Know Thyself

I’ve met so many people on my journey in aviation. Some of them were ridiculously happy, thankful every day for the ability to go to work as a pilot. Others were jaded and surly, giving the distinct impression that they’d rather be scratching their fingernails along a never-ending chalkboard than be anywhere near an airplane or airport. Sometimes those two people were even the same age, doing the same job at the same company and making the same money. It’s perplexing.

Sure, we all have our good days and our bad ones. But how could their outlooks on life in aviation be so divergent? Is it just a matter of perspective? I’m sure sometimes that’s part of it. But as the years have passed, I’ve come to wonder if perhaps one of them is simply in the right place and the other one is not. A square peg in a round hole, if you will.

It brings to mind my salad days, which were spent in concert halls and theaters. Most of my formal training is in the arts, and that kind of career involves a lot of auditioning. Even when you’ve got a job, the need for another one is never far behind. Much like a student pilot waiting on the weather to improve sufficiently for a solo cross country, it can wear on you after a while.

A previous life. This is about as far from aviation as you can get.

Say what you will about life as a pilot, at least we’re not interviewing for a gig a hundred times a year!

Anyway, one of the best pieces of advice I ever received from my years in the performing arts field came from a well-known casting director. She said it was important to “know thyself”. In other words, the odds of success were much higher if we went after the jobs which best fit our skills, background, and natural talents. Beating the odds meant ensuring your time and energy were directed at the right gigs.

If this sounds self-evident, keep in mind others don’t always see us the way we see ourselves. Sometimes we think we’re heeding this advice, only to learn much later that we were not. I recall doing a lot of navel gazing after that pep talk. But in the long run, it was great advice and helped me tremendously.

The same is true for a professional pilot. There are as many different flying jobs as there are stars in the sky. Setting aside the irony of being asked if I ever want to be a commercial pilot when I’m already earning six figures doing just that, most people equate “commercial pilot” only one thing: a white shirt with epaulets and bunch of people in the back going to grandma’s house for the holidays. But the flying bus only scratches the surface of what’s out there. Just because an airline job is many people’s idea of the brass ring doesn’t mean you have to make it yours.

I’ve met more than one person who was completely dissatisfied with a $200,000+ job flying top-of-the-line business jets to exotic locations. I knew a guy who had probably 20 days off each month on top of it all. And he still didn’t like it. Eventually he quit and went off to sell insurance. Or maybe it was real estate. I was too dumbfounded by the whole situation to focus on that part. Either way, the point is that he worked harder and made less money at the new job — and yet he was markedly happier.

Perhaps some of these folks would be better served by teaching, crop dusting (don’t laugh—those guys can make great money), flying for a scheduled airline, or owning their own business instead of working for someone else. Maybe they belong in the bush. Or on the side of a glacier. Or giving helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon. Flying airshows. Ferrying airplanes. Zipping around the San Juan Islands in a floatplane. Working for law enforcement. Or doing any one of a hundred different things in a thousand different places around the globe that are only available to those of us who fly.

“Shiny jet syndrome” isn’t just a cute phrase. Sometimes the equipment, lifestyle, paycheck, and/or Instagram feed can lead us down the wrong path. There are only 24 hours in a day, and we spend a third of that sleeping. The remaining hours are largely spent at work. Obviously we all have to pay the bills, but life’s too short to do something you hate all day, even if it comes with golden handcuffs.

There are a lot of flying jobs out there, and today an up-and-coming aviator has something rare: choices. From 22 year old 777 pilots to $455,000 bonuses for Air Force pilots, this is not the aviation sector of the 1990s/2000s. The game has changed, and the advantage is now in your court. So before leaping into a particular segment of aviation, take the time to look inward and really figure out what makes you tick.

You’ll thank yourself for it.

  20 comments for “Know Thyself

  1. Frank Davis
    August 24, 2017 at 3:24 pm

    Or as a mentor of mind use to say “It’s always greener on the other side of the fence until you get there and realize it’s AstroTurf”

    • August 24, 2017 at 9:41 pm

      Isn’t that the truth! The grass is *always* greener — until you get over there and realize it’s been fake the whole time. And it’s really hot under your feet, and smells like cooked plastic…

  2. Hannah
    August 24, 2017 at 3:36 pm

    I really needed this today! I’ve been wondering (and being very frustrated about) what job to pick in aviation and I’ve never thought about taking an inward look to see what best would suit me. I will definitely keep that quote in mind.
    And crop dusting doesn’t sound too bad to me . . . !

    • August 24, 2017 at 9:48 pm

      Crop dusting is a lot of fun! I had a job doing a kind of crop dusting, except we were using an ex-military King Air and dropped chilled & sterilized fruit flies instead of chemicals.

      Don’t let the job thing stress you out too much. If you pick something and find it’s not what you thought it would be, you can always change. “Know thyself” doesn’t mean you will always make the perfect choice every time. I mean, what fun would that be?? 🙂

  3. Dan
    August 24, 2017 at 4:50 pm


  4. Tim westcott
    August 25, 2017 at 6:26 am

    Always a good read Ron! So many “shiny”opportunities these days that it’s a good reminder to look and see what is best for my personality, skills and dreams.

    • August 25, 2017 at 8:25 am

      Tim! Always great to hear from you. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. By the way, I love seeing your trip photos on Facebook. 🙂

  5. August 25, 2017 at 5:44 pm

    Well said Ron. I have sat next to relatively young First Officers on occasions that already seem jaded. Like you, I often look back at a former life for perspective – I was a paramedic. 20,000+ flight hours, I still love it, but I also recognize that not everyone does. Cheers.

    • August 26, 2017 at 5:34 am

      Thanks for bringing that up, Owen! Looking back is important because it allows us to see how far we’ve come rather than always looking at how far we have to go. In other words, we get to see the glass as half full instead of half empty. That shift in perspective can make all the difference.

      Thanks for reading. (Love your site, by the way!)

  6. August 25, 2017 at 9:09 pm

    Nice post Ron. It’s obviously the same the world over, we have the same here in Africa too.

    I will follow with interest.


    • August 26, 2017 at 5:39 am

      As they say, great minds think alike. 🙂 And you’re right, the general idea is pretty universal. As more than one person on Twitter pointed out, it goes beyond aviation, too.

      I enjoyed your post, especially because one of the pilots assigned to my aircraft spent a number of years flying in Africa, and he often regales me with the craziest stories from his time in Swaziland, Madagascar, South Africa, etc. Many of them are the sorts of events which were not very funny at the time, but make for great storytelling years later.

      Fly safe!

  7. August 30, 2017 at 4:47 am

    A great smorgasbord of food for thought for members of any profession.

  8. August 30, 2017 at 3:53 pm

    Great post Ron – a thought for all whatever their chosen career. 33 years in ATC and I never thought of doing anything else. But I was fortunate to find a career I wanted to stick with – some are not that lucky.

    • August 30, 2017 at 4:01 pm

      So true! I’m probably not the only one who’s envious of your longevity and stability — and in an aviation career, no less. I read somewhere that the average individual changes jobs every 4 years. Over a typical working life, that’s like ten different employers! I can’t help but wonder how many of those moves are voluntary vs. involuntary…

  9. September 5, 2017 at 4:50 pm

    Passion is big factor for keeping me in this industry, Pilots often get attracted by the paycheck which has its benefits but quality of life is something to consider too.

    I agree totally with your comment on “shiny jet syndrome”. Too many people get caught up in it

    • September 5, 2017 at 8:07 pm

      Absolutely. The longer I live, the higher on the priority scale the quality of life issue rises. When you’re young, money is more valuable than time, but as the years go by the priorities tend to slowly reverse themselves. I think it’s especially true if you’ve got a wife and kids. So the job or career that might have been a perfect fit at one point in life might not be right at another.

      • September 5, 2017 at 9:10 pm

        “but as the years go by the priorities tend to slowly reverse themselves”

        Never a truer word spoken Ron!!

        It takes some time to understand this is happening to you, but when it does you see your flying career in a whole new light. What may have been an important factor in why you got into the industry initially may now may become moot. Pay close attention to your ‘WHY’ !!!

  10. Graeme Hatzkilson
    September 11, 2017 at 2:07 pm

    It’s so true. So many pilots think it’s just the airlines than that is it. Who knows, maybe that’s why they got into the business in the first place, to fly for the airlines. For me, I have never once been paid as much as a nickel for any of my flying. I have a strong idea of what sort of flying I wish to do when I do start work. Some pilots are so excited just to fly the whole “will fly for food” or “work for free” just to live their passion, however this can have so many implications on the industry.

  11. Ryan Lunde
    September 12, 2017 at 11:41 am

    Great piece. I have been flying for 17 years and to this day I only have one hour of turbine PIC. I fly wildlife survey in tailwheel airplanes for a government agency for modest pay and I love my work and my quality of life. I get excited to get out of bed before the sunrise and fly over beautiful country. On one rare flight where I was simply transporting passengers early this year, the man on my right asked if I was training to become a commercial pilot. Maybe someday I’ll get to be a real pilot, but for now I’m awfully happy doing what I love.

    • September 12, 2017 at 8:48 pm

      That story has a familiar ring to it! Sounds to me like you’re in exactly the right plane, Ryan. Good quality of life is difficult to put a price on. If you’re happy where you are, then you’re doing it right — don’t change a thing.

      Before I started flying turbo props and jets, I thought that turbine time was one of the most overrated metrics of a pilot’s experience and capability, just as the tailwheel is highly underrated. In other words, you’re probably a better stick-and-rudder aviator than most everyone who flies behind a turbine engine.

      Now that I’ve been flying jet aircraft for a number of years, I realize I was 100% correct. 🙂

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