Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Flying and Lessons Learned on Fear


LionOne of the side effects of pushing yourself to new limits, expanding your horizons, and generally living life to its fullest is that occasionally you will sense the inevitable presence of fear. I’ve never encountered someone who is immune to fear. I’m not sure it’s possible. If it is, I’m not sure it’s healthy. What I’ve found personally is that fear must be managed. It must be appreciated as a motivating factor, but you must keep it just behind you. If fear starts to take hold of you, it can draw you in and paralyze you. Use this as a motivating factor and keep fear at arms length in the proper direction: behind you… and then keep moving.

To use some more pilot stories, there are times when I’ve let fear ding me, and there are times when I’ve clearly manhandled it into submission. I’d like to share both because they are great learning experiences.

IFR Flying

Flying between layers

The first instance that comes to mind was my very first night flight in low IFR (that means taking off into the clouds) all alone in the airplane. There is nothing like flying alone in the clouds even in daylight, but try doing it at night and you will discover that your heart can beat at speeds you never thought possible.  You will discover a new meaning of “alone.” I took off from Fulton County Airport (KFTY) headed to Thomasville, GA (KTVI). One of the procedures in the plane I was flying is to use a fuel boost pump for take off, then switch it off at a certain altitude.  In this plane the boost pump switch is on the left side of the cockpit in a row of about four switches. Usually there is enough ambient light in the cockpit to see the switch labels clearly, so they are not backlit.  This dark and cloudy night, I took off and was in the clouds almost immediately. Dealing with the business of Atlanta airspace’s traffic control, juggling controllers and takeoff checklists, I was already pretty anxious… but then it came time to switch off the boost pump, and because it was so dark,  I realized I couldn’t tell what the switches were!  And worse… I couldn’t remember the order of them on the panel. So it was the oddest thing, but I could feel the fear grab me and began to squeeze.

My heart was racing and my mind was slowing down to fixate on one tiny, stupid, essentially insignificant which switch decision!  I was terrified I was going to turn off the master switch, instead of the boost pump, (which wouldn’t have turned off the airplane, just so you know) but it would have turned off most of the lights in the cockpit, while I was in the clouds all alone. Not where I wanted to be.   Yikes!  That’s when it was very apparent to me that fear had grabbed me and I was becoming ineffective. Who knows what other, more important details I was missing.

My lesson learned from this is that fear is sometimes born from being unprepared.  In that particular situation, I simply should have known the airplane I was flying better, and I should have known exactly which switch to flip just as a blind person can read brail.  Also, had I been able to manage the fear better, I would have calmly realized that maybe the best decision was to just leave the boost pump turned on, which was perfectly fine.

Back in 1996, I was sitting on the bus with the great Alfred Watkins, one of the directors of the Atlanta Olympic Band and we were on the way to the Olympic Stadium to perform at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics. I asked him “Are you nervous?” His response was this,

“Why would I be nervous? We are prepared. If you prepare, then fear is irrelevant. You simply know you can do the job. We are prepared. No fear.”

So be prepared.

DA40 Stack

DA40 "Stack"

Another airplane story for you that isn’t quite as stressful. I was flying home with a friend one night from a work conference in Miami and we had stopped in south Georgia for fuel. We were flying a DiamondStar DA40, that was equipped with a cylinder head temperature (CHT) monitoring instrument. That meant we had a temperature reading for each of the 4-cylinders in the engine pushing us through the sky. The procedure is to monitor those bad boys and keep the airplane just at the right temps. Too hot and it’s the first sign of trouble in the hamster wheel.  To make a long story short, we took off just at dusk, climbed to altitude quickly and all of a sudden the temp on cylinder #3 shot way up… like to 1700 F… and they were supposed to be around 1400. I didn’t know that Mr. Farenheit went that high, and I sure as hell didn’t think that we would see a number like that without seeing smoke first.  Dude!!

However, this time there was no fear. My friend and I knew what had to be done. We had altitude, so we pull back the power, we call ATC explain the situation and ask for the nearest airport. Following all the training and emergency procedures in the book, we turn towards Albany, GA (KABY), called the tower. They asked if we needed emergency equipment ready and the we waited until we were sure we could glide to a successful landing before we responded with the negative. We landed safely and all was well… and my favorite part about that was that it was a great demonstration of Alfred Watkins mantra… preparation makes fear irrelevant. Instead of fear taking hold, we were harnessing the elevated anxiety and thinking faster, clearer, and more effectively.

Takeaways from this post:

1. Keep fear behind you.

2. Be confident that you are prepared.

3. Keep moving.

Your thoughts?





A Trick Next Time You’re in a Crowd


I have no idea where, how, or why I started doing this, but recently, I made an internal decision to do something crazy in public. When I’m walking around a conference, a networking event, a restaurant, or even the store, I do something  off-the-wall that most people don’t dare do…

…are you ready…?

…for no reason at all…

…right there in front of strangers and the world…

…I actually will…


It’s the oddest thing. I don’t know if someone told me this and I forgot, or if I observed it accidentally, but it is the neatest way to feel better, lighter on your feet, more confident, and more willing to say hello. It’s not difficult to smile.  My parents were right when they said it takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown, so there’s another plus. It’s a true source of energy for me, that I hope you will try.

Those who know me often have a hard time believing me when I say that I’m actually a little introverted.  Maybe it comes in waves, but sometimes I just don’t have the energy to meet new people, hear about their stories, and share mine. I would rather just hang out in the corner reading e-mails and conference materials. However, recently I was at a conference and I recognized that I was feeling pretty low on the energy level, so I decided to walk around smiling.  Who knew!?  Sure enough it turned around my whole mood.

Give it a try.  Actually, give it a try right now. Smile at the screen and notice how suddenly you just feel better.  Seriously… are you smiling right now?  Don’t make me hack your webcam and find out. Just smile, dude.



Action ain’t Pretty


Ugly BabyI need to provide a necessary contrast to yesterday’s post on excellence. Given how much I encourage others to take a leap, make a move, use your potential and make some kinetic energy, let’s talk about what action actually looks like.  Action ain’t pretty!

Many times I hear wannapreneuers talk about how they are waiting to start turning their idea into a company until they get XYX, or have enough to “do it right or don’t do it at all.”  While I appreciate and admire their commitment to excellence, I want them to know that the first steps in anything are not going to be the place where you realize excellence.  Actually, the first iterations of anything are usually going to suck pretty bad! That’s how we learn and get better.

I’m around guys and gals lately who have sold big successful companies and are out spooling up new ventures. It’s amazing to see the contrast between what they are leaving and what they are starting. The companies they’ve sold have been established with precision processes, beautiful marketing messages, incredible brand momentum, and well-defined products and services… but the output of their new ventures is not even close!  Non-entrepreneurs who I’ve talked to about some of these new ventures created by successful entrepreneurs have made comments to me like “I really expected his new baby to look a little sharper than this…” or “Maybe he just got lucky last time, because this one doesn’t look nearly as well thought out as the last one did.

My response:

What you are seeing is action. This is learning in progress. Watch how fast they will learn and ramp up.

This is the secret sauce… as the Lean Startup movement says, we build first, then measure, then learn.  But you have to realize that the thing that is built first is not going to be very impressive. It is a minimum viable product.

However, what you are also seeing is ACTION. You are seeing people who are willing to take the first step, throw an ugly baby out in front of the world, have no shame in failure, and are ready to learn.

The same applies to changes to existing organizations. You may be trying out a new weekly meeting format, strategic planning framework, or marketing strategy… the first time you implement, don’t expect perfection! This will drive you (and your team) crazy. Appreciate that you are making change and that the first phase of any change is not usually what you will ultimately end up with.

So if you are starting something new and are feeling down because you feel like “Excellence” is an unreachable destination, don’t be down on yourself. You have a product, a service, a company, a direction and you did what most people are too afraid to ever do: you took ACTION! You put one foot in front of the other! Now keep your head down, and keep learning!




When Excellence Meets Tradition


Peachtree Road UMC - Mander OrganI think a lot about my experience as a “user” in church on Sunday mornings. When I say think, I mean analyze it into the ground.  Personally, I refuel each week by having this time in a group setting to be openly spiritual with no distractions. It is a relief for me. If I go too long without a Sunday morning church experience, I start to feel like something is missing.  So for all these selfish reasons, I spend a lot of time analyzing the “user experience” of attending church.   I’d like to share some of my observations, because they are relevant to everything else in life.

For the last 11 years, my wife and I were members of Peachtree Road UMC in Atlanta. We loved this church. It exudes excellence in worship. And it’s not just me saying this, by the way, it even resides on a USA Today list of Top 10 Great Places to be Enthralled by Heavenly Music alongside the great National Cathedral, Mormon Tabernacle, and others.

But sadly, as part of our family migration to the burbs, we had to let go of PRUMC. Searching for a church was a learning experience for me. It forced me to think about why I loved PRUMC so much and what were we looking for as a family to replace it.

We visited big churches with electric guitars, smoke machines, lasers, and drums, we visited some smaller churches with pipe organs, friendly people, and good pastors, and we visited churches in between. When my wife and I started to learn what we wanted, we realized it wasn’t really about the kind of music, the size of the building, or even the style of worship… what we craved most, and what we were attracted to at our last church was the blatantly visible commitment to excellence.

The worship team at PRUMC shoots for the stars. They are always pulling out the stops… they are always looking to add to the experience of the worshiper.  No detail is left untouched. Everything is planned and executed with near-perfection.   I think this energy in itself is inpsiring! The output of what they were planning just makes it even better.

I relate this back to my post on Freedom through Structure. PRUMC is a traditional worship experience. It’s what many in the church biz, call “high church” … they create this awesome user experience within the structure of a highly traditional Methodist worship experience. They are creative as heck, but only within the structure of a defined worship sequence. That’s what makes it so awesome for the “user!” You know what to expect when the Doxology starts because you know the words, the reasons, the meaning, but you don’t expect that extra little organ fanfare at the end… or the acolytes exact precision in their presentation at the altar.  On Palm Sunday, you know there is going to be an opening procession where the choir enters the room with all the trimmings of crosses, banners, and finally the clergy… but what you don’t expect is the children’s choir following them waving palm branches and singing, with the handbells and brass adding to the experience.  They take the tradition of procession and add fire, passion, and obvious goal of  excellence… for an awesome outcome.

Just to wrap up our story I will share that we ended up joining Peachtree City United Methodist Church last month and so far we are extremely impressed with Rev. Steve Dodson’s commitment to excellence. He’s new to the church, but he’s got all the fire and energy of someone who is going to bring a big and clear vision of inspiring and energetic traditional worship to a church that has the potential to be inspiring to many on a regular basis. Stay tuned for updates on the progress.