Navigating Burnout by Trusting Your Instruments

One of the lessons that every pilot is taught can help you prevent burnout in yourself and others.

Final approach at night - landing of a jet airliner view from the cockpit
** Note: Visible grain at 100%, best at smaller sizes
Final approach at night - landing of a jet airliner view from the cockpit ** Note: Visible grain at 100%, best at smaller sizes

Steve Jobs dropped in on a calligraphy course at Reed College, and it changed the world of computers.  Jobs took the knowledge of calligraphy to design the font system for the Apple Macintosh system, and that’s helped to transform computers from green-screen typewriters to the beautiful design systems that we have today.  Sometimes, what you learn randomly can be powerful in your life and the life of others.

Just one of the lessons that every pilot is taught can help you prevent burnout in yourself and others.

Perception of Burnout

Burnout has classically been defined as exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  However, your actual efficacy makes little difference to whether you’ll be in burnout or not.  What matters is your perception of your efficacy – not reality.

If your perception is connected to and grounded in reality, then you can accept that your actual efficacy would impact your burnout – or not.  In most cases, you and your people are effective it’s just that you don’t believe you’re productive – or productive enough – and that can lead to a crash.

A Pilot’s Instruments

Even visual pilots are taught like instrument-rated pilots.  A visual pilot can only fly when they can see outside the windows.  Instrument-rated pilots are taught to safely fly in nearly any kind of weather.  However, there’s a recognition that visual flight pilots may find themselves in bad circumstances, so they receive basic training on how to use their instruments when they get in trouble.

The first part of the training – and every part of the training after it – focuses on the need to trust the instruments.  Trust the instruments when your internal perception of what is happening doesn’t match what the instruments are saying.  Your own internal sense of what happening doesn’t have the precision the instruments have.

The common complaint is “What if the instrument fails?”  Though failures are rare, they do happen.  That’s why aircraft have multiple instruments that can communicate the same information.  They are sourced off from two different sets of inputs.  If you have two instruments saying you’re descending or turning, they’re right, whether you like it or not.

Relationship to Efficacy

When it comes to our efficacy, we don’t have the kind of precision that aircraft flight instruments offer, but we can leverage the feedback we receive from others to cross-check how we feel we’re doing with our efficacy.  If we’re getting feedback from our manager that our facilitation skills are great, whether we feel good about them or not, we know that we’re effective.  If our presentations are met with high marks and positive comments, then we know that they’re good – even if we don’t feel it.

Of course, just like instruments in an airplane can fail, so, too, can our feedback fail us.  Some people, including managers, won’t give us the candid feedback we need.  Sometimes, people may feel as if they’re competing with us and will give us negative marks to bring us down.  However, for most people, the feedback we receive will cluster around the right answer.  By cross-checking the feedback from different people, we can figure out what data might be bad – and, like a bad flight instrument, we can learn to ignore it.

Testing Efficacy

If you’re struggling with burnout, the path forward relies on trusting your instruments – the feedback that you’re getting – instead of how you feel.  On July 16, 1999, John F. Kennedy, Jr. left on a flight to Martha’s Vineyard.  According to the official NTSB report, he encountered low clouds.  He stopped trusting his instruments and instead began to rely on his own flawed perception, resulting in a crash.  How do you learn to trust your feedback, so you don’t crash into burnout?

For more information on preventing – or recovering from – burnout, visit

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