As A Pilot Thinketh: Four Traits of a Successful Mindset

Circumstance does not make the man; it reveals him to himself… – James Allen, As A Man Thinketh

Have you ever wondered why it is that some people rise to great heights in life while others fall prey to a series of false starts, missed opportunities, or bad luck? Do the circumstances surrounding the individual cause them to fail or succeed?

I’m a big fan of James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh (you can download it for free from iTunes). Allen argues that it is not circumstance, but the way you think that will lead to your ultimate success or failure. I couldn’t agree more. Fighter pilots have a mindset that puts them in control of their outcomes – to some it comes naturally, and for others it is learned. Here are four key characteristics exhibited by fighter pilots that will help you build a successful mindset.

1. Integrity

I don’t care if you can close your eyes at the start of a BFM engagement and open them three seconds later to find yourself in the Control Zone (i.e. you’re an awesome dogfighter). If you aren’t trustworthy, no one will want to go to war with you. The importance of having integrity cannot be overstated. While having integrity alone may not land you in the position you desire in life, it will help you stay there once you get there! Do you think that Brian Williams will ever be asked to read the news again now that his integrity is in question?

No one but you can determine your thoughts and actions. If you have a mindset prone to exhibiting integrity, you will be more likely to act in a highly moral manner when tested. That mindset is up to you, and you alone, to develop.

Allen says, “Man is made or unmade by himself; in the armory of thought he forges the weapons by which he destroys himself. He also fashions the tools with which he builds for himself … mansions of joy and strength and peace.”

There you go – your motivational quote for the day.

2. Self-Discipline

Brigadier General Robin Olds once said, “Every aspect of a fighter pilot’s life demands strict discipline. Flying itself takes discipline. It is, in fact, the end result of highly disciplined training, and the constant application, through self-discipline, of the lessons of that training.” He further went on to define discipline as “what makes a person do the right and proper thing under many different circumstances.”

No Mission Commander wants any part of his or her force to make decisions based on a sensational reaction. Fighter pilots are trained to make life and death decisions under great amounts of stress while minimizing the persuasive pull of emotions. Learning to control what you think – and the way you think it – is something that takes discipline and time.

On of my favorite authors, Paulo Coelho, once wrote, “If you conquer yourself, then you conquer the world.” Self-discipline gives the fighter pilot the focus he or she needs to accomplish the mission – whatever that mission in life may be.

F-35 pilot

3. Proactive vs. Reactive

The day was perfect for flying. A low, scattered cloud layer framed the wintery Atlantic Ocean beautifully as I climbed my 2-ship up to 23,000 feet. We were about to fight two other Raptors and two T-38As in a series of ACM (Air Combat Maneuvering) engagements, and it took significant effort to keep myself from being lulled into complacency by the beautiful backdrop below me.

As we checked into the airspace, the controlling agency advised us there would be a Learjet flying through the middle of our fight at an altitude that would be a direct conflict with our Red Air. The easy thing to do would have been to accept this and assume the Red Air fighters would just avoid the Learjet’s altitude. But why let someone else drive MY fight? It took some coordination and extensive radio chatter to get the controlling agency to agree to keep the Learjet out of our fight. In the end, we all got the training we needed without jeopardizing safety and the Learjet eventually got to where he needed to go.

My point is this: We must not become slaves to our circumstances and must certainly not let others dictate how our fight is going to go – that is a reactive mindset and it will only distract from ultimate success. Do you think Warren Buffet made his money by letting other people determine how he would invest it?

4. Patience and Persistence

Things never go perfectly. Even the best-made plans are subject to frustration and failure. Every tactical brief before a mission consists of a list of contingencies. Each pilot in the formation must understand what the flight lead expects him or her to do if things go south. Failure is not an option, but it should never be discounted as a possibility. In any case a short-term failure can still result in long-term success if contingencies are patiently planned and a persistent mindset is maintained.

Winston Churchill had an interesting take on failure: “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

When your four-ship gets rolled on the opening push of Red Flag, you learn from your mistakes and come back the next time a better fighter and more capable of slaying the adversaries. Life is a war of attrition – you have to bounce back more times than you fail if you want to come out on top.

So while not an all-encompassing list of the things that define a fighter pilot or a winning person in general, these four attributes can provide a vector to success. There really is something to the old Proverb that “as [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he.” [Proverbs 23:7]



  1. Chris Palmer says:

    Gosh, this is such an awesome article! I love your connection with the various quotes. Who would have thought that As a Man Thinketh could be so applicable to life as a fighter pilot?

    Reading through this and seeing the quality of people that we have in our military, it makes me proud to be American.

    And, apart from that, thanks for pushing such great and inspiring content in the aviation community as well. Top, top notch!

    1. Rob Burgon says:

      Thanks Chris! I’m not going to lie, I was a little leery of posting such a “Tony Robins-esque” article. I’m always so impressed by the quality of people I work with that I wanted to quantify somehow – definitely not possible in such a quick article, but hopefully it’s food for thought. Thanks for spreading the word brutha!

  2. Brent says:

    Awesome Rob! This is great advice for anyone and certainly a worthy reminder to others.

    I’ll check out Mr. Allen, I’ve profess that I’ve never read his work – plus it’s free!

    I will make sure to pass this post on to some young men that are coming up that I know. These are fundamentals that must anchor us if we are to be successful in whatever we set our intentions.

    1. Rob Burgon says:

      The ideas in Allen’s book really are timeless. The book was originally published in 1902, and like a lot of great authors, his works weren’t really appreciated on a grand scale until after his death. As A Man Thinketh is still held in high regard today for the unchanging truths presented in it. I hope you enjoy it! It’s a short read, and well worth it.

  3. Phil Wilhelm says:

    I think the original was: For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he. Proverbs 23:7 Over the years, my years, it has morphed into “As a man thinketh, so is he”. Quoted a lot of times in motivational seminars and said first by King Solomon.

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