What George H.W. Bush’s aviation memento can teach us about success

At the recent funeral of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, his good friend and former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney shared the story of a small, unobtrusive plaque outside of the Bush family’s estate at Kennebunkport, Maine. It simply said “CAVU” – and it had deep personal meaning to the former world leader. It […]

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At the recent funeral of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, his good friend and former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney shared the story of a small, unobtrusive plaque outside of the Bush family’s estate at Kennebunkport, Maine. It simply said “CAVU” – and it had deep personal meaning to the former world leader.

It can also teach us much about success.

You see, CAVU was the abbreviation that every World War II fighter pilot loved to hear: It stood for “Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited,” and it meant perfect flying weather.

For President Bush, it was a subtle reminder of how blessed he and his family were. His wife Barbara was renowned for her charitable pursuits. His elder son, George W., also served as a U.S. president and, prior to that, governor of Texas. His son Jeb was the governor of Florida. And he cherished his grandchildren.

But CAVU can have a different and deeper personal meaning to us. To understand how that’s possible, let’s dissect this aviation term, so we can discover the metaphorical meaning behind it:

Visibility, in aviation terms, is horizontal. How far ahead of your aircraft can you see? Clouds and haze reduce visibility, obviously. Unlimited visibility signifies clear skies and excellent visibility ahead.

Ceiling, in aviation terms, refers to the vertical axis. A low ceiling means that your vertical visibility is limited by clouds – such as on a rainy day. An unlimited ceiling means no clouds – clear skies all the way up to the limits of the aircraft.

But what if we were to look at CAVU in the context of success?

Visibility corresponds to our imagination. How far ahead can you see? What technology developments can you anticipate? What trends are you able to interpret in a fresh way?

If you have a highly creative imagination, you can “see” more options and opportunities than mere mortals. And that gives you a potent advantage in life.

What about the concept of ceiling? Seen within the context of success, it corresponds to your attitude. Simply put, the better your attitude, the higher you can “fly” in life.

When problems come along, as they always do, someone with a low attitudinal “ceiling” will complain and will eventually adjust his or her expectation to their new “normal.” Or they will simply “rain” on the lives of everyone who know them. They view life as a zero-sum game: if someone gets more, they get less.

What about someone with an “unlimited” ceiling on their attitude? They tend to view their life as a blessing. They, too, face challenges. But they choose to “rise above” them. They know that they own, free and clear, one of life’s most astounding treasures: a marvelous, mysterious human brain.

When faced with a challenge, they don’t lower their ceiling. They brainstorm ways around, through or over the obstacle – just as a pilot has multiple options for maneuvering around a storm.

They have the attitude exemplified by the late business magnate and self-development guru, W. Clement Stone. When faced with a problem or challenge, he’d ask out loud, “What’s good about this?” Anyone who didn’t know him probably thought he had taken leave of his senses.

But Stone knew something that few people ever figure out: within any problem or challenge is the seed of its solution – some element that could be turned into an advantage. Throughout his long and illustrious career, he was ALWAYS right!

Stone, like all extraordinarily successful people, kept his attitude high and his vision of what’s possible clear. He employed a CAVU mindset – and so can you.

Here’s how:

First, when you’re faced with a problem or challenge, resist the temptation to get angry or discouraged. Remember, maintaining a top-notch attitude is critical to mitigating it’s effects or creatively solving it.

Next, mentally take a step back from it and ask W. Clement Stone’s powerful question: What’s good about it? Deconstruct it into its component parts and decide if any of these pieces has a simple, elegant solution. A mind map is s great way to do this.

As you brainstorm potential solutions, remember to think divergently. In other words, the crazier the ideas you come up with, the better. Crazy ideas can often be stepping stones to more practical, workable solutions.

Don’t stop with the first “right” answer. Stay with it for at least 30 minutes. Often, we must work our way through a “crust” of easy but low value ideas before we can get at the really valuable ones.

Above all, practice daily gratitude in all you do. Keep your attitude and your altitude high!

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