Career Advice

5 Pieces of Career-Changing Advice From Navy Fighter Pilots

There's no room for error when you're landing a $70 million fighter on the bobbing deck of an aircraft carrier.
5 Pieces of Career-Changing Advice From Navy Fighter Pilots
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5 min read
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Imagine you are hurtling toward a 300-foot floating runway traveling over 150 miles per hour. That’s a daily reality for America’s Navy fighter pilots, an elite group of personnel who have adopted tried and true ways of working to ensure success.

Only the smartest, strongest-willed people pass the crucible to become Navy fighter pilots. Aviation cadets must pass a grueling 54-week course that tests their physical and mental fortitude. Along the way, successful cadets develop a set of practices that help them succeed.

Here are a few of those practices. Try applying them to your day-to-day to become a more successful professional.

Related: 24 Hours on the 'USS Stennis': Why I Committed to Hiring Veterans

1. Dedicate yourself to a higher calling to unlock your true potential.

Before serving as a United States Senator, John McCain served as a US Navy fighter pilot. He was shot down while flying an A4-E Skyhawk fighter jet over North Vietnam. When reflecting on his time in the Navy, McCain wrote, “nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself.”

As McCain noted in his memoir, he wasn’t always a straight-laced public figure. While serving in the Navy, he gained a fresh perspective on life. By focusing his energies on a cause which he believed in, he was able to achieve great things.

We all-too-easily allow ourselves to become consumed with our own thoughts, wants and desires. Find a way to channel your energy to causes outside of yourself. In so doing, you may unearth hidden potential you didn’t realize was there.

Related: 4 Ways a Clear Purpose Benefits Your Business

2. You are never too experienced to forgo a checklist.

It doesn’t matter if you just earned your wings or if you are a seasoned pilot on your second tour of duty. All Navy fighter pilots go through the same pre-flight checklist before taking off.

Though your work may not be life or death, it most likely gets stressful from time to time. Combat human error by creating checklists that are simple to follow so they are widely adopted, while focusing on areas that are critical to the success of your project.

Related: Can a Simple Checklist Transform Your Business?

3. Learn to manage stress to improve your performance.

Flying a $70 million fighter jet over hostile territory and landing it on an aircraft carrier bobbing in rough seas is stressful, to say the least. In these situations being able to manage stress can dramatically improve performance.

As former Navy Pilot John Chesire recently wrote, “whenever I flew, it was important to place all distractions away and out of my mind, and to totally concentrate on the flight at hand... to compartmentalize them.”

Navy fighter pilots have been practicing mindfulness long before it became a trend. Clearing your mind of distractions, especially during stressful moments, is a valuable skill that can help you to improve professional performance during crunch time.

Pilots who endure intense g-forces employ breathing techniques to control blood flow and nerves. Similarly, deep breathing techniques have been shown to help workers manage stress at the office.

Related: 5 Ways to Improve Productivity By Breathing Easier

4. Master the fundamentals of your craft to improve performance.

In keeping with a long-standing interservice rivalry, Navy pilots sometimes look down on Air Force pilots. It’s said that Navy pilots call Air Force pilots “bus drivers,” or members of the “Air Farce.” The name calling is generally thought to be all in good fun, but it comes from somewhere.

Whereas Air Force pilots have thousands of feet of runway to play with on takeoff and landing, Navy pilots must takeoff and land on a 300-foot runway in the middle of the ocean. There’s no room for error, so Navy pilots never stop working on fundamental flying skills. In time, they are able to focus on increasingly technical elements associated with mission success, having dedicated so many hours to the basics.

Similarly, if you’re interested in improving yourself professionally, you may find that the best way to do so is by doubling down on the basics. Rather than moving on only to more advanced techniques, make sure that you have an expert level understanding of the elemental components of your work.

Related: Do This After Mastering the Basics of Your Industry

5. Be a humble and knowledgeable team player.

Not every Navy pilot is selected to become a fighter pilot. Only the most qualified cadets are selected to take the reins of an F/A-18F Super Hornet. Instructors don’t just select cadets with the highest marks or best flight performances, they also take into account attitude and outlook.

As former Navy pilot CW Lemoine points out, “Instructors are impressed by pilots who are humble, knowledgeable and have a good attitude.” Lemoine goes on to say that instructors look for cadets who help others succeed.

If your manager is any good, he or she will be looking for similar attributes. Managers want to promote people who aren’t just a master of their profession. They look for individuals who can make others better and who maintain a humble attitude despite success.

By implementing some of the ways of working common among America’s elite aviators, you too may find that working toward a goal outside of yourself with professionalism and calm can do wonders for your career.  

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