Who (not what) do you want to be when you grow up?


“Yes, you, 6 year old girl in the front row with her hand up, you have a question?”

“Yes, how many boyfriends to you have?”

“err…*I hastily glance at her giggling teachers*..err…none, I have a wife”

I wasn’t expecting to have my relationship questioned this early in the morning or by this audience of school kids. As usual, however, I had the wrong end of the stick and I should probably put that exchange in a bit of context.

It occurred at a talk I was honoured to give to a local Primary School. I showed up in my flying suit with a presentation full of fun pictures and videos of helicopters.

The narcissist in me loves this type of event. 150 pupils sitting cross-legged, horseshoe formation, on the gymnasium floor, listening to me talk about me. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to giving a TED talk.

I focus the presentation on the places I have traveled with work (Norway, Borneo, Afghanistan, Kenya, Jordan, USA, Spain, France, Germany and Italy) as well as on pictures of the female “friends” I serve with. I try to subvert the usual stereotype of an RAF pilot as a dashingly elegant man (I consider myself enough evidence of this, obviously!) and try to show that there are many dashingly elegant women doing my job as well.

I discuss the fun my “friend” Kate and I had in Norway, the adventures my “friend” Sarah and I have had in Kenya, and include some cool photos of my “friend” Helena beside her fast jet in Afghanistan. I emphasise the “friend” aspect because I believe it makes more sense to the young audience than terms like “colleague” or “Flight Commander”.

Of course I’ve given this presentation enough times that I don’t see the positive bias as a big deal so it didn’t immediately occur to me that the curious 6 year old in the front row was asking about my “friends that were boys” not my “Boyfriends”. Thankfully I squashed the mental temptation to explain how she wasn’t legally allowed to ask me that question anymore!

The Classrooms

After the assembly I was able to tour the classrooms of the school and spend a bit more time answering the kids’ questions.

For the younger classes this mostly consisted of letting them try on my flying helmet and shout “ready for take off” at the top of their voices or going through a list of premiership football teams and listing which stadiums I’d landed in (there are 20 teams, I’ve landed in one stadium).

Unfortunately they didn’t get the concept of putting the helmet microphone in FRONT of their mouth and instead put it IN their mouth. I shall be disinfecting that later.

In the middle classes I had my incorrect aerodynamic knowledge exposed.

“So basically” I said, standing in front of a poorly drawn Vector Diagram, “in order to create more lift you need to increase the airflow over the wing. Originally we had one engine. Then we added two and we got more thrust and so more lift”

“Good basically. So the faster I want to go, the more engines I need to add?” asked the boy at the back.

“Yes”, I nodded.

“So why does the SR-71, the fastest plane in the world, only have two engines?”

“Jesus kid, you are 8 years old! Ask me about the biological implausibility of the Teenager Mutant Ninja Turtles, not the logic of jet engine internal efficiency. “

SAT exam preparation

The older classes were hard at work on their mock exam papers and the teachers asked me to comment on times when I had struggled or encountered setbacks and how I’d overcome them.

This is an easy question for anyone who has completed Military Flying Training; that’s two years’ worth of struggles and setbacks. There is a “three strikes and you are out” system so you can walk into work fine on the Monday, fail a trip, and be fired by Friday.

I told them that setbacks and struggles were what taught us resilience. They taught us what we needed to do to press on and to focus our mindset on long term success not short term failure. I explained that the worst thing was someone who never struggled or failed because the longer they go the harder it is going to hit them when it does happen, and it will happen. Every successful person they see is simply the end result of multiple failures and setbacks. In fact the more successful the example the longer the list of struggles!

I failed trips in training. I lay on my bed thinking I couldn’t do this, I’d never be a pilot. I failed my final handing test on the day all my friends passed. They went to the bar and I went home to my wife who’s only words of consolation were “If nothing changes then nothing will change. Feeling sorry for yourself will not move you forward. Review the flight, identify what went wrong, work on that, then go in and pass. Despite this upset, know that you can do it.”

Here I am, having spent the past 7 years on the front line, where we have a saying “The plan never survives first contact with the enemy”. Its true, you’ve gotta learn to roll if upsets and keep pressing forward.

Work hard to be lazy

I passed on a mantra that was given to me in flight training which applies as well to life as it does in the air.

“You have to work hard to be lazy”, the instructor told me, as he chopped both engines and threw us towards the ground.

If you work hard on your take off, the climb out will be easy. A good climb out makes your downwind leg easy. An accurate downwind leg leads to an easy finals turn. Working hard on your finals turn ensures you are best placed for a good landing.

Work hard in your exams now and the transition to secondary school will be easy. Working hard at secondary school will make your A Levels easy. Working hard at your…you get the point.

Work hard to be lazy

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I was also approached by two kids right at the end who said:

“I want to be you when I grow up”

I told them, with as cheesy a line as I could muster,

“Don’t be me, be you”

But they were on their way out to play Tickle Tag in the playground and I fear that my attempts to provide a life-affirming mantra might have fallen flat.

All the time we ask kids what they want to BE when they grow up. What we really mean is “what profession do you want to join in order to earn enough money to live a semi stable and comfortable life?”

In my school everyone wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant (except that one year in 1995 when rugby union went professional and we all wanted to be rugby players!)

At 33, as a military pilot, surrounded by friends who are doctors, lawyers and accountants something occurs to me.

What we all really WANT to be has nothing to do with our jobs.

I WANT to be a good husband that, every day, makes my wife feel like she made the right choice.

I WANT to be a father that is there for his kids when they are scared or need guidance.

I WANT to be a friend that my friends feel they can turn to when life is getting a bit tough and they need to let off steam.

I WANT to be a colleague that people feel they can turn to when they experience frustration or harassment and know that I’ll stand by them.

It doesn’t really matter that I leave the house in the morning wearing a flying suit. One day that will end and it will simply have been a way that I passed my time. What will have been the constant throughout my life and what do I want to define me? My behaviour as a husband, father, son and friend.

Funnily enough none of these roles are paid-positions and none of them come with qualifications or proficiency tests. Your validation for these roles, these most important roles, must come from within.

So, little kids playing tickle tag and not giving this conversation a second thought, don’t aim to be me. Aim to be yourself, and make sure that self is a good person and know that Good and Successful are two very different adjectives.

 The illustrations are originals by @Paulcarlonillustration on Instagram.

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