Plan The Flight, Then Fly The Plan

By Dale Brown
25 July 2001

This was a response to a reader in the Navy who told me he was a little down because he just finished this long, intense training course, but was far away from home and his family and was afraid of getting discouraged and giving up:

The answer to your question is not an easy one, because there's all sorts of variables involved, but the basic idea is simple: you need to sit and think about what it is that you want to do, what it is that will make you happy.

You need a PLAN. You need a concrete, SPECIFIC thing you want to do or want to accomplish. Then, you need a SPECIFIC, ATTAINABLE, WRITTEN-OUT, and SCHEDULED plan of action to carry it out. Third, you need to BELIEVE you can carry out your plan.

The first and most essential task is the most obvious but often the most This is more than infomercial psycho-babble--in fact, it's the ONLY thing that will keep you from feeling down, no matter what your circumstances are.

Unfortunately, the most important part is usually the hardest part--deciding what it is you want to do or what you want to accomplish. That's why it needs a lot of thought.

When I was in grade school, I discovered I wanted to write. I knew I enjoyed military stories, but I didn't believe I could do it. I started writing in middle and high school, but it was non-fiction stuff for the Grand Island high school paper or the local town paper. It was OK, but it wasn't the stuff I wanted to do.

In high school I wanted to fly, but again (I think because I wore glasses and folks who didn't know what they were talking about told me) I didn't become a pilot--I went into the Air Force as a navigator. I was flying, and I was pretty good at it, but I still wasn't happy.

Three years before I got out of the USAF, I started writing "Flight of the Old Dog." I was still writing non-fiction, for the base newspapers and for computer magazines, and I was even making money as a writer. But as I got into writing fiction, I realized this is what I really wanted to do. I wasn' t making a dime as a fiction writer (in fact, I didn't make any money at it until long after I got out of the Air Force), but I was enjoying it.

Other things started to be affected as I pursued fiction writing, but it didn't matter because I was happy writing fiction. I admit that I was not the Air Force's most highly motivated officer back then. I did my job, but as the Air Force and my commanders often reminded me, they can train a chimp to drop bombs--what the Air Force was looking for were leaders, innovators, guys and girls excited about serving their country and anxious to carry on the traditions and expectations of the American military.

That wasn't me. I didn't care about working on my professional military education or other "square-fillers" expected of rising officers, because it had nothing to do with writing. I didn't care about getting "face time" hanging around the squadron or the O-Club or the golf course. I flew my sorties, pulled alert, and did my additional duties, and when I was done, I went home and wrote. I soon realized that I probably wasn't going to get promoted, so I got out.

I feel I did the right thing by resigning my commission. I had no right to stay in if I wasn't going to live up to the Air Force's expectations. It was my responsibility to follow their doctrine, not to expect them to conform to mine. But I did the right thing for myself also, because now I had a chance to do what I wanted to do.

Things were not wine and song after I got out. My ex had a job, but I was virtually unemployable at my Air Force salary level. I was 8 years behind my contemporaries in education and job experience. I wasn't even good at being a house-husband, because all I wanted to do was write. My new plan was to go to flight school to get my commercial license and instructor ratings. But soon after I got out I signed my first book contract, and I've been writing full-time since.

Yes, there was a little bit of luck involved getting that contract, but as Arnold Palmer once said, "The more I work, the luckier I get." The ONE THING I had going for me when I left the Air Force, the ONLY ADVANTAGE I had that no one else had, was a finished manuscript called "The Flight of Old Dog Zero One" (later renamed by Don Fine as "Flight of the Old Dog"). I was lucky enough to realize that the one thing that truly made me happy was writing, and I pursued it, even though it meant leaving other stuff behind--like a good Air Force career. As it turned out, pursuing that one thing that really made me happy was a turning point.

I didn't know it at the time that it would be so important, but that doesn't matter. The thing that mattered is I was doing something that MADE ME HAPPY.

So that's the objective: figure out whatever it is that MAKES YOU HAPPY, and then figure out a plan for getting it. Everyone talks about the "Mission Statement." You need your own "Mission Statement"--a succinct, understandable, specific goal.

Notice I didn't say "Whatever makes you happy that you can earn a living at." Notice I didn't say anything about money. Rarely does anyone have a goal of earning money and that's it. In fact, many times a thing is not even a goal. Things are usually sub-goals.

Once you figure out what it is you really want that will make you happy, then you have to figure out how to get it. In my case, it was relatively easy: I wanted to write fiction, so I wrote. Notice I didn't say "I wanted to be a best-selling novelist" or "I want to be a millionaire by writing fiction." All I wanted to do was write fiction. Once I started doing that, I was happy. The rest happened because publishers and readers were willing to pay for the stuff I wrote, and because I had a family to support. The goals changed a little bit, but the basic objective stayed the same: write fiction.

This begs the question: How happy could I have been if by doing this, I threw away a perfectly good Air Force career and was earning minimum wage as a security guard while doing it? How could I have been happy if I wasn't earning any money doing it? And isn't it easy to tell other folks to "do what makes you happy" now that I can earn a living writing, something which only a fraction of novelists do?

The answer is a little weird, but it's still true nonetheless: true happiness rarely has anything to do with money. Yes, some folks have earning money their goal in life. They might even have a specific number in mind--a million dollars, or ten million dollars, or they want to be independently wealthy. The problem happens when you achieve the goal. What do you do once you earn a million dollars? You had better have another goal in mind, because a guy with a million dollars and nothing else is pretty much a zero. You think you could stand to be a zero with that kind of money--but you meet a lot of zeroes, and everyone recognizes them as such. Still, if it makes you happy just to have a bank account with a million dollars in it, go for it.

The bottom line is this: if you figure out what it is that makes you happy, and you pursue it, and you achieve it--EVERYTHING ELSE DOESN'T MATTER. You have done what you were put here on Earth to do--make yourself happy.

Sound incredibly self-centered? Sound incredibly selfish? Think you were put here in this life to do things for others, to raise a happy family, to be a good upstanding responsible son, or to make society a better place than it was before you arrived? Then you will always be unhappy. IF YOU ARE NOT DOING WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY, YOU ARE WASTING YOUR LIFE. We can all stand to be more self-centered, because then we'd all be happier and the world would be a happier place.

You went to this school because--why? Because you wanted to? Did someone talk you into it? Or was it a stepping-stone to where you really want to be? If it's just a thing you need to do to attain your ultimate goal--and education is often an important part--t
hen simply keep your objective in mind, remind yourself that the loneliness and isolation you feel is part of what you need to feel to achieve your goal, and press on. The feeling of dread will pass. Visualize yourself attaining your goal. Remind yourself that it's necessary to do this thing or go to this school to attain your goal, and focus on the GOAL, not the stepping-stone.

But if you are feeling left out and down because you're not working towards any specific goal, but you grabbed an opportunity or got talked into it or did it because you thought someone expected it of you, it's time to re-evaluate your goals and re-do the plan. Re-discover what it is that will MAKE YOU HAPPY, make a new plan, and get busy carrying out the plan. Nothing else matters.

I don't know what your school is, but let's say your goal is to become a Navy SEAL. Nothing else matters. You sleep, eat, and think SEALs all the time. You see yourself in a RHIB doing an assault. You see yourself setting charges, killing the bad guys, rescuing fellow sailors.

But you apply for SEAL training, and you're denied. You apply again, and are still denied. If you really want it, you'll find out why, and you'll fix it. Yes you're discouraged, but you'll keep on trying because you really want it. You will learn what it takes to become a SEAL. You'll train harder, get in better shape, toughen your mind and your body, study harder. You will keep on working towards your goal because that's what you really want. You' ll talk to other SEALs, talk to SEAL instructors, go in to see the commander and talk about SEALs, go to open houses, show your face. If you want it bad enough, you'll do all these things, and more.

I know this was a long-winded answer to your question, but it's what I believe, and it's helped me through tough and confusing times. People get depressed and discouraged either because they have no goal or because what they are doing is not helping them achieve their goal. But if you focus on the goal and the attainment of that goal is what you really want, then even major setbacks won't matter.

Write anytime! GBA, Dale...