Fast Jet Performance

The Passionless Pilot – Why the Advice to ‘Follow Your Passion’ is Inherently Flawed

​Something was very wrong in my aeroplane.My student had locked the missile onto the heat plume of the hostile aircraft and I could hear the familiar ‘growl’ signalling it’s imminent departure.

But nothing happened.

We’d been flying for over 40 minutes and my trainee pilot had gradually become less talkative and less animated and, for someone who was heavily engaged in air combat with two other fast jets, this was a problem.

‘You OK there, buddy?’ I asked, as my student disengaged from the hostile aircraft and climbed skywards, out of the fight.

‘I just think I could do it better, it didn’t look right.’ came the reply.

But I’d seen this before and I knew it wasn’t good.

Air combat is exceptionally dynamic and often you are being subjected to over 6 times the force of gravity whilst trying to communicate with your wingman and manoeuvre your aircraft to kill the bad guy. It’s full-on, calculated and focused aggression and right now, my student was taking the easy road.

Soon, fuel would dictate the end of the fight and we recovered back to the airfield where we debriefed the sortie before heading home. It had been a difficult time for this course and we had been trying to get their Air Combat phase completed for the past few weeks but poor weather was preventing us from doing so. As instructors, we were well aware that unless we finished them soon, apathy would start to set in.

That evening I got a call from my student.

‘Sir, it’s me, we flew together today – can I have a chat?’

‘Sure can,’ I replied ‘Come on over – we can do that ‘Top Gun’ thing where we’ll grab a couple of beers and go and walk on the beach. You can tell me how you are thinking of quitting and I can convince you stay!’ I joked back at him.


It was a Friday night so we met up in a local pub and, as I got us a couple of beers, my student found us a table.’I don’t think I’m passionate about flying anymore.’ he said, as I gave him his beer.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it and it wouldn’t be the last. My role as the Squadron Uncle is one that is found on flying Squadrons all over the world. It’s the guy that been there for a while, probably too long, but can recognise when the Squadron is pushing the boundaries of what is safe. It’s the guy that can speak to the boss and give him the lowdown, tell him what the guys and girls are thinking so that he can address it before it gets to be a problem and is the guy that the pilots can bleat at when they just need to get something off their chest.

It’s also the guy the students can get some unprejudiced advice from knowing it won’t make it back to their instructors.

And it was obvious that my student was troubled.

Almost 50 years ago a man named Richard Bolles wrote and self-published a 168-page guide to navigating career changes, which he handed out for free after seeing many of his campus ministers lose their jobs in a budget restructuring in San Francisco. He called it ‘What colour is your parachute?’, a reference about ‘bailing out’ of a troubled organisation. Its message was ‘(figure) out what you like to do…and then find a place that needs people like you’ or, in other words, the key to a fulfilling career is to first figure out what you’re passionate about, and then go and find a job to match it.

Back in 1970 it was a revolutionary concept and it went on to sell 6 million copies.

This was the first time that anyone had come up with what is now a universally regarded notion that, if you find what you are really passionate about and go and do it, you’ll find happiness.

And it affects one particular generation much more than any other – that of Generation Y and that of my student sitting opposite me with a confused look on his face.

Generation Y, the generation born between the 1980s and the mid-1990s, are having a difficult time and it’s not their fault.

Also known as ‘Millennials’, they seem to be getting a kicking from all sides. They are often accused of having too great an expectation of the workplace, of changing jobs too frequently, of not wanting children and of being dependent on technology. But it should also be noted that they were the first generation to grow up not knowing an ‘unconnected’ world, to have ‘pragmatic idealism’ in their support of progressive domestic social agendas, to being the most ethnically and racially diverse generation compared to all others and to being more open-minded than their parents on controversial topics.

Their parents were born in the 50s and are the ‘Baby Boomer’ generation, a very large cohort that were able to support and grow economic prosperity in an exceptionally powerful way. More so, Gen Y’s grandparents were born in the era of the Great Depression and had taught their children (the parents) to prioritise economic security over everything else.

‘Don’t be a risk-taker,’ they said, ‘get a secure and stable job and buy a house.’

And so they did – they bought lots of houses.​

And as the 70s, 80s and 90s rolled around, the Baby-Boomers enjoyed extraordinary times of economic prosperity and it felt good to have the BMW and the boat.

‘Greed is good.’ – Gordon Gekko, Wall Street

They felt great and, being optimistic for their kids’ future, told them that they could be anything they wanted to be and do whatever they wanted to do.And this left their children feeling exceptionally upbeat about their future. Not only could they be secure financially but they could also change the world for the better. They could be the next Mark Zukerberg, Taylor Swift or Elon Musk – the world really was their oyster!

What awesome parents to have and what a great message to give!

Except it was wrong.

Many years ago a very Senior Officer in the RAF came to my base and gave a presentation where he told the assembled audience that they could all be the boss of the air force. ‘You could all be the top dog one day!’ he cried, ‘Any of you can be the Chief of Air Staff if you are passionate enough!’

But it wasn’t true. We couldn’t have all run the RAF, unless it was to have 35,000 bosses. What is so wrong with this message is that it gives false hope and expectation to the many that are necessary to play their essential ‘worker bee’ role in the organisation.

And this is the problem.​

Gen Y has only ever heard the mantra ‘Follow your passion’. They read it in the magazines, hear it in the music they listen to and see it on YouTube and in films.

‘Find what makes you happy and go for it with all your heart. It will be hard, but I promise it will be worth it.’ – Charlotte Eriksson, author.

There is a part of our psychology that plays a huge part in how we view the world. The more we are exposed to something the more ‘true’ it feels. This is to do with something called ‘cognitive ease’ which is a measure of how hard your brain is working. Things that are true generally elicit cognitive ease – the grass is green, the sun is bright or pilots are all really good looking.


Not only when things are repeated do they feel ‘true’, they also feel ‘comfortable’. The problem, however, is that cognitive ease can be manufactured by simply repeating a statement, and the more it is repeated, the more people feel that it is ‘good’ and can be trusted.

‘I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.’ – Donald Trump

This is why celebrities go on Sunday morning cooking programmes as they know that any exposure they can get will make them more likeable and familiar.Familiarity makes people seem more common and therefore your mind is not ‘challenged’ to understand them; you can ‘process’ them with cognitive ease. Without delving into the EU Referendum results too deeply, the Remain camp used many scare tactics to convince us to stay and these all took time to understand and process; trade deals will fall apart, we’ll lose access to the single market and the possibility of a war if we left the EU. Conversely, the Leave Camp eventually just capitalised on one simple one that was familiar to us all – Immigration.

And repeated it many, many times over.

By constantly being told by their parents to ‘follow your passion’ (parents who, incidentally, did anything but…), Generation Y has become very familiar and trusting in believing that this is the only route to happiness.​

And this puts them into something called ‘The Passion Trap’.

‘The Passion Trap – The more emphasis you place on finding work you love, the more unhappy you become when you don’t love every minute of the work you have.’ – Cal Newport

Let’s look at Google’s Ngram-Viewer which is a tool that shows how significantly a phrase appears in books that Google has scanned over a selected timeframe.


My student was 24 years old which means that he was born in 1992. Look what happens to the line during his lifetime.His whole life he’s been told that ‘following his passion’ will make him happy – no wonder he was having a problem with it. He’d done exactly what his parents had told him to do and yet he still wasn’t happy.

For many of us, but especially the young, this can create an existential crisis in which we ask ourselves searching questions – who really are we, what do we believe in and what kind of life do we want to lead?

On top of this he was living in a time when social media had created a world where everyone’s lives were on display for all to see. People online present a very curated version of their lives.

I have a friend who calls Facebook, ‘Bragbook’. ​

You only ever hear from the people whose careers or relationships are doing well and never from people who are struggling as they don’t tend to air their misfortune. No wonder my student was feeling low – it seemed that everybody was doing really well and he wasn’t even passionate about the one thing that people were telling him he should be passionate about!

Flying military fast jets is actually a really hard career. We all know that it looks glamorous but it is anything but ‘Top Gun’. Every flight my student flew is a test that he could fail and fail three times and you’re looking for another job.

Everything about it is demanding – mentally, physically and even socially.

It is a job that you get paid to do and if you didn’t get paid, believe me, you really wouldn’t do it.

My student was coming towards the end of his formalised military flying training and was now finding that he had time to think about the flying he was about to do on the front-line.

He was right to be apprehensive.

The responsibility he was about to be given was daunting and he was questioning himself. All of his life he’d been told that he was special, that he would change the world one day and, as good as being a fast jet pilot in the RAF was, he was asking himself ‘shouldn’t I be creating the next Facebook or curing cancer by now?’

‘It is never too late to be what you might have been.’ – George Eliot

Pilots need to be confident in the cockpit as it is no place for self-doubt but luckily we are particularly good at compartmentalising. This means that I wasn’t concerned about my student’s flying but I was concerned that he felt unfulfilled.I explained my theory on how his generation had been let down by the generations above him but that he was doing really well by even talking about the doubts he had.

I told him that I am not all that ‘passionate’ about flying either. Yes, in the early days when I was just discovering aviation I was very ‘passionate’ about it but now, many years later, I have other passions that I have come to realise.

I’m passionate about helping individuals on their road to success. I love helping someone find a plan to really impact the world in a better and more meaningful way. Currently the way I recognise my passion for fostering an individual’s growth is by using an aircraft that I teach in and by writing posts like these that might just help one person change for the better. And the more I go through life the more my passions change and develop. For example, I am currently passionate about exploring authenticity and openness and what this means in command and leadership positions.

I also coach and advise individuals and companies and talk at corporate events, schools and charities.

But we all worry that we don’t have any passions and that, at a party, someone is going to ask us ‘What are you passionate about?’ and we won’t have an answer. We all believe that we should have one passion that defines us and if we find it and pursue it to the exclusion of all else, we’ll be happy and successful – and if we don’t, we won’t.

What if we get on the wrong train and end up in the wrong future?

But it is OK to not have a passion to follow. When someone tells a Millennial to ‘follow your passion’, most don’t know what to do next. But passion doesn’t pitch up while waiting for inspiration to appear; it’s exposed through action and meaningful work.

Millennials are told that they must get an awesome job that they are passionate about, are respected in and that pays really well and they know that this doesn’t mean something menial such as sweeping floors.​

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy was being given a tour of the NASA space centre when he noticed a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted his visit, walked over to the man and said, ‘Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?’

‘Well, Mr. President,’ the janitor responded, ‘I’m helping to put a man on the moon.’

In the eyes of most people, the janitor was just cleaning a floor but, as far as he saw it, he was helping to make history.

Maybe we need to have a look at how we are defining our role in life and not worry about having to be passionate about something to be seen as successful.

People often attempt to follow career paths that they think they should be passionate about. They do this because they see people who are already successful in those careers and they mistake the passion these people now have as a result of the initial choice they made as opposed to the effort they’ve put in along the way.

‘Passion and purpose go hand in hand. When you discover your purpose, you will normally find it’s something you’re tremendously passionate about.’ – Steve Pavlina

Passion is a fire that ignites and burns intensely but it also burns fast and this makes it transient. Look at passion as a result of living a fulfilling and purposeful life and not the other way around.

‘Passion is not a plan, passion is a feeling and feelings can change.’ – Terri Trespicio, TEDx is an example of a business where passion came after the business was up and running. I very much doubt that the CEO, Tony Hsieh, is passionate about shoes but he is passionate about exceptional customer service which is what Zappos is known for – passion came later and is what drives the company ever forward.​Passion is the power that sustains your current activity and not what has driven you there.

‘You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success… and is the key to being regarded honourably. I’ve never once hated this job. I fell in love with my work and gave my life to it. Even though I’m eighty five years old, I don’t feel like retiring. That’s how I feel.’ – Japanese sushi master, Jiro Ono – ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’

Try and be useful, generous and spend time solving other people’s problems. Don’t wake up in the morning asking ‘How can I make money?’. Ask instead, ‘How can I bring value into someone’s life today?’As I told my student, don’t worry about not having a passion to follow, you will generate passion as you move through your career and develop yourself professionally. Maybe you’ll become a Instructor and find that you are passionate about helping the pilots on your squadron understand air combat or navigation but whatever you do, you have to actually start to do it in order to become passionate about it.

I said to him, ‘I’m not saying that you should live a life without passion but that passion should live a life within you.’

By exploring things that are of interest to you, you’ll allow passions to develop.

If you focus on creating a purposeful and meaningful life and contribute towards other people’s happiness, it will be seen that you are excited and energised about what you are doing and that you do not have to follow a passion because passion is already following you.​

Don’t follow your passion, live it.

‘The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.’ – Mark Twain

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