My team of instructors had just told me that they were never going to fly with him again and here he was, sat right in front of me.
He had no idea.
If you are a student going through military fast jet flying training and the instructors won’t fly with you then that’s it, you fail – it really is that simple.
‘I’m not going to fly the test for you, you are good enough to pass this course but you just need to believe that you are!’ I shouted at him.
It was the first time I had raised my voice in over 5 years of teaching fast jet pilots.
‘I don’t want to see you for the rest of the day. Don’t go to the gym, don’t go home and play Xbox – I want you to go and think of 5 honest reasons why you shouldn’t fly a front-line military aircraft. Tomorrow we’ll fly the trip again. You will pass it when you finally believe in yourself and not a second before.’
He wasn’t a bad student and he’d had a good flying course. He’d made some early mistakes and had flown a few trips again but his performance wasn’t out of the ordinary. He was just having trouble completing the last couple of sorties – it was quite common.
But often an instructor will get upset with a student. Sometimes a student will be uncharacteristically underperforming and this can be due to problems at home, a bad nights sleep or an indifferent approach to their training.
The first two we can deal with but the third just gets us irritated and instructors don’t get upset easily, we are some chilled out dudes.
I once had a student try and fly me into another aircraft when he was late joining into formation as we entered cloud.
A student who pulled so aggressively to avoid some birds, that he overstressed the aircraft and caused me neck pain that lasted a whole year.
Another who almost ejected himself just as we were landing because he thought we were going to hit the runway too hard.
Was I angry at any of these students? No, not at all.
It’s just what baby pilots do and was what I did when I went through the ‘learning to fly’ process. It’s part and parcel of being a flying instructor and each one of these events added to both of our learning experiences; the events would eventually make both of us better pilots.
But, whenever one of my instructors had worked himself up into a whirlwind of rage it was because the student has been directly responsible for his poor performance – not through a lack of ability, but a lack of application.
‘It’s almost as if they are doing everything in their power to fail the course.’ my instructors would tell me.
‘You are correct.’ I would reply, ‘They are and it’s called self-sabotage.’
Self-sabotage is what we do to ourselves when we feel that we are not good enough to attain the success we crave. It is more common than you think and you can probably recall many celebrities who have done it to themselves over the years.
Brittany Spears cutting her hair off, Wynona Ryder shoplifting, Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic remarks to a police officer after being charged with drink driving, Lindsay Lohan’s multiple breakdowns, Whitney Houston’s drug addiction and Nicolas Cage’s self-inflicted financial troubles to name a few.
Eminem’s drug usage and dependency on Xanax, Valium, Vicodin, Ambien, Methadone and alcohol was effecting his ability to rap and, as a result, he was not proud of his album ‘Relapse’. He had been sabotaging his own road to success but his celebrity and the industry drug culture were factors that allowed him to not have to account for his actions to others.
‘I was taking so many pills that I wasn’t even taking them to get high anymore. I was taking them to feel normal. I was a terrible person. I was mean to people. Obviously I was hiding something. I was fucked up inside, and people with those kinds of problems tend to put up this false bravado – let me attack everyone else, so the focus is off me.’ – Eminem (2011)
People often live in a cage of their own creation, we think it’s what we want but often we are wrong.
We force ourselves to accept society’s ideals as our own. I must OWN a house, FIND a job, GET married and HAVE children are just some common themes that many of us buy into. We often ignore our own desires and do what other people think is the right thing to do even if it is making us unhappy.
Like trying to be a world class musician, find fame and wealth or fly front-line military fast-jets.
‘Surely this shouldn’t be making me unhappy, I mean everyone is so proud of me, I’m going to be a fighter pilot?’
The pressure to achieve is huge and often we struggle internally with doing what we think is the right thing.
‘We are told in our culture that it would be really good to be famous and rich and it is compared to being really, really poor – don’t get me wrong, I’m not hoping that someone is going to sling me back into Essex working in a factory, I don’t want to do that but the glistening spectacle, we know this now, does not nourish us in a real way so I was getting the things I thought I wanted as a kid and I was thinking… ‘this doesn’t work, why is this not working!’ – Russell Brand
In the 70’s, a Canadian psychologist and professor named Bruce Alexander conducted a series of studies into drug addiction known as the ‘Rat Park’ experiments. In them he found that rats that were housed in isolation consumed more morphine than rats that were housed in a ‘rat park’ – a theme park for rats with clean sawdust and cool rat entertainment things where they could socialise with their rat buddies. When Alexander removed the rats from their single cages and put them all together in the park he noticed that, when offered the choice between plain water and their normal sugar water with morphine, they mostly chose the water.
What he found was that addiction arises in disparate and fragmented societies because people use it as a way of adapting to the social dislocation that they are experiencing.
When people feel caged they will ultimately try and fight back and animal urges are difficult to suppress. It can help explain the UK Referendum result when a large and marginalise underclass felt that they’d use the vote to fight what they felt was an unfair attempt by the privileged elite to force their will onto them.
It’s why most drug addicts tend to come from poor and underprivileged backgrounds where they feel that they cannot comply with society’s demands.
The Facebook, celebrity and ‘success’ culture forces us into believing that everybody else is living a happier life than us and this can be very damaging. It creates a feeling of insecurity as we do not feel as successful as those on our computer screens and this, in turn, means that we do not feel ‘included’; we feel an ‘outsider’ and become more solitary and detached.
‘Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.’ – Kurt Cobain, Nirvana
And because we don’t feel worthy of the success we crave we put up intentional barriers to stop us achieving it. If you don’t believe that you deserve something, you won’t allow yourself to have it.
The woman who prides herself on her perfect marriage but, because she is married to a man who is always working away, has an affair with her personal trainer.
The guy who goes to the gym because society tells him that he has to look good on his Insta feed but who secretly makes poor food choices.
The pilot who, the night before an important flying test, has too many beers with the guys and doesn’t do any studying.
And you know why this happens?
Because when people get divorced because of their own indiscretion, don’t look as good as they should on their social media accounts or they fail their flying training course…
…they don’t have to blame themselves.
‘It was his fault the marriage failed – he was away the whole time!’
‘Of course I could look better but life is too short not to have the odd treat, right!’
‘I would have passed my flying training but there are pressures you don’t understand – I mean, you have to relax a little, sometimes!’
‘If it’s never our fault, we can’t take responsibility for it. If we can’t take responsibility for it, we’ll always be its victim.’ – Richard Bach
Often we sabotage our own success because we don’t want to feel like a fake or an imposter. People feel that it’s only a matter of time before their friends and colleagues find out that they really are just not that good.
‘I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me.’ – Sally Field, actress at the Academy Awards.
Remember Amy Winehouse turning back to alcohol after a period of abstention? It was easier to deal with the immense fame she was receiving if she could soften its effect on her. I mean, what if it all ended at the tender age of 28, it wouldn’t be her fault, it would be the lifestyle that she was forced to lead, an alcoholic one that was forced upon her by ‘the business’.
People often use FEAR to not fulfil their true potential – Find Excuses And Reasons (F.E.A.R.) and this can often be found with people training in demanding professions.
If you think you are not worthy of the position, you will unconsciously work very hard to bring yourself back down to a level you believe you should be at.
It’s our default and I often hear people say…
‘I would push for promotion but I just don’t want the responsibility.’
‘I was going to ask for a raise but I’m probably not worth the money at the moment, I’ll do some more training courses first.’
‘I was going to apply to go to university but I’m not very academic.’
‘This won’t work, I can’t do this, I’m too busy right now, I’m just not ready yet, I’m just not good enough!’
Pick your favourite excuse.
Women not leaning forward in the business meeting or the guy with the great idea not speaking out in case he is ridiculed. It’s very common to feel this way and I’ve written about it before – it’s called ‘Imposter Syndrome’.
‘You must be the change you wish to see in the world.’ – Mahatma Gandhi
This is why some pilots unconsciously fail themselves at flying training – they do not believe, in their heart of hearts, that they should be flying front-line military aircraft. ‘Surely only the really talented people do that?’ they say and then look for ways to abdicate their responsibility in being successful.
I was that guy.
I failed my A-Levels at College.
Then I went on to struggle my way through a foundation course before struggling my way through my degree and almost being thrown out of university for low grades and poor attendance.
‘Surely only the wealthy and talented went to university?’ I thought and my family was neither of those things.
I wanted to join the military but thought that military Officers had to be super clever and that I wasn’t in that league as I’d been to a state school and wasn’t privately educated.
Eventually I found enough courage to apply to the Royal Navy but I was still very unsure of myself as I felt like a fraud and that I wouldn’t fit it. I didn’t bother to read about the Navy, I didn’t speak to anyone about it, I didn’t think I’d pass anyway so why put the effort in?
And I was right.
I went to the interview and I failed miserably; I got what I deserved.
They told me to go away and not to call them for a year. So I had to push trolleys for a supermarket chain and work in a small engineering firm whilst living back home with my parents.
But during this time something happened.
My parents had never been to university and had left school young to work in the public sector. Even though their jobs didn’t pay very well, they managed to put all four of their children through university.
This amazed my dad’s friends as it just didn’t happen back then when only 10% of children did degree courses unlike the 50% today.
I felt bad for not rewarding my parent’s efforts by failing to get into the military and I knew I wasn’t taking my application seriously because I was lacking in self-belief.
So I stopped seeing my old friends who I’d hung out with at school. The friends who were accepting the norm and letting their lives be dictated to them by the expectations of their family and friends; I had nothing against them but I needed to knuckle down.
I’d taken a hit from failing to get into the Navy and I had to get back on my feet again.
‘When they knock you down, you get up and ask for more!…There’s one formula, all you gotta do isstart and stay hungry!’- Ed Dunn, Head Coach, Martin Luther King High School
The Navy said that I’d lacked team work so I joined the local rugby club to prove them wrong. It
was Portsmouth Rugby Club and everyone started in the 4th Team, think about that for a second.
It hurt, a lot.
I also joined the Royal Naval Reserves and worked in local charities to help the poor and homeless.
And then, less than six months after I failed my entrance exams to the Navy, my father said to me, ‘Give the Navy a call again, tell them that you are bored and really want another go!’
‘But they told me I couldn’t re-apply for a year.’ I said.
‘Tell them you’ve done a year’s growing up in six months!’ he replied.
So I called them up and, after only 6 months, I was back at the Royal Navy’s Admiralty Interview Board. I felt that I was there for a reason, that I could now add so much more value to the Service and that it was where I was supposed to be.
I explained that I was super-enthusiastic, had read everything there was to read about the Navy and was focused on a career in Naval Aviation. I got a stern talking to for wasting their time the first time around and was sent away empty handed.
I was gutted.
But a week later I got a letter in the post with a start date for my entry to Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth and, at the time, I had the biggest difference in scores between my first and second try-outs that they had ever seen!
I’d finally done it.
No Plan B.
I often write about how important it is to have a Plan B, somewhere to go to when the unexpected happens but I am often reminded that, to have a Plan B, means that you are more likely to not achieve your Plan A.
I recently heard of a study where both groups were given a task but one group were told to think about a Plan B, an alternative course of action in case they couldn’t achieve their primary goal.
The study looked at three experiments where people were asked to come up with a Plan B should their original plan fail. What they found was that those who had come up with a Plan B were less likely to achieve their goals than those who were not told do come up with an alternative. Not only were those who had a Plan B less successful but they were found to have less interest in reaching their original goal too.
The research found that when someone plans for failure, they are inadvertently giving themselves permission to not succeed.
If you think about it it makes total sense. When you go for a job interview, your friends say things like ‘good luck’ and this abdicates you from any responsibility you might have had in passing the interview as, anyway – it’s just down to luck, right?
‘Don’t become a victim of yourself. Forget about the thief waiting in the alley; what about the thief in your mind?’ – Jim Rohn
Or you could do as I found myself doing recently when I applied to join a company that I really didn’t want to work for but I believed I could bring considerable value to. I thought, ‘It doesn’t matter if I don’t get the job, it will be just good interview practise!’
In my own flying training, I never had a back-up plan. Not that I had planned it that way but that I just couldn’t think of anything else that I wanted to do with my life.
Maybe that’s why I passed? Because I couldn’t ever see myself doing anything else. I was committed and didn’t ever have a Plan B. Once you begin thinking about a back-up plan, your desire to achieve your ultimate goal decreases.
Planning for failure gives you permission to fail.
It’s just what we do when we are unsure of our ability to succeed – we put up barriers for ourselves, we make sure that we can justify our failure. The more we do these negative things, the things that don’t move us forward and jeopardise our progress, the more we will continue to do them. We call them bad habits but the professionals see them as ways that we are sabotaging our own success.
When you are trying to lose weight but allow yourself your favourite treat, you are not only putting bad food into your body but are telling your mind that it is OK to do so. You are granting yourself permission to fail at your goal. And the more you continue to do it, the more permission you give yourself; it becomes an acceptable thing to do and will become familiar and normalised because, as humans, we are exceptionally good at adapting to new environments.
‘I had a few beers on Monday so a few more this week won’t hurt’ or ‘I skipped gym training at the weekend so I’ll skip tonight and start again on Sunday’.
We all do it.
‘Human beings can get used to virtually anything, given plenty of time and no choice in the matter whatsoever.’ – Tom Holt, Open Sesame
Military flying training, like most professional training courses, takes a very long time and never really ends. Even when your formalised three year training course finishes you still have check rides and extra qualifications to gain. We tell the students to just take it one step at a time and remember that every summit you see is a false one; the end of one training course just signals the start of the next.
We tell them to take it inch by inch, just one step after the other but, whatever they do, they must keep moving forward.
Those who do well have a self-belief that, for many outside of aviation, is hard to imagine. It is probably why pilots are often seen as ‘arrogant’ whereas a better name for what they display might be an ‘apprehensive confidence’.
I try and remember to fail fast and often, I learn much faster than if I try to avoid failure altogether. I anticipate that there will be tough times, those are the times when we would have crawled back into our caves, licked our wounds from the Sabre-Toothed tiger attack and done some healing.
I understand that perseverance is key to achieving my goals.
‘Now I can’t do it for you, I’m too old…You know, when you get old in life things get taken from you. I mean that’s…part of life. But, you only learn that when you start losing stuff. You find out life’s this game of inches…On this team we fight for that inch, we claw with our fingernails for that inch, because we know when we add up all those inches, that’s going to make the difference between winning and losing.’ – Al Pacino, ‘Any Given Sunday’ (1999)
I know that I mustn’t give up because I am yet to achieve results; studies have shown that small business owners tend to quit just as they are starting to gain traction and become profitable!
Be arrogant in your drive to succeed in whatever it is you want to do. ‘Own’ your failure and embrace it for what it is, an incredible learning opportunity. Constantly appraise your own performance – how are you holding yourself back?
Learn to take more risk and have less regret – execute your plan and do the thinking on the go. Too many people spend too much time waiting for the right opportunity that will never come.
Negative self-talk is so powerful and controlling that it often steals our ambition and stops us realising our dreams. How many times have you stopped before you’ve even begun and without a rational reason for doing so? It wasn’t a lack of skills, ability, or determination that prevented you from achieving your goals, but a very hidden and very real underconfidence.
We should constantly look for ways that we are self-sabotaging and recognise it for what it is…
…a call for help.
And, as I told my student the day I graduated him from his military flying training course, the only person that can answer that call is ourselves.