thousand times before. Each time her threshold of emotional detachment got a little higher. Each time she stayed cooler. Each time the action became more everyday.

Being a pro in any field means more than mastering technique. It means managing one’s emotions in times of extreme and unexpected stress. There’s no training manual for this. 

Can we do it? Can we practice? Can we rehearse? Can we process our mistakes and learn?

Can we move up, mentally, from the backseat of the jet to the front?

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36 Comments

  1. Joe Jansen on September 1, 2021 at 3:11 am

    If I could take just three words from today’s post, they would be: “Ego meant nothing.”

  2. Peter Brockwell on September 1, 2021 at 3:56 am

    “Can we do it? Can we practice? Can we rehearse? Can we process our mistakes and learn?”

    You bet we can, and we must!

  3. Yvonne on September 1, 2021 at 4:38 am

    Thank you so much for posting every week. Your advice, wisdom, and encouragement is so helpful and greatly appreciated.

  4. testmyspeed.onl on September 1, 2021 at 4:42 am

    Bambi vs Godzilla is such a non-sense topic and I don’t think that movie will work.

  5. Morgan on September 1, 2021 at 6:47 am

    Do you think Practice is the skill that creates skill?

  6. Meredith Shourds on September 1, 2021 at 7:10 am

    Thank you, Steven. Thank you for being you, and being that Warrior, always fighting the good fight – and leading us to do the same. You’re always a source of wisdom, encouragement and inspiration. As relentless as Resistance. Making me smile, and forge ahead. God bless.

    • Peter Brockwell on September 1, 2021 at 7:27 am

      Let’s all wholeheartedly echo Meredith’s sentiment! If we had no basis for comparison then we’d have no framework for creating motion in the right direction. It’s all about living the process, not the goal, but as James Clear says in his book about habits, goals are useful for filtering and saying ‘no’. And I perceive, or frame, the boss’s attitude as a kind of personal target to aim for.

  7. Jud Caswell on September 1, 2021 at 7:30 am

    Love this. It speaks so eloquently to the practice a performing musician puts in as well. I’ll be sharing this with my songwriting group!

  8. Grace Amos on September 1, 2021 at 7:45 am

    This was a necessary message to hear today. Staying the course while being ruthless in understanding failings, and getting up and going on in spite of them, is the key.

  9. Brad Graft on September 1, 2021 at 7:48 am

    I also like Steve’s line: “Can we process our mistakes and learn?” Maybe the squadron’s “after action” in the brief room is akin to a writer facing the red marks from his/her editor.

    At this point in the writing process, can we apply the line Joe picked out of Giora’s comment– “Ego meant nothing, Improvement was everything”– as we’re taking in an editor’s suggestions/fixes?

    Can we take the constructive criticism in a thankful manner, excited (not offended) that our editor, this partner of ours, is providing skilled input only for the only purpose of bettering our product?

    Last point. Of course it’s easier taking negative feedback from a talented person with experience than otherwise. A confession here– Joe Jansen recently edited my last book. I hope the following doesn’t come off as false flattery, as I’m being sincere.. It wasn’t hard embracing input from Jansen for the same reason that Giora likely had little trouble taking criticism from a commander like Ran Ronen: both critics were skilled…

    Warriors can’t pick their commanders, but writers can pick their editors. 😉

    • Brian Nelson on September 1, 2021 at 8:52 am

      Brad,
      Full disclosure–I consume the vast majority of my books via audiobook–so I haven’t ‘read’ your stuff. Makes me feel a bit shallow in this community–so I’ll fix that as soon as I’m off this site this AM.

      I would add one point about Joe Jansen that I probably also similar with Ran Ronen: the writer or the pilot knows in their bones that both Joe and Ran only want what is best for the writer/pilot. Their deepest desire is to see the client at their very best.

      Joe brings a spoonful of loving-kindness, authenticity , and high-minded idealism (wanting to see the best) with his process that helps the medicine go down.
      bsn

      • Brad Graft on September 1, 2021 at 12:04 pm

        Thanks for the note and interest, Brian.
        And amen, brother, on Jansen.

    • Joe on September 3, 2021 at 8:57 am

      Thanks for the nice words, guys. Brad, it was a privilege to work on your book with you. Good way to kick off a friendship. This was my soundtrack when editing: https://youtu.be/eh-jw62Vxg0.

  10. Bill on September 1, 2021 at 8:10 am

    These are always good but this was really good. Enjoyed, thanks.

  11. Sam Luna on September 1, 2021 at 8:19 am

    When I was a young theater student in Chicago a well known director was leading us through the final rehearsal of a completely original play. We had spent 2 months (including our entire holiday break) working on it. We get to the last run-through and when it’s finished look over at him, drenched in sweat (it was a very physical piece) and he simply says “nah. Erase tape. Let’s start over.” Erase tape? What the hell does that mean? “It means it’s not working. We need to erase tape and start over.” And that’s what we did — started from scratch and redesigned the whole thing. For a 19 year old that was inconcievable after so much hard work But I’ve never forgotten the lesson. “Ego meant nothing.”

  12. Brian Nelson on September 1, 2021 at 8:32 am

    What I love about this theme with the Israeli pilots, and Steve’s premise with Turning Pro in general is about action over words.

    So–a bit off topic, but I need to share a bit with a community I’ve come to trust.

    I have been struggling the past couple of weeks with the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The depth and breadth of my emotions totally caught me by surprise. When I saw us leave Bagram, my father in law reached out to me. I was basically indifferent. Truth it I was in denial about how I felt. When I saw Kabul fall, and our government’s response–well, it has been challenging. My trust in our government, our society, our culture is at an all time nadir.

    Ironically, I’m fortunate to be part of a one year leadership program in my community. 25 people from all (mostly government and nonprofit…I’m the sole entrepreneur and former Soldier) for a year long study. Must be nominated. Kind of a big deal here. I’m in the 28th class. Flattering for sure. That said–it is 1000% woke. I am the only liberty minded person there. “White male patriarchy” is bandied about like gospel. Equity is so important that the director fired a white male who had been a trainer for 17 years and hired a black guy (from the white guy’s company) because he wasn’t well Equity enough.

    So, two weeks ago our class was about ‘non-violent communication’. During our check-in, I shared some of my feelings about Afghanistan — then how wrong I believe it is to conflate speech with violence. Speech can be rude, it can be offensive, it can incite violence–but must never be conflated with violence. That is the first step towards Gulags. You could have heard a pin drop. Gobsmacked. I called for resignations of all Flag Officers involved including SecArmy, SecDef, SecState. I was angry. And the idea that speech can be violent is Orwellian Newspeak.

    In my processing of – shit Joe would probably identify this better than me – must be grief – I’ve thought a lot about speech versus actions and responsibility versus blame. If I were to use Steven’s model in my thinking it would be this:
    Amateurs talk about what they are going to do, Professionals do the work. Amateurs blame circumstance for their failures, Professionals are ..”fearless in their self-criticism…you admitted it and took your medicine.”

    I have been trying to process how I can share my values with my classmates (we’re called fellows) without making them defensive. It is a challenge.

    My own tendency to slip into juvenile, amateurish thoughts and frequently behaviors (blaming instead of owning) is so tenuous that it frightens me.

    So, I find this site to be one of my True Norths. It is not only the wisdom, wit, and vulnerability of Steven–but the comments from everyone. Thank you for allowing me to unload just a bit.

    I feel better already.
    bsn

    • Mike on September 1, 2021 at 12:57 pm

      Brian,

      Hold onto your values and your candor. If possible, use this situation as an opportunity to elevate your tact – but never at the cost of your principles.

      You’re not alone, brother, when it comes to the debacle in Afghanistan. A lot of us are hurting and are at a loss for how to deal with it all. I’m in the middle of the med-board process, currently. Until the last week or so, I was dead-set on fighting it, getting back into shape and staying in as long as I can. Now, after seeing us not only ignore the lessons learned in Vietnam and Iraq, but doing the same thing even worse… a medical retirement no longer seems so bad.

  13. Peggy Jo Farr on September 1, 2021 at 8:44 am

    Thank you, Steve Pressfield, your weekly words of wisdom and encouragement are my muse!

  14. Bill Corbett on September 1, 2021 at 8:49 am

    The IDF is fond of saying ‘We don’t have any good pilots…we get rid of THEM. We only have great ones.’

    For a deep dive into (skills development + constructive criticism) x practice, practice, practice = Mindset of Excellence you can’t do better than NY Times in-bedded reporter Linda Robinson’s MASTERS OF CHAOS, THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE SPECIAL FORCES

  15. Joe Tye on September 1, 2021 at 9:18 am

    There might not be a manual, but The War of Art comes close to being one 🙂

  16. Jessica Spring Brown on September 1, 2021 at 10:48 am

    Another great tool in the fight against resistance! Admit your mistake. Ego means nothing, improvement means everything. Take that procrastination, resistance! I am a writer at arms!

  17. Gigi Blackshear on September 1, 2021 at 11:54 am

    I beg to differ. We do indeed have a squadron commander. You are one of the best. Sir, yes Sir!

  18. Colleen on September 1, 2021 at 12:34 pm

    I needed this today. I’m on final edits with my publisher on my latest novel and struggling with a bit of “ghost logic” (new term for me!). I was panicking and feeling sorry for myself but this post was a good kick in the pants. Thank you!

  19. Tolis Alexopoulos on September 2, 2021 at 3:09 am

    Thank you dear Steve,

    emotions are great sources of the energy of life. They can elevate us, heal us, make us feel the emotional qualities of the world, sooth us -and they are uncountable and intense, make us feel like we are in the Heavens (“and Heaven is down on Earth”).

    But they can also be dark and controlling. Leaving us no chance of success and happiness. Programming our subconscious etc. in ways we’d never want them to be programmed. They can ruin our whole life, the only life that we have as individuals, as special and unique existences. When we are able to keep the appropriate distance from them, we can be cool and resourceful and quite effective, all at the same time. Then, I can guess, ethics must also be cultivated inside us.

    We have a way to go. We have a goal to accomplish, a dream to make come true. We also have a chaotic world around us that must be controlled when it explodes illogically.

    That’s where experience, constant practice, can help us like you write.

    Every emotion is one co-pilot. Let them all fly thousands of times until they understand us and trust us. Let them mature to the point that they are independent but also dependent in a good way, safe and trustable. Practice, books, philosophy, ethics like peace and common logic and love for humanity and for all the species of the world etc. are our battle grounds. I would argue that clumsy such co-pilot-emotions created all the wars of the world, especially the last centuries that we have more and more questions answered by logic and science.

    Wow!

  20. A. Engle on September 2, 2021 at 8:06 am

    “Self-training in our case because we don’t have a squadron commander to help us.” The hardest part for me.

    Just started reading Warrior Ethos and wow, Page 17 hit home hard today!

    Cheers and thank you for your service!

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  23. Doug Li Ming on September 6, 2021 at 7:45 pm

    I like this.

    One difficulty in reading Steven is many of his essays contain terminologies of literature, drama etc.
    But posts like these are everybody’s read.
    Everyone can understand, instantly, and read like a breeze!
    Such posts are dynamic, modern, exciting and memorable.

  24. Panelonline on September 7, 2021 at 12:10 am

    Thanks! Enjoyed it. I will come to your website again to read your good posts.

  25. Jurgen Strack on September 8, 2021 at 6:18 am

    I still haven’t forgotten “Dvekut ba mesima” – finish the mission, either.

    “Ego means nothing” – get over yourself…so true 🙂

    Thanks to everyone.

  26. Autoflower Seeds on September 22, 2021 at 10:35 am

    Thanks for article! I agree with you, when left alone, we must work to raise our tolerance for panic. This pilot had not only performed those identical aerobatic movements a thousand or five hundred times previously, but he had also prepared for them in advance. At a certain point, her emotional detachment threshold increased. Because she remained out of the heat.

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