Probably none of the 150 ticketholders who boarded US Airways Flight 1549 on January 15, 2009, knew anything about their pilot, Captain Chesley Burnett (Sully) Sullenberger III, as they blithely entrusted their lives to him and the crew that Thursday afternoon. By the time they had been rescued from the wings of the plane as it bobbed precariously in the Hudson River, they knew one thing for certain about the man who had just saved all their lives: he was cool under pressure.
In part, no doubt, that was—is—his nature. He also has an above-average level of intelligence. He is said to have been eligible for Mensa at the age of 12, and he graduated with top honors from the United States Air Force Academy. But that was more than three decades ago. Had he rested on his laurels, it’s likely that the story would have had a different ending altogether.
What really made the difference, as corny as it may sound—and it is this part of the story that holds a lesson for us all—is that Captain Sullenberger apparently never stopped trying to hone and improve his basic skills. He may have loved gliding, but when it came to work, I’d be willing to bet that he never coasted, never cut corners, never skipped a step in the protocols.
There’s a saying among security and military professionals: you fight like you train. The real secret in life and in work, however, is to understand that you’re always in training. Every time you perform any task in the course of your job, if you strive to do it well, you’ll be more likely to be ready to do it correctly under pressure in an emergency. Best of all, with that attitude, you’ll be better at the job day to day as well.
All of those who excel in their fields, like the Tiger Woods and Michael Jordans of the world, do so not because they were born with native talent, though they were, but because no matter how high they rise or how famous they get, they never cut back on the hard work and long hours of training. They never stop honing their craft.
Captain Sullenberger’s feat, it’s fair to say, was the culmination of a life’s work of perfecting his piloting skills.
Andy Warhol famously said we’d all get 15 minutes of fame. He forgot to warn that most of us won’t be ready for it when it comes. If you want to be among those who just might be able to rise to the occasion, strive daily to increase your proficiency at whatever you do, like the apprentice working to become the journeyman, but where the journey never ends.