[This is Travis Dotson’s “Ground Truths” column that appeared in the Summer 2022 Issue of Two More Chains.]
By Travis Dotson
Analyst, Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center
Like a lot of us Lower 48ers, I recently spent some time in Alaska—the land of the most formal “things are different here” briefing. I love that briefing. I wish more places would do a version of it.
For those of us who don’t work regularly in the biggest state in the union, AK can be a great perspective giver. I guess it’s no different than getting assigned to any place outside your normal rotation. For some it’s that coveted roll to the Boundary Waters for Canoe Ops or down to the southeast to experience some fan boat firing fun. For others it’s a chance to go “out west” where steep is no joke. Wherever your “different” is, a trip there presents a chance to test your humility and flex your ability to learn.
Will you pretend you know when you aren’t really sure? Will you ask questions even if everyone else is nodding their head? It’s easy to brag to yourself about how humble you are and tell tall tales about not caring what others think. But it turns out the ego is real and we are social animals. Saying “I don’t care what anyone thinks” is you trying to influence what someone thinks—but it’s OK, I pretend too.
We want to be seen as competent and capable. This can present a dilemma when we are unsure. These situations vary in degrees of urgency and consequence. Maybe you forgot exactly how to pdf your Crew Time Report for the Finance folks or maybe you got some classroom instruction 22 years ago yet never once performed an actual hover hook-up when—Surprise!—here comes the ship with no long line (both recent experiences of mine).
Obviously, those situations are on different ends of the time wedge (getting time in is clearly more pressing—right?). But the intense desire to not look dumb rises immediately for me in both scenarios. You’d think I’d be OK with looking dumb by now (or at least accustomed to it), but I still prefer my learning stumbles to be off the main stage.
Sometimes the fear is not about looking dumb, it’s about not wanting to fail in the moments that matter. Calling in a Medical Incident Report or getting the depth needed on real-life CPR compressions are things I really want to do correctly. Those particular scenarios are instances where training reps will save you from your prefrontal cortex. Other serious scenarios just don’t have a set play to practice, like delivering really bad news. There isn’t a script for everything.
Let’s return to the point: Uncertainty.
We don’t know how to do everything, and surprises will occur. Both in the moment and afterward, not knowing is an opportunity. We will all eventually be forced to make the best decision we can with the information and skills we have at the time. We need to recognize that moment as a chance to do hard things and trust that learning will arise. We also need to be compassionate with ourselves and others when looking back at how it all went down.
My wrestling coach liked to say “You just earned an opportunity to improve” whenever we faltered—maybe forgot our headgear or lost our temper. The “opportunity” was an extra 20 minutes of Hit-It drills after practice.
At the time I didn’t think much about why coach called it an opportunity. I just tried to keep my mouth shut and not to “earn” anything else. Looking back, I see the wisdom.
Opportunity hides in the hard stuff. Get good at seeing it that way.