On The Wrong Life Path?

Audio Blog, 12:29

I was riding in the back seat of a green Huey helicopter watching my stick buddy “Swanny” struggle to fly the helicopter straight and level at 2,000 feet.

On paper, Swanny was the ideal candidate.  He was confident, smart, well respected, and had scored high on the aptitude test.  On top of that, he was tall, handsome and articulate.  Before flight training started, most of my fellow student pilots believed that Swanny would easily earn his wings and thrive as a helicopter pilot for years to come.  It didn’t turn out that way…

Our instructor, Mr. Dennis Thorp, sat in the right seat of the aircraft and slyly leaned over and placed Swanny’s radio switches in the mute position so he could not hear outside communication.

I knew what was coming.  The dreaded “autorotation”.

The maneuver is important because it is the primary emergency procedure that a helicopter pilot uses to deal with a dangerous engine failure. The autorotation is one heck of a scary flight maneuver to learn, because ole’ Mr. Thorp never warned us that it was coming.  As the student observing from the back seat, I had the luxury of preparing for the impending manuever.

In normal flight, the engine turns the rotors (blades) to create a pressure differential, thereby creating lift.  When the engine fails, there is no longer sufficient power to keep the rotors turning.  The required response is for the pilot to immediately enter into a steep descent to encourage airflow through the rotors, which keeps them turning.  The “potential energy” in the form of altitude, is traded for the “kinetic energy” of the spinning rotors.  When the rapidly descending aircraft gets close to the ground, the pilot reintroduces the lift angle into the rotors and creates just enough cushion to safely land.  Whew.

So after Mr. Thorp covertly turned down Swanny’s radios, he made the obligatory call to the tower with our exact location, just in case we crashed and needed assistance.

“Cairns Tower, this is Instructor 3-0, at training location 1-2, entering into a simulated engine failure.”

At that moment I gritted my teeth and braced, as Mr. Thorp announced the surprise (simulated) engine failure by literally “rolling down the throttle” (reducing power) to the point where actual flight at that altitude was unsustainable.  Swanny was alerted by the jarringly loud “Low RPM” alarm, and the cockpit illuminated with flashing lights similar to a decorated Christmas Tree.

At that very moment, Swanny was supposed to take immediate action with the flight controls and enter into a steep descent that resembled a roller coaster drop at Six Flags Texas.  After the harrowing drop, Swanny was required to identify a suitable landing area, announce critical data like engine temperature and pressure, and overcome a basic instinct to tighten the muscles, close the eyes and whimper “mama”.

But with Swanny, there was one little problem…

Swanny hated the feeling in the stomach, so his unintentional reaction was to literally let go of the flight controls and scream.  No joke.  He would scream.

It was ugly, and harrowing, because from my perch in the back seat, I could see the rotor blades slowing down to the speed that converted the aircraft into a falling heavy rock, and eventually a simmering spot in some farmer’s field.

“Good lord, this freakin’ dude is going to kill us…” I murmured under my breath.

The salty Dennis Thorp glared at Swanny for a couple of seconds with disgust in his face, then he angrily seized the controls, and dove the aircraft towards the ground in a recovery maneuver that I am sure he learned in Vietnam.

As soon as Mr. Thorp got the aircraft back into a safe mode of flight, he looked over at Swanny and said, “You have the controls”.

With his face flushed and voice quiet like a mouse, Swanny began his climb back to altitude, while Thorp shook his head, and stared at him.  Upon reaching altitude and allowing Swanny to get comfortably back into his rhythm of flying straight and level again, ole’ Thorp called back to the tower, and the fun would resume.

“Ugh, here we go again…this is so painful”, I thought.

“Simulated engine failure!” Thorp announced as the throttle power was reduced, and the blades again slowed down with the accompanying flashing lights and very annoying horn.

Swanny again repeated his actions, and I experienced the same sense of helplessness and anxiety.  After multiple episodes of this terrifying “ride along”, Swanny eventually informed Thorp that he had to puke.

That was usually when a very frustrated Mr. Thorp fired off a few choice words, and placed the aircraft in a steep rolling dive down to the beautiful Alabama countryside.

Now I thought I was going to puke…

Upon landing, Swanny opened the door, and proceeded to lose his breakfast while steam could be seen emitting from the instructor’s helmet.  After Swanny finished, he took the controls back, and we climbed back up for more of this fantastic fun.

Well, Swanny “washed out” of flight training a few weeks later, and began the next phase of his life.

Sometimes, a person isn’t suited for the job.  No matter how hard he tried, or how many chances he was given, it simply was a bad fit.

Unlike Swanny’s situation that resulted in a rapid change, most people slowly realize they are not suited for, inspired, or fulfilling their true potential as they get deeper into a career. The signs were always there, but the eagerness and pride of embarking on a new career path, usually trumps the truth. Over time, they become content with an acceptable level of discontent, and the inertia of life makes it easier to continue on rather than initiate a risky life change.

This happened to me after I completed business school and took a job as an investment banker without fully exploring the true nature of the job.  My “can-do” military attitude always defaulted to the thought, “I can do this job”.  However, I never asked myself two simple questions:  “Are my natural strengths the primary attributes required to succeed in the job?” and “Will I enjoy this job?”  The answers would have been clear: No, and No.

Although I learned a tremendous amount over the five years in investment banking, I was often miserable, bored and not able to apply my natural strengths.  Every morning when I made the final turn of my commute towards the office building, I broke out in an anxiety-induced sweat.  Literally.  It was time to plan for change.

What are some considerations when fundamental change is desired?

Don’t take any immediate action.

Until you have invested a significant amount of time analyzing the nature of the job dissatisfaction, don’t make any hasty moves to alleviate the pain.  Even if you are truly miserable, it is never wise to quit anything after a bad short term period, whether it is a job, relationship, sports team or volunteer role.  Don’t do it.  The sun always rises the following day, and things may not seem so bad.  However, if a pattern of negative days forms over an extended period of time, then you probably do need to make a move.

Confirm your natural strengths and genuine interest.

Start by focusing on the Two Questions That Lead To Life Satisfaction.  To help, there are many free online tools available to identify these attributes. For example, the Gallup Strength Test.

Be honest with yourself.

Candidly, it is often a lack of self-awareness, research or honesty that leads a person down the incorrect path.  Maybe it was insecurity, eagerness to please loved ones, or a selection of bad incentives.  One thing is certain: You likely knew first, but decided to continue down the path. A general rule is that you should always lead with your best qualities, and work on your weaknesses on the side.  It’s just too competitive out there to lead with your weak attributes.

Start inside of your current organization.

Is there a different role within the same organization that is better suited for your skills, strengths and interests?  Unless the water is poisoned from the bad experience, it is best to utilize the existing network in other parts of the organization to identify and discuss opportunities, especially if the organization is large and has a variety of functions.  You will likely already have an inside path to learning about the true nature of the career, and this will help to ensure the new path is consistent with your self-assessment.

Develop an elevator story.

You need to develop the ability to clearly articulate your objective in a short period of time.  Call it an “elevator story”.  This will prepare you to turn chance occurrences into the proverbial crack in the door.  Don’t be secretive.  Be open, even if it entails risk, and tell everyone what you want to do.  One day, an enabler will emerge, and you will have your opportunity.

Prepare Financially.

Money problems, most often in the form of excessive debt or insatiable expectations, have a way of destroying even the best-laid plans.  In order to bridge the change, you must calculate and plan to bridge any financial gap that may arise from necessary investments in skill training, education, relocation and childcare costs.  Increased financial needs may also arise from a reduction in income.

Closing this gap may be accomplished in numerous ways.  Examples include reducing your lifestyle (costs), restructuring debt, sacrificing discretionary spending, selling assets, creating a short-term agreement with your family members or close friends, taking on part time income generating work, or by raising funds via investors.

Interact with professionals in your desired career field.  

This is the only true way to understand what is required to succeed, and what type of person experiences self-fulfillment from this type of work.  Most people not involved in a prestigious profession will associate a certain level of glamour and mystique to the lifestyle.  Once you see the job and the operators up close and personal, you can determine if the image of the career is consistent with reality.  I bet the glamour attached (by outsiders) to the life of a Navy SEAL, may not match with the reality of the physical and mental hardships required to wear the prestigious trident.

Once you identify your appropriate path, and figure out a way to bridge the financial obligations, take a chance and pursue your goals. After all, Fortune Favors The Bold.

We only have a limited amount of time on this earth, so it should be spent pursuing worthy goals consistent with our natural strengths and genuine interests.


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