Highest Duty

screenshot_73Highest Duty:
My Search for What Really Matters
by Jeffrey Zaslow
ISBN: 978-0061924682

3 Minutes in the Cockpit, a Lifetime of Preparation

“Sully” Sullenberger’s safe water landing of a US Airways Airbus A320 with 155 passengers and crew on board on January 15, 2009, was a phenomenal act of skill, experience, courage, and professionalism. Personally, the fact that he was nearly 60 years old on that cold day on the Hudson River made the story all the more inspiring for me (“score one for the old guys”, I remember thinking to myself!).

The book covers much more than the brief, ill-fated flight itself. Sully tells the story of his life, his family roots in small-town Texas, his early love of flying, the importance of family, and the various life experiences, mental habits, and deeply-held personal values that all came together to produce the man who was capable of performing so admirably when Flight 1549 was struck by a flock of Canada Geese and immediately lost power to all engines shortly after take-off. Some reviewers didn’t like the extended biographical parts of the book, but it was exactly what I was looking for: what goes into the make-up of someone who performs so well at his moment of life’s greatest test, what are the psychological antecedents of extraordinarily resilient performance under stress?

Sully’s book does not disappoint in this regard. He details the typical struggles of an “ordinary” American family: financial woes, job insecurity, marital and familial challenges, and the joys and challenges of parenthood. If not for the events of 15 January, 2009, Sully would have lived a competent but unknown life. But a high-flying flock of geese near Laguardia Airport changed all that, and the dramatic cockpit events are well-described also.

Having recently read Ben Sherwood’s excellent book, “The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life”, I read this book looking to identify some resiliency traits in Captain Chesley Sullenberger. Indeed, Sully’s real-life story demonstrates many qualities of highly resilient human beings, including traits found in “survivor” personalites. He has a backbone of core principles and personal integrity, a strong sense of meaning and purpose in life, the ability to work with others and both give and receive support to/from others, maintains healthy and sustainable daily habits, quickly faces facts and responds to those facts without wasting energy protesting against reality, and makes a habit of “situational awareness” that allows him to make use of the facts at hand and take advantage of whatever opportunities are available in the environment. Sullenberger writes that his personal value of “daily devotion to duty” (embracing, every day, with all your best effort, the path in life you’ve chosen), helped him to build the skills that he needed to call upon in his time of emergency and crisis.

Sullenberger’s life story is not just a Great American real-life drama with a happy ending, but also a great example of a person living life with great resiliency strengths and behaviors, prepared for adversity that life one day may or may not send up to challenge him.


GSD, M.D. is a medical doctor and psychiatrist, specializing in the psychology of resilience, personal courage, and renewal.

Posted in Autobiography/Biography
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