View from the cockpit.

The Cockpit is Yours: From Passenger to Pilot

NOTE: This post originally appeared as an episode on my podcast, Andrew Petty is Dying. You can listen now with the media player below, or just read on…

On the flight path of your life, what keeps you from reaching your desired destination most often? There’s one culprit that all of us can relate to in one way or another at one time or another. And it’s time to deal with it.

A Story to Set the Stage

I plopped down in my aisle seat and breathed a sigh of relief. It was a tight connection between flights, and the sweat beading on my brow was evidence that I had hustled to make this one. I even had to pass up Chick-Fil-A in the food court to make it. I HATE missing a chance to eat Chick-Fil-A. But, I acknowledged very maturely, that’s a first-world problem, and my podcast IS about avoiding deathbed regrets and living my best life now. Missing Chick-Fil-A once surely won’t make the list of things I regret when the grim reaper comes to collect my bones. Again, I congratulated myself–very mature and reasonable of you. I’m really practicing what I preach!

As the cabin crew conducted their final checks before departure, I glanced around like most of us do to get the lay of the land, people-wise. Any toddlers likely to vomit without warning, scream inconsolably, or kick the back of my seat for the whole flight? Nope. Nice. Any unrepentant extraverts just waiting for me to unwittingly meet their gaze so they could engage me in hours of uninterrupted, stream-of-consciousness small talk? Hmm, none that I can detect. But keep your guard up, I told myself–they’re growing stealthier every day.

(Apologies to all the extraverts out there, BTW. No offense meant. Just the honest internal dialog of an introvert desperate seeking some sweet, sweet “I” time, as my extraverted wife and I call it.)

As my own pre-flight people check continued, my gaze landed on the occupant of the aisle seat just opposite me. Her attire instantly identified her as a member of the flight crew–or at least a member of a flight crew. Another few seconds of quick–and hopefully not too creepy–peripheral scanning of her attire told me that she was, in fact, a pilot. She had just started casually browsing through a People magazine–the kind of brainless reading that a lot of us indulge in when traveling by air. Just something light and amusing to pass the time, we tell ourselves.

This was one of those moments when my introversion masquerades as extraversion–my curiosity compelling me to create a conversation that I ordinarily wouldn’t if nothing about the person had stood out to me.

But I’ve always felt like a starry-eyed kid in the presence of pilots and soldiers and firefighters–people who do things on a daily basis that, from my perspective require unusual skill and courage and whose actions have huge life-and-death consequences on a routine basis.

“Are you deadlegging?” I asked, leaning into the aisle a bit and converting my mildly creepy peripheral scanning into an intentional attempt to engage. I also secretly hoped that “deadlegging” was the right term–one I thought I’d heard used before by flight crews referring to catching a ride as a passenger on one flight to make it to another flight when they would be on duty.

“You mean deadheading?” she corrected.

“Oh, heh,” I chuckled. “Yeah, that’s it.” Damn it, Petty, I thought, that’s what you get for trying to borrow another profession’s lingo like it was your own.

“No,” she replied. “I’m working this flight.”

My confusion must have been obvious, because she followed up with, “Why do you ask?”

“Well,” I started, “I thought your uniform meant you’re a pilot, but I guess I was wrong. Are you an instructor or evaluator or something?”

“Nope, I’m the pilot.”

“Wait. The plane can fly itself? With you sitting back here?” I asked, wavering between disbelief, confusion, and amazement.

“Oh no,” she replied. “Technology’s amazing these days, but this aircraft still needs me to get us all where we’re going.”

“Soooo…Ok, I’m super confused,” I confessed. “You’re the pilot. The plane can’t fly itself to our destination, but you’re sitting here in the cabin with the rest of us. What am I missing?”

“Huh,” the pilot responded. “Weird. I guess when you put it that way, it does seem kind of strange. Maybe I’d better go check on things in the cockpit.”

With that, and a bit of a startled look in her eye, she got up and began to make her way to the cockpit.

An Identity Crisis

Ok, full disclosure, if it’s not already obvious: The story I just told you never actually happened. But it sets the stage for the question I want us all to consider today. And here it is:

Are you sitting in the cabin when you should be in the cockpit?

Because here’s the thing: Each of us IS in fact the pilot of our own lives, whether we’re more often found seated in the cabin or in the cockpit.

By definition, no one else CAN be the pilot of our lives.

Maybe like me, you believe that a Higher Power is making your flight possible in the first place, intervening at critical junctures, and orchestrating your flight path from start to finish–like cosmic Air Traffic Control. Even so–even if you appeal to and depend upon a cosmic Air Traffic Control–only you can throttle up the engines of your life, point your plane in the direction you want to go, and take off.

But many of us spend way too much time sitting in the cabin with the passengers–ignoring or hiding from our pilot’s duties.

And when our “flight” is delayed or lands at the wrong airport or hits unexpected turbulence, we point the finger at everyone but ourselves.

Do you see yourself in your pilot’s uniform when you look in the mirror? Or have you demoted yourself to passenger and left the cockpit empty?

It’s time to promote yourself, and move from the cabin to the cockpit–where you really belong.

MY Identity Crisis

It takes one to know one, as they say. I spent many years unaware that I was wearing a pilot’s uniform and had full access to the cockpit. I spent a lot of time looking for OTHER pilots to fly my plane–my parents, mentors, friends, therapists–all the while failing to realize that the pilot I was looking for was me.

That pattern persisted well into adulthood. It was flying under the radar in my life–undetected, but wreaking havoc on my flight plan all the same.

There are a lot of factors that led to me adopting that MO in life. Things from my childhood, some of the ways that I’m hardwired, my lifelong coexistence with Anxiety, etc.

None of those are excuses, though–just factors that I allowed to shape me into more of a passenger than the pilot of my own life.

And it’s less important that I understand all of the factors than that I take the steps necessary to promote myself to my proper position as Pilot.

Bonus Thought / Quick Rabbit Trail

Quick sidenote: I love the title of Tony Robbins’ autobiographical documentary–I’m Not Your Guru, because I think, implied, is this subtitle: Be Your Own Guru. That’s what I’ve discovered–my search for someone to play a guru role in my life got in the way of finding and following my unique flight path in this life. It’s great to seek counsel–to consult a navigator, a co-pilot, to communicate with Air Traffic Control–but in the end, only I can actually fly the plane.

Ancient Origins

My personal take on the origins of this passenger / pilot problem also includes an observation about human nature that is at least as old as the biblical story of Adam and Eve. Regardless of how you relate to that story–as historically accurate, just a useful moral teaching, pure myth, or something else–I think it’s super enlightening that when God first confronted Adam and Eve for their violation of His commands, Adam’s immediate response was that Eve made him do it.

“Hey look,” he’s claiming, “this lady–that YOU made, BTW, God–this lady is the pilot of the crazy plane that got us in this spot in the first place. She’s the one to blame! I was just a passenger!”

“Oh really?” I can hear God thinking, amused. “So you’re just a poor little passenger on a crazy plane flown by a crazy pilot that you didn’t even ask for in the first place, huh? Poor little helpless Adam!”

Then Eve takes picks up the “poor me” baton and continues with the nonsense: “The serpent tricked me, God! ME! Poor little trusting Eve! That vile serpent–that YOU created, BTW, God–IT told me it would be ok.”

It’s easy to look at that story and go, “C’mon Adam and Eve, you knew what you were doing. Stop trying to shift the blame.”

It’s easy to see through this same blame-shifting strategy when one of my boys blames his brother for why he hasn’t yet brushed his own teeth.

It’s a little harder to see it in ourselves, though. Because OTHER people may do that–and come to think of it, I see it all the time–but I certainly don’t play that game.

Ha. Really?

I’m not looking for a debate on the origin and validity and value of the story of Adam and Eve. I AM asking you to look at the world around you and to peer deeply into yourself and see if you don’t bump into the same blame-shifting, self-demoting, self-protective impulses at work. Keeping you and others you know from fully assuming their proper role as Pilot of their own lives.

And folks, this passenger mindset keeps us from flying the one and only life we’ve got as beautifully, as creatively, as far, and as high as we can.

Man, I think that’s a tragedy.

My Promotion from Passenger to Pilot

A turning point for me came when I encountered a psychological framework called Transactional Analysis. This framework landed on my mental runway at just the right time–thank you, Air Traffic Control. I’m not a psychologist or a son of a psychologist, but the quick and dirty description of Transactional Analysis is a way of understanding social interactions between people and evolving toward healthier patterns of relating.

A specific application of Transactional Analysis, though, called the Drama Triangle, was the proverbial mirror that allowed me to see myself for the first time as a Pilot masquerading as a passenger.

And wow–it was a shock. After the initial shock wore off–think weeks, not minutes, hours, or days, merely–I began to take some of my first intentional steps up the aisle of the cabin toward the cockpit.

Today, I’m more fully situated as Pilot in the cockpit of my life. And the view and the ride are WAY better up here. I’ll admit it can be a bit more nerve-wracking up here, too. We don’t get to sit in the Pilot’s seat without also seeing the instruments that report systems’ status and the distant flash of lightning in our flight path.

Unlike the passengers, though, as Pilot, we have the freedom and the power to respond to instrument warnings and storms on the horizon. Passengers can only hang on for the ride and hope for the best.

Are You a Passenger or the Pilot?

Do you need to promote yourself from passenger to Pilot? You can take that first step today by simply acknowledging that fact. That’s your first step up the aisle toward the cockpit. Don’t stop until you get there. And once you get there, fly the plane of your life with all the skill, guts, gusto, and abandon that you can muster.

The Flight Path from Here to There

I HIGHLY recommend checking out the Drama Triangle–for your own evolution and the wellbeing of your most cherished relationships. It rocked my world in the best possible way. Here’s a good place to start.

If you’ve realized that you need to promote yourself from passenger to Pilot, first of all, know that you’re not alone! And, I can help you.

I’ve made the transition myself, and I work on it with my clients every week as they become the people they were made to be and live the lives they were made to live. Email me, message me on Facebook or Instagram, or visit my website for more options.

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Remember, you are going to die. But you’re NOT DEAD YET. So get after it!

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