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John Foley has been to the limits of human performance

Published on October, 2nd 2018
By Greg Wells

This Q&A was adapted from my podcast conversation with John Foley that aired September 4th, 2018. John is former lead solo pilot for the US Navy’s Blue Angels. Now a Sloan Fellow at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, John is an internationally-renowned keynote speaker in the areas of high performance for individuals and teams. He is also a gratitude guru who inspires audiences through his “glad to be here” mantra and foundation of the same name.

Listen to the entire interview here: http://bit.ly/JohnFoleyPodcast

The seeds of dreams: The origin of John Foley’s dream to be one of the best jet pilots in the world

Dr. Greg Wells: John, you have an incredible story about when you first started to dream about becoming a pilot. Take me back to when you are a kid and your relationship with jets.

John Foley: It’s really a story about my dad and jets. My dad was in the Army. I just had so much respect and love and trust for him. I wanted to grow up just like him. He showed me what integrity was by living it, not just speaking it. When I was a little kid, I would make little airplanes and put them up with thumb tacks on my ceiling. I got bunk beds, even though I was just by myself. I would sleep on the top bunk, so I could be closer to the airplanes. Every morning, that’s the first sight I saw, these fighter jets flying over my head.

GW: I can relate. I had F-18s and F-14s. Though I ended up a scientist and you actually flew them. Tell us how jets became your ambition.

JF: It’s interesting how dreams hit you. I personally think dreams hit you in the heart, not just the head. Something magical was happening there, and it wasn’t just a one-time thing. I remember when I was 12, my dad took me to an air show. We were living in Newport, Rhode Island, and he was going to the Naval War College. He used to call me “champ,” and one afternoon, he said, “Champ, let’s go to the airshow.” I said, “Great!” I remember that day distinctly. It’s burned in my memory.

I remember driving up to the show through tons of traffic and the crowds are all over the place. We get to the long line and you can feel the energy in the day. It’s like a huge sporting event. Then all of a sudden these jets start to take off and the afterburners just rock me. I could feel it in my heart. The little hairs were standing up on my arms. They do this loop right over my head — a high speed pass. I was blown away and mesmerized. I turned to my dad, right then, and said, “I’m going to do that.” I was 12 years old. It took me 18 years to pull it off, but one day, I was sitting in the cockpit of a Blue Angel jet.

GW: You said heart not head. That’s been resonating with me a ton lately. I’m more and more convinced that we know certain things, but we don’t take action because our heart’s not connected.

JF: Yeah. I’ve been doing a lot of research about just where our thoughts come from. It’s an interesting question. If you think about it, where does a thought come from? There’s a lot of studies that say they come from seeds. I love that thought — that there’s a seed planted in your heart, and that seed needs to be watered and nurtured, to be put in the right soil. There’s all kinds of scripture around this stuff, and philosophy too. The idea that the seed will grow and ripen to become a plant. That’s exactly what happened to me. It’s not a metaphor, it’s real to me.

I think what happened was all these seeds were being planted in my heart — not my head — and I could feel it. I could feel that something was pulling me there. The pull of the fighter jet was so strong. So I nurtured that. It wasn’t like from that moment on, every thought was about flying. I was a typical kid going to school, playing sports, etc. But I never let go of that dream to fly, and I think it’s because the seed was deeply planted in my heart and not my head. It wasn’t just an intellectual concept.

How dreams help us overcome obstacles

Dr. Greg Wells: John, you have said that your dream of being a Blue Angel pilot was a seed planted in your heart when you were a kid. I am interested how that dream helped you overcome obstacles and cope with the failures that must’ve popped up on your path to being in that cockpit.

John Foley: I think that’s everybody’s journey, really, if we think back on our lives. We are all the hero of our own story — going out and trying to save the world and overcome obstacles. In my case, there were lots of little obstacles and one big one that came when I tried to get into college.

I knew that if I wanted to fly jets, I would need to attend one of the academies, like the Naval Academy or the Air Force Academy. I worked hard in high school. I got good grades, played football, all that stuff. When it came time to apply, there was an application process, like any college, but you also have to take a physical. So I take the physical, and I kick butt on the running parts and all the physical stuff, but there’s also a medical side.

Anyhow, I put in my application, and everything is looking good, and then I get a letter back and it says I am disqualified. I was like, “What?!” They said I was disqualified medically. It was weird. I was trying to figure out why. I’m a 17-year-old kid, I’m playing football, I’m wrestling. I am as healthy as I think I can be. Anyway, it turns out the medical determined that I had too much protein in my urine.

The first thing to hit me was disappointment — the hit that happens to all of us in a situation like that. Then my dad was really cool. He goes, “Well, let’s just re-apply. Just don’t take a no. Re-apply.” So I re-apply and sure enough I get rejected again. Now I’ve got to come up with plan C. Plan C was a medical waiver. I remember moping around for about a week like, “Oh! I’m not going to be able to get in the academies. My dream is gone.” But soon, I realized, “Wait a minute. It’s not about the academies. There are other paths to becoming a pilot. I just have to come up with a different path.”

So, I ended up applying to the University of Colorado. I got in, walked on and played football. My whole goal there was to continue on the path for a year and then re-apply to the academy, which I did. I went through a medical waiver process and ended up getting approved. It turned out that protein in my urine was from cutting weight for wrestling.

At the end of the day, I was glad it all happened to me, and here’s why. I had applied to the Air Force Academy, and that’s who rejected me. It turns out the Blue Angels are actually Navy. I had applied to the wrong team! I think the universe was telling me, “Wait a minute! You don’t want to go to the Air Force. You need to go to Annapolis!” That’s what I ended up doing. I got into Annapolis and began the long road to becoming a Blue Angel pilot.

GW: That’s incredible — the universe seemed to just slam you in that direction and remind you of what you needed to do.

Resetting beliefs to break through

Dr. Greg Wells: John, what was it like when you walked into the Naval Academy at Annapolis and began your training? It must have been pretty challenging.

John Foley: They call the new classes “Plebs.” You arrive in July and they put you through hell for six weeks or as long as they can, and then the academics start. For me, it was actually fun because I had a passion — I wanted to do it. Growing up, my dad had gone the West Point. He went on to be an instructor at West Point, so as a little kid, I remember watching the cadets march and stuff. It was something that I aspired to. I knew it would be hard work, but I figured, “what the heck, that’s what it takes.”

Interestingly, I think it was a benefit to me that I had spent a year at the University of Colorado before going to Annapolis. I got to be a freshman in college — play football, have fun, not study too much, eat a lot of pizza. So I got some of that out of my system. I’m not sure I would have graduated otherwise. At Annapolis, you had to buckle down. The bottom line at Annapolis is the academics. It’s an engineering school. You can take other stuff, but I took mechanical engineering. You also have military commitments and athletic commitments. I played Division I football. It was busy. You’re getting up at 5:45 am, and they’ve got you booked ‘till midnight and then you stay up late to study. It was a challenge.

GW: What do you think was the main thing you learned from your time at Annapolis?

JF: It was cool that it opened up so much perspective other than just academics. Football was a really big part of my life, and I learned a lot about teamwork and pushing yourself beyond what you think you can do. I’m a small guy. I was only 170 pounds and 5’9″, and I was playing Division I college football with all the big guys. I think that was one of the first times that I saw that in order to get to the next level, you have to reset your beliefs.

GW: Let’s dig into that a bit. I see so many people who seem to be stuck in one way of seeing life and the world around them. I’ve travelled to 52 countries, and the more I travel, the more I am exposed to new perspectives. It’s something I am trying to teach my own kids. Tell us about what you have learned about the relationship between resetting beliefs and pushing limits.

JF: I think it comes in incremental pieces. The framework I use for helping people think about achieving their goals is called Diamond Performance. It has standard features, such as vision, plan, execute, and feedback. You come up with a vision, make a plan, execute on the plan and hopefully have a feedback loop to continue to improve. But what people often neglect to see is that vision is really built around belief levels. What do you believe you’re capable of? What do you believe your company is capable of? What do you believe your team’s capable of? These are core beliefs, and they’re already in your mind. And they determine the level of your performance before you even begin to chase your vision. So the question you have to ask is, how do I raise those beliefs? It’s a powerful question.

GW: So how does it happen?

JF: I think you elevate your beliefs through a process. You have to do it through a process. It doesn’t happen all at once. For me, if I think back to the Academy and then being in the Navy flying jets off aircraft carriers, I was put in a new environment that forced me to raise my beliefs. Around me were people who were also extremely gifted, and the challenge of those people and that environment made me get better. It’s like one of my old football coaches used to say: “You’ll be getting better or you’ll be getting worse.” I used to hate it on the field because I will always tired. But he’s right.

I think that the environment you are thrust into shapes your beliefs, but I think it also has a lot to do with your ability to focus — to block out what doesn’t matter — what’s not important. That allows you to take action so that your beliefs aren’t just intellectual — you physically absorb them. You take action and learn from your actions. That’s when you can start to debrief and learn what went well and didn’t go well or could go better. That’s when you realize, “You know what? I can reset my beliefs.” That’s how I see the process of resetting your beliefs. It’s an incremental spiral of action and reflection.

Gratitude and improved performance

Dr. Greg Wells: I’d like to ask about a few things I have heard you talk about. One is the importance of a debrief. Whenever I have had a setback or a let down, I deconstruct what happened. I really try to understand why it happened, not just from my perspective but from the perspective of others. I want to know why it didn’t work out. And I focus inward — on my responsibility — what I did or did not do well. Then I try to reverse engineer the outcome I would have preferred and figure out how I could have achieved it, just like we built training programs when I was a competitive swimmer preparing for Olympic Trials. And through it all, I focus on seeing my weaknesses or misses as an opportunity rather than thinking about fault or error. It’s connected to the “glad to be here” attitude you share with audiences from your time with the Blue Angels.

John Foley: Wow! You connected so strongly on a couple of points. Let me talk about how “glad to be here” and the debrief go together, because that’s huge. That attitude of gratefulness is something I had learned from my family, even before the Blue Angels, but in the Blues we took it to another level.

Immediately after an airshow, the first thing we did was debrief with our maintenance troops about any mechanical issues with the jet so that they could start working on it. Then we’d go to the crowd line and sign autographs. That was my favourite part — seeing the look in little kids’ eyes, looks of hopes and dreams, the same thing I probably had in my eyes at 12 when I decided I wanted to be a Blue Angel. That’s what pumped me up. That’s what got me up every single morning — doing a job that made a difference and inspired other people, especially kids.

But then we would go into the debriefing room, and that was very professional but very intense. We would deconstruct the air show in minute detail, but we would always start with the general state. Questions like, “Generally, how do you feel and were you out of safety parameter on anything?” I teach this to businesses around the world — and you just don’t see it enough. Starting by connecting with people in a general way, before getting into the specifics of the project. That’s how they connect and you find out what’s on their mind. Then we could get into the details in a positive mindset — it made a big difference.

And while we went through those deconstructions and very much looked at what could we do better, we always, always ended in a positive mindset, which was “glad to be here.” It’s significant because otherwise these deconstructions can become a negative spiral. You want them to be a positive spiral. I love what you said about looking inward to yourself first, instead of pointing the finger at somebody else. I love the analogy, when you point a finger at somebody, three of them are pointing back at you. To me, that’s the key.

GW: Yeah, I agree. It’s painful and sometimes really, really uncomfortable — but so powerful if you keep a positive mindset. I often suggest to people that they lean into what makes them uncomfortable. What makes you angry? What makes you frustrated? That’s a great place to lean in, because that’s where the insights are going to come from. If you can lean in with a mindset that you are really fortunate, you can lean in to uncomfortable situations and really deconstruct your experiences and open doors for yourself.

JF: That reminds me of my recent trip to Asia, where I listened to a very dear friend of mine, Michael Roach. He’s probably the expert on the intersection of Eastern wisdom and Western results. There’s this deep philosophy that runs throughout most of the East. It’s the idea that the world is coming from us, not at us. We create our own destiny. There’s a power to that, because as long as it’s coming from you, you have the power to change it. If it’s coming outside of you, hey maybe, maybe not. It can be a hard view, because it means you’re accountable for the things that aren’t going well in your life, but it is very powerful.

The role of trust in team performance

Dr. Greg Wells: John, if you had to point to one of the most important things in the success of the Blue Angels, what would you say?

John Foley: It’s based on trust. I think that’s the key. You have to be able to create a high-trust environment within the team but also within individuals. There are different trust contracts — that’s what I call them. To me, they’re verbal and nonverbal, they’re implicit and explicit, but they are agreements that we make with people all the time. Like, “You can count on me” and “I’ll be there for you.” In the Blues, we made these contracts explicit, so there was no grey area.

To give you an example of why trust mattered so much, consider a manoeuvre called the “knife edge pass.” My call sign was Gucci, and I would perform the knife edge with Thumper. The objective is to fly toward each other and pass within a wingspan travelling at 1,000 miles per hour. You’re doing a mile every nine seconds, but since you’re coming at each other, that’s a mile of closure every four and a half seconds. And you need to pass each other over a defined center point right where the airshow is taking place. If you’re one second off, you’re going to miss by two football fields. To execute on that, you have to have complete trust.

GW: Wow! I thought you would have said preparation, communication, attention, focus, calm or something like that. But that makes sense — that trust is so critical.

JF: Yeah, and it’s something you have to build. It’s such an intense experience. If I were to throw you in my backseat and you were along for the ride, it would feel like a whirlwind. I mean, the speed coming at you…it’s crazy, it’s intense. When the airplanes pass each other, we get so close, I get thumped from the airflow going over my canopy. You saw in the movie Top Gun where Maverick got stuck in a spin from the jet wash. That’s the kind of force that happens when you cross. Incredibly intense. We have been through the preparation. We have been through a step-by-step process. We are incredibly focused. But most of all, we know exactly what our contracts are with each other. We know what we each need to do what the other needs to do. That’s the trust.

How experiences slow down during peak performance

Dr. Greg Wells: Can you go a little bit deeper for us into what it feels like to perform at the limit of human possibility the way that you did every time you flew with the Blue Angels?

John Foley: It’s a very calm environment. Not the first time, and not even the second, but after many many repetitions, there is a point where you become very calm and everything slows down. I believe what is actually happening is the experience is not slowing down, your mind is speeding up. You’re in a state of incredible flow and focus, where you can actually see the cracks on the paint of a guy flying right next to you at 500 miles per hour.

GW: I am fascinated by this idea that in the performance moment, it feels like time slows down. That you mind speeds up and your ability to take in what’s happening around you is exponentially greater. I heard José Bautista, a baseball player, describe being able to see the pitcher’s placement of fingers on the ball during the pitch. This level of deep, deep, deep engagement.

JF: I would love for you or others to do some research on it, because that’s just my hypothesis, having been through it so many times and also listening to others who know a lot about it. You mentioning José Bautista there reminds me of what I heard about Ted Williams — that he could see the laces on the ball coming at him. People didn’t believe him, so they made some balls with different colored laces and he could pick them out. By the way, Ted Williams was a Marine fighter pilot in World War II. Rapid eye movement is a really important skill for a fighter pilot, and he used it to be one of the greatest hitters of all time.

GW: Wow! I didn’t know that.

JF: Back to what we were talking about. Let me give you an example of a performance situation and what’s possible when you shift beliefs and trust each other. I’ll talk you through the whole thing — what happens in 16 seconds.

We’ve got 30 manoeuvres going on in the airshow. There’s a diamond manoeuvre and a solo manoeuvre. Diamond means there’s four pilots flying together in formation, and solos are two jets coming at each other to demonstrate maximum performance. We would alternate the different roles. When the diamond’s in front of the crowd, myself and Thumper, my partner for the solo, are behind the crowd and getting setup for our manoeuvres. We’re thinking about our preparation.

We’ve already scoped out the airfield weeks in advance. We’ve got photographs. They’re much better now with GPS, but back then we would take satellite photos, and we would plot a centre point that would be a single point of focus. That point is on the airfield — it’d be a truck or tractor-trailer on the runway, if we are over land, or a boat if we are over water. We would draw flight lines and make tick marks — one-mile, two-mile, three-mile checkpoints. And there are 30 degree offsets. We map this thing out on paper — just on paper.

When I get to the show site, I have to be able to translate from a piece of paper to my mind. It’s critical, because I don’t have time flying upside down at 400 knots, a hundred feet off the ground, to look at a piece of paper and go, “Hey! What was my two-mile checkpoint?” You’ve got to have that burned into your mind. On Thursday before the show, to prepare for flying at each other at 1,000 miles per hour, we would do the opposite — fly together over the checkpoint and hit the centre point. As we pass the centre point, we hit our stop watch. We time for nine seconds. We look down and go, “Where’s our one-mile checkpoint? Where’s that road intersection?” Then keep flying another nine seconds and find the two mile checkpoint. And you put it in your brain. It burns into your brain, it’s easy.

GW: You can spot a point on the ground when you are flying at 1000 miles per hour?

JF: Yah. I remember when I first joined the team and my mentor, Spurt was his call sign, comes up to me one day and says, “Hey, Gucci, as a two-mile checkpoint, we’ll use a white house.” Now there were a ton of white houses out there. So he says something I will never forget because it blew me away. He says, “we’ll actually use the northeast corner of the three-story white house, the upper window with the green shade.” I was like, “Are you kidding me? I’m flying at 400 knots and you expect me to see a green shade on a window on the northeast corner of this white house surrounded by a bunch of other white houses? No way.”

But then I realized I was limiting belief. You can’t do that — with the Angels or in life. It takes repetition, it takes practice, but I got to the point where it was natural for me to be upside down at 400 knots and pick out the green shade of a window on a white house. If you know what you are looking for and you are prepared, you can do it. Otherwise, it’s a blur. It’s the same in life — you have to choose what you focus on because it takes energy.

GW: And that gave you the trust to fly at each other at 1,000 miles an hour?

JF: Right. We do the preparation and we are coming at each other. I have made a contract. I’ll be on the flight line. Flight line is not the runway. Flight line is the inside edge of the left, painted stripe on the runway. My contract to my teammate is I won’t be five feet left or five feet right. I’ll be on line.

I’d set the altitude and sometimes it’s 80 feet off the ground. Then I’d give you a command, as you’re coming at me, a command to execute a full-stick deflection rule. When I say, “ready, hit it,” I don’t care where you are in your life, you execute full stick deflection rule, otherwise we’ve got a real problem. And I have to execute. Bam! We go by each other. It’s a thump. As the airplane goes by, you have to rollout, you’ve got to pull 7 1/2 Gs, the Earth is coming down on you.

In 16 seconds, we have gone from six miles apart ’till we’ve crossed and cleared formation. I could break that down into fractions of seconds, 165ths of a second. I can see every frame in my mind and that’s where it slows down. I can see it clearly. You’re so focused that it’s very calm. And you aren’t thinking at all. If you are thinking, you are dead. You’re in a state of reaction. But because you trained and focused, you can execute at the highest imaginable level.

GW: I listened to a recording of one of your rehearsals for a Blue Angels show. It was really wild to listen to — hearing your lead talking through all of the manoeuvres before you’re even up in the plane.

JF: Yeah, that’s part of the preparation. After we map it out on paper, we get into the actual flow of it. That voice you heard was Greg Woolridge — we called him Boss out of respect. He works with me now, consulting and speaking. He is exactly what you remembered in that video, that calm presence. One of the things he was doing is cadence. He was putting us into a state — the kind Tony Robbins talks a lot about. We are putting ourselves in a state before we actually do it. That state is visceral and very similar to what it’s going to be like. His voice inflection was exactly what I was going to hear airborne. We would rehearse that as a group. It wasn’t just an individual visualization or meditation. It was a group visualization, which takes it to a whole new level.

Inspiring others through authenticity:

Dr. Greg Wells: John, you have talked with us a lot about the techniques you used with the Blue Angels to prepare and execute. I’m interested in how you translated those experiences, the philosophy behind what you were doing, to your work as a speaker and consultant.

John Foley: It’s funny. When I was on the team and doing it all, we didn’t talk about what we were doing. We just did it. No one was teaching this stuff like you and I do. We did briefs and debriefs, preparation, flew 120 training flights and went through a step-by-step process. We visualized, but no one ever told us what was going on, the philosophy behind it. I just knew it worked. You trained new people, and it still works to this day. But I didn’t know what was behind it until later.

The real gift was after I left, not just flying jets off aircraft carriers but at the Stanford Business School and working in venture capital or as a speaker. For the last 15 years, I’ve been doing what we have been talking about — deconstructing my experiences and saying, “Wait a minute! How come that happened?” Trying to figure out what worked.

My passion in life is to inspire others. I don’t need to fly anymore. I don’t need to do any of that stuff. I’d rather do what we’re talking about. Let’s talk about the philosophy. Let’s figure out what works by deconstructing experiences and then, and here’s what’s really critical, let’s figure out how to help others apply it in their lives.

For me, it’s a continual learning process. I’m learning from you. I do over a hundred speeches a year all around the world, and I get to hear amazing speakers, some of them incredibly gifted on brain research and stuff. I take it in. And then I try to integrate it into my underlying philosophy to help people think about how things come at them and come up from inside them. I think that’s the critical element, because that’s how you can unlock your potential and create the life you want.

GW: I love that you brought up unlocking potential, because I’ve had that written various places for quite some time. Like you, I love helping other people; it makes me feel good and gets me fired up. If you are to take a step back right now and look at you and what you’re doing and the impact that you’re having, how are you inspiring others? What’s working?

JF: That’s such a cool question. For me, I constantly ask people what inspires them. After my talks, I love meeting the audience members and asking them what resonates for them. Then I ask them what I could have done better, because I’m always trying to improve. Even if it’s just one sentence, one word. It helps.

I heard a speaker recently who said that inspiration is breathing life into someone. I think that’s critical. It’s what I try to do. Breathe life into them. It’s their own inspiration, right? The idea of being authentic. For me, there is a big link between inspiring and being authentic. One of the things that’s working for me is that I tell stories. I tell real stories of my experiences, what I went through, and then I deconstruct them with the audience to figure out what’s going on.

I think you need to paint a picture for people. That’s important for all of us, especially when you think about unlocking potential. It gets back to the idea of not letting your beliefs limit you. Do you have a clear vision? Can you see what the future holds or what your potential is? If you think about it, there’s so many examples of people in life who’ve accomplished amazing things. They always have a vision of what’s possible. And it’s not just an idea. They feel their vision viscerally — it’s in their body, not just intellectual.

Think about my story. As a child, I had a vision that I wanted to fly in the Blues. That’s crazy. The odds are, I don’t know, one in a couple of hundred million, probably. But it came into reality step by step. I always had that vision. It was very clear. I think that’s the first step with unlocking potential — believing it is possible. You have to paint the picture. Then you can make a plan and find a way to get there. You can take action and then reassess, deconstruct and learn.

I just love telling stories and planting a seed in people’s heart. You can see it in their eyes, when they get it. It’s like, “Oh, yeah! That is possible!”

Peeling the paint off an F-18

Dr. Greg Wells: John, I’m sensitive to your time, so I would love for you to tell us one final story, because I want to finish on fun. Please tell us about when you peeled the paint off a plane.

John Foley: Yeah that’s funny. I remember we needed a test hop. One of the engines had a problem and I was the test pilot in the F-18. Test hops are cool. You have to have a thousand hours before you can do this stuff.

The best part about the test hop is not actually the flying. It was really taking time in maintenance control and talking to your teammates and your troops, the people you depend on, like the jet engine mechanics. I remember Sue was standing there and told me, “Sir, I replaced your engine,” and we had a conversation. She signed a piece of paper that said, “I did my job.” Then my Quality Assurance chief was there. He was saying, “We’ve checked it,” and he signs his name on a piece of paper. My maintenance chief is there, the person in charge of compliance, and she said everything’s good. But then you as a pilot, not just for a test flight — for every flight — you sign your name and what you’re really saying is that you take full accountability for not only that airplane but the people around it. I really cherished that interaction in support of my teammates.

Anyway, I did the test hop. With an engine change, it’s cool. You take the airplane airborne and one of the things you have to determine is what happens if the engine fails. Can you do an airborne restart? You actually purposely shut the engine down and then go through the restart procedures. I’m always hoping it restarts, but you have to test it.

Anyhow, I landed the jet that day and walked into maintenance control, looked in on my boss and said, “Hey! The airplane is ready to go.” They had met the specs, the highest specs the Navy had for a test pilot, and as far as I was concerned, the plane was good. Then, one day a little later, and I’ll never forget this, the boss looks at me and says, “You know Gucci, I need you to take that airplane up one more time. I don’t have confidence in this airplane. I don’t want it to break. Yes, it did pass the test, but I want you to wring it out this time.”

Now, when you get an order to wring out an airplane, what they’re really telling you is take it to the limit. So, I’m walking out to the airplane, thinking, “What limits do I want to push?” Because at that point, I had pushed a lot of limits in airplanes. One thing that just came up was how high and how fast? I don’t know why that was in my mind, but I was thinking “how high, how fast can I take this jet?”

So when I was up there, I went on an unrestricted climb, full afterburners, boom! Supersonic. You have to do it over water. I point the nose up — and I am climbing and I start to see the curvature of the Earth. I go, “Holy cow!” So I realize, the engine’s about to snuff out because there’s not enough oxygen. So I’ve settled how high and my mind turns to how fast. I point the nose straight down. I come scorching out of the atmosphere at over a thousand miles per hour.

Anyhow, I land the jet, and I’ll never forget it. I come out of the cockpit and my maintenance guy Joe is there and he’s saying, “Sir, what did you do?” I realize he’s actually not looking at me, he’s looking through me. I turn around and look at the jet and the paint is gone. I’ve actually melted some of the paint off the jet. I just remember the look on his face, because I was like, “Whoa! I went over a thousand miles per hour, Joe,” he goes, “Cool! Don’t worry, sir, I’ll fix it for you. Glad to be here.”

That idea of “glad to be here” is so important. What he was saying is “I’ve got your back. I’ve got you covered.”