I finished John R Bruning’s Race of Aces: WWII’s Elite Airmen and the Epic Battle to Become the Master of the Sky earlier this year. It was a fantastic story about the Ace Race in the South Pacific theater of World War II. The skill and heroics of these pilots in unbelievably challenging conditions is a great story in itself. But there are lessons to take away that are applicable even if we aren’t living in a theater of war and instead are managing through our ordinary comfortable lives.
As background, an “Ace” is a fighter pilot with at least five confirmed kills. The subjects of Bruning’s book focuses on the six top aces in the Pacific, all with at least 20 kills, making them both exceptionally skilled pilots and long-serving airmen.
Of the six leading aces in the pacific theater, half of them died in combat. Another two died shortly after the war in crashes. It was interesting to see the arcs of each of their careers, as they became more and more focused on becoming the top ace, and the risks they started taking in order to be number one. All of their training went out the window, they started taking careless risks, and they started violating their own rules of engagement. Their singular desire to achieve their selfish objectives in pursuit of individual glory overrode their training, their good sense, and in some cases the orders from their superiors. The closer they got to being the top ace, the more risks they took.
Dying in combat wasn’t unusual for a fighter pilot in WWII. The life expectancy was very short. But these were expert pilots. They didn’t have a death wish. They understood how to fight and win and how to survive. But they weren’t able to pass along their knowledge, they never became leaders, and they certainly weren’t able to appreciate a hero’s welcome when the war was over.
It’s an important lesson in making sure that selfish desires don’t override common sense and discipline. Sticking to your rules and focusing on continuing to do the right thing over and over is hard. Discipline is rarely fun. Endurance takes effort. But its worth the effort to override your desire to ease up because the closer you get to the finish line because sloppiness can cost you.
In my business we call this “deal fatigue.” You’re just so tired of talking about a deal, so worn out from reading the same contract language over and over, and so frustrated by your counter-party that its easy to start taking short cuts. This inevitably leads to missing important items or giving up on terms that you otherwise need to secure.
Its the same thing with training to race (something I have had experience with in a previous life.) Everyone starts out fully committed, doing all of their workouts, sticking to their diet, and making sure to stretch. But its easy to tell at finishing chute who has been diligent all the way through their training and who has slacked off as race day approached. The disciplined folks are finishing strong while the slackers are suffering or dropped out entirely before the finish.
Staying disciplined is hard. Enduring through challenges, setbacks, and missed milestones are demoralizing. But following through and staying true to your end goal is what creates success in the end.