Defensive Pessimism & Aviation Experience

By Scott Spangler on November 30th, 2020

JW 50-50Pursing my eclectic interests, the library emailed a curbside pickup notice for David Rakoff’s Half Empty, as in the pessimist’s assessment of a glass vessel whose volume is divided between some unknown liquid and the ambient atmosphere. On the cover, a sunburst subtitle boldly says, “WARNING!!! No Inspirational Life Lessons Will Be Found In These Pages.”

From his satirical perch and using examples from his own life, Rakoff devotes 224 pages to thoughtfully dismembering our sunny delusional culture, but the subtitle warning is a lie. On page 9 is an important life lesson, especially for pilots of all aeronautical genres who approach aviation with an optimistic outlook. An optimist is naïve he writes, supporting this evaluation with the words of a Prohibition-era newspaperman, Don Marquis, who wrote in 1927, “an optimist is a guy that has never had much experience.”

Experience is important because, in most cases, it “shows you how much more you have to learn.” How well people, pilots especially, learn (and apply) experience’s lessons subtly refines their pedagogical inclinations, how well they perceive—and retain—what the situation is trying to teach them. Given the repetitive causes of most aviation accidents, what too many pilots seem to get from first-hand experience is the self-centered joy, if they survive.

If they don’t, aeronautical Darwinism guarantees that they won’t again forge the error chain that anchored their demise. But the resulting accident report shares the lesson with other aviators, if they are so interested. Whether they learn from the misadventures of others and how to avoid following in their flight-path or dismiss this shared experience by silently acknowledging that THEY would never do this, depends on how they see that aforementioned glass vessel.

With a pilot-appropriate weather example, Rakoff writes, “Where a strategic optimist might approach a gathering rainstorm with a smile as his umbrella, a defensive pessimist, all too acquainted with this world of pitfall and precipitation, is far more likely to use, well, an umbrella.”

He wasn’t writing to or for pilots, but this one fits. “Defensive pessimism is about sweating the small stuff, being prepared for contingencies like some neurotic Jewish Boy Scout, and in so doing, not letting oneself be crippled by fear.” It is, perhaps, the step before one becomes a pragmatic realist who, upon seeing the aforementioned vessel asks if the person responsible was adding to or draining away the liquid it contains. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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