I had a scary experience recently while transporting a patient on a medevac flight. Less than a minute after takeoff I heard a chime in my headset indicating a master caution light had illuminated on the warning panel. These lights range from something fairly mild like a door light to something very serious that requires an immediate landing like an oil pressure light. When I looked down, I expected to see one light that would give me a sense of the problem.
But it wasn’t a single light. The panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree.
I had a moment of disbelief. Then I uttered an internal, “f*#k”, and I braced myself for the violent torque kick and spin of the helicopter as the engine quit or we lost our tail rotor.
Nothing happened. My next thought was, “Where do I even start?”
Where Do I Even Start?
In training we practice emergency procedure after emergency procedure but I’d never considered what to do if a bunch of lights were on all at the same time. I made a quick assessment: we were still flying and the engine was still running. Those were the most important things. Next, I knew I needed to land as soon as possible just in case we did have a mechanical issue.
A glance out the window at the buildings and streets below told me we weren’t over anywhere suitable to land and we were too far from the airport that was several miles away, so the best option would be an immediate turn back to the hospital helipad from where we’d just departed.
Worst Case Scenario
My altitude and airspeed (slow and low) was the worst possible time to have a mechanical issue. In this situation the best possible scenario would be extensive but hopefully non-fatal injuries to myself and the crew. The worst case scenario would be death either from an uncontrolled impact or post-crash fire.
Our perception of time slows in crisis and I had plenty of time to think in the seconds it took to return to the helipad. What could possibly be wrong with the aircraft? It was then that I realized every single light on the caution/warning panel was illuminated. Despite this, the oil pressure was normal, the voltage normal, the generator was online, and all other instruments indicating normally.
I also had time to think about the people in my life and realize there was only person I wasn’t “complete” with in my life. Our last interaction had been charged with hurt and anger and I didn’t want that to be our last.
Feeling Lucky and The Odds of Dying
I recognize that my odds of dying aren’t really that much higher than anyone else’s, I’m just lucky enough to be reminded of it all the time.
Because of this, I ensure the people in my life know that I love and care for them and that if I don’t come home from work one day, I was doing something I loved. I still miss my Dad terribly, but he died doing something he loved. I can’t imagine a better way to go. I’m sure he’d say the same.
As I lined up on final approach to the helipad, I knew two things. First, we were going to be fine. Other than the warning lights, the helicopter was operating normally. Second, I needed to have a conversation with my friend to clear the air and make amends for my angry words. We landed without incident and our patient was transported via airplane to Anchorage. Later I was able to repair things with my friend and we parted with love rather than anger. Mission accomplished.
Have the Conversations You Need to Have
Eventually the mechanics found a switch that had shorted out and closed the warning light circuit. Nothing mechanical, just electrical.
All that really happened because of my scary experience was an increased resolve to ensure I have the conversations I need to have without waiting for “someday”. Well that and possibly a few new gray hairs.
None of us know when our life will end. I want mine to matter. I want to know I made a difference and contributed to the world. Isn’t that what we all want?
You can create a life that matters. The final step for creating a life you love using the C.R.A.F.T. acronym is tuning. If you missed the first posts you can find them here: Clarity, the 3Rs, Action and Accountability, and Focus.
CRAFT a Life You Love: Tuning
If a musician’s instrument isn’t tuned correctly no matter how well they play, it won’t sound very good. If you’re out of tune or “alignment” in your life, you won’t have the deep happiness and satisfaction that’s possible and that we all crave.
Each of us are the composers of our life’s story. Your life is your masterpiece.
If the musician analogy doesn’t work for you, think of yourself as the chef who fine-tuning a recipe. Or a brewer or chocolatier who is adding a bit more of this or a bit more of that to create something delicious.
We are constantly writing and developing our life’s story. Here are six steps to tuning your life so you can craft a life you love.
Six Steps to Tuning Your Life
1. Pay Attention to What Matters
What really matters in your life? We can get caught up in the hustle and bustle of life. But when we have a reminder that life doesn’t go on forever, we start to really pay attention to the things that matter most: our health, our families, our friends. Helping others.
Ask yourself, what feels good in my life? What doesn’t feel so good or is out of alignment? We all have our own “frequency”. When we are living in alignment with our purpose we are “in-tune”.
Pay attention to your gut and it will give you the information you need. You know what’s best for you.
2. Evaluate Your Life
I love the life wheel as a way to think about different areas of life. Rate how satisfied you are with your life in relation to the different areas. There are times when one area is more present in my life than others. Times (like recently) when relationships take precedence compared to times where I focus on work or family. Having a “balanced” life on a daily, weekly or even monthly timeframe isn’t realistic or appropriate. Think of balance as long-term, something to have over the course of a year or years. Thinking about balance always reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:
Everything in moderation including moderation. – Oscar Wilde
Don’t be afraid to overdo it once in a while. That’s part of what keeps life interesting.
It’s helpful to take time to “tune” your life as part of a formal review process. I like to do this at least quarterly (which tends to be associate with seasons more than anything else). The balance I want in summer is very different from what I want for winter. Using the life wheel can help you identify areas where you feel out of alignment.
3. Do a Litmus Test on your Goals
Periodically step back and reevaluate your goals. Are they still appropriate? Do they still fit? Here’s how:
Ditch Your “Should” Goals
If you know me, you know that I’m a huge advocate for getting uncomfortable. This takes courage and vulnerability but leads to connection and a bigger life. What I’m not an advocate for is doing something because you “should”.
Sometimes we adopt goals that are “shoulds”. You may or may not actually use the word “should” when you think of the goal but it is implied. For example,
- Lose 20 pounds (should) vs. Feel fit and healthy (aligned with a positive feeling).
- Get out of debt (should) vs Enjoy extra money at the end of the month (enlivening).
If the goal is based on a should, you’ll give up when things get hard and you encounter the messy middle.
Think of “shoulding” on yourself is “sh*^ting” on yourself. Stop it.
Ditch “should” goals for goals that inspire and enliven you.
Choose Goals That Spark Joy
There’s been a lot of attention recently for a book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. In it the author, Marie Kondo says the best way to decide what to keep and what to throw away is to hold each item in your hand and ask, “Does this spark joy?”
Think of each of your goals and ask, “Does this goal spark joy?” If not, ditch it.
Life’s too short to not be surrounded by things you love. Life’s too short to not being doing things you love. If you aren’t loving it, do less of it.
Get Rid of Dreams that No Longer Fit
Sometimes we think we want something but once we get close to the dream, we realize that it no longer is a good fit. I love children’s literature and always thought it would be fun to own and operate a book store. A short stint working at a local book store taught me that even thought I love reading and finding a perfect book for someone, I don’t enjoy the day-to-day operation of working in a bookstore. The goal doesn’t fit.
I love my job as a helicopter pilot and now that I’m flying medevac, my lifestyle is the most stable since I started flying. I’m not home every night but I do get to be home everyday (I’m on the night shift part of the time). There were years where I had to work in places that were soul-sucking. It’s been worth it, but it wasn’t easy. Although you love to fly, you may not be willing to have the helicopter pilot lifestyle. The dream might not be worth the reality.
Or you might encounter an insurmountable roadblock. You might have a physical limitation that doesn’t allow you to pursue the dream. Infertility. Illness. These can change your dreams. They won’t fit anymore.
4. Create a More Of/Less Of List
Take a few minutes to consider what you’d like more of in your life. Consider what you’d like to have less of in your life. When I think of my “perfect day” I imagine free time to read so recently I’ve been taking time to reading a book. It’s easy to flick through social media posts, but I love books and enjoy them much more than if I spent the same amount of time surfing online. (And, thank-you universe, I just got invited to join a book club!)
Make a list of at least three things you’d like more of in your life and three things you’d like less of in your life. Be specific. What do you want more of? More joy? More laughter? More time with family? More time in nature? More soaking in a wood-fired hot tub? Meaningful conversations with friends? Choose these things to fill your time with. Stop doing the things you want to do less of.
5. Savor the Good
We all suffer from negativity bias. We give more weight and importance to negative experiences than positive experiences. Dr. Rick Hanson, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, explains this as, “our brains are teflon for good experiences and velcro for bad experiences”. I remember a tremendous amount of detail about the street in Quito where I nearly got mugged but I don’t remember nearly as much about the street in Paris where I had my first chocolate crepe.
We’re more likely to remember the negative. For a geek like myself, I find the cognitive biases of our brains fascinating. Here’s a Wikipedia list of them. If our brains are biased, why not use the biases to our advantage?
Pay attention to the good. Let it soak in and become fixed in your memory. Dr. Hanson recommends 20-30 seconds of savoring to really have good experiences stick. Just in the way you might enjoy a square of dark chocolate as it melts on your tongue, a sip of your favorite wine, or a really great cup of coffee; savor the good experiences in your life.
6. Redirect Your Thoughts When You’re Ruminating
Ruminating, or thinking the same thoughts over and over again, is usually a byproduct of our negativity bias. It’s our inner critic yammering on and on about the same stuff.
I’ll often catch myself ruminating while I’m driving or engaged in some other task where I only need to be partway focused. Instead of ruminating, create a list of things you’re going to think about instead of the “default” station in your mind.
For example, it’s much more interesting to imagine what I’d like in my tiny house in Talkeetna than worrying about the relationship over which I have no control.
Consciously redirect your thoughts when you catch yourself ruminating. Change the radio station in your mind. If you can’t get your mind to shift, shift your body.
Brené Brown tells a funny story in Rising Strong about people telling her to breathe. Eventually she becomes a convert when she realizes the yoga and mindfulness teachers were promoting the same thing as the Green Berets. Her “Don’t Mess with Texas” sensibilities like it better when it’s called tactical breathing than box breathing. Regardless, it works.
Breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, hold your breathe out for four seconds.
Life is better when you pay attention to the good.
Tuning Your Life is an On-Going Process
Tuning your life, by periodically re-evaluating your direction and goals is a powerful practice. It allows you to move from reacting to being proactive about the life you want to live.
Your life is your masterpiece. You can be the person you want to be. You can craft a live you love. Your life will never be “done” until it is over. We never really “arrive” and at the same time we’ve already arrived. There’s nowhere to “get to”. We’re here. All we have is now and yet we have the opportunity reinvent ourselves at any moment.
And just in case my next scary experience doesn’t turn out so well, I love you. You matter to me and I care about you. You make the world a better place.
What’s your one thing you need to do before it is too late? Share in the comments.