Life is better on the edge
I’m struggling to find my footing in a society that distrusts excellence.
I hunted excellence every day for 11 years. While the heat of my face still held its imprint on the pillow, I imagined ways to be better than yesterday. In minuscule moments of pause, I prepared myself for the next opportunity. As the dark defeated the sun, I analyzed the progress I had made and planned for tomorrow. The pursuit was always there. If anyone asked, I pointed to my high-stakes job as a Navy pilot. I never admitted that I loved the hunt. It gave my day meaning and purpose. It filled me with pride.
I loved that hunt.
The pinnacle of flying lands on an aircraft carrier. My pulse quickens remembering it. Less than 1% of pilots have flown from the 1,100 feet of steel runway. The 60,000-ton floating city brings thousands of modern warriors to any fight in the world with 24 hours' notice. Often less. All for the ideal of peace.
The weight of that honor stoked my hunt.
The sharp clang echoing through the cavernous steel arteries of the ship warned everyone I was coming with a purpose. I watched sailors squeeze out of the way, hearing my shadow even before they saw my presence. I exuded confidence. Walking those halls reminded me how proud I was flying off this ship every day. I appreciated every one of them; I would never trade places with them.
Our daily routine was built around supporting those of us who were about to go onto the edge. Everything was designed to support excellence.
The daily briefings – intelligence, signals, operational datalink, weather, and aircraft status – were delivered in dimly lit rooms hidden from curious ears. Only a select few ever saw those rooms. Fewer still were privy to the briefings. They parleyed in words that no one outside of that room could ever hope to understand. “Link 16, picture, birds loaded, Cavu.” It was all beautiful in its own way. I lived every syllable.
My pursuit of excellence was my offering to that privilege. We were performance athletes at the tip of the spear, those of us putting our lives on the line to support our ideal. We had chosen to push ourselves to the edge of what was possible with life-or-death consequences.
Craving the moment to test myself this day, I returned to the ready room. I had one last routine before my number was called. In this steel vault filled with mementos from home, my crew and I prepared ourselves for flight. Our bodies barely touched the oversized leather chairs that we briefed in. Our thoughts hovered even lighter. As the final moment of preparation ended, I started my pre-game routine. I grabbed two sticks of Wrigley’s spearmint gum, primed myself with the opening bells of Metallica’s Unforgiven, and focused on my mental checklist. That routine never changed, and it steeled my excitement.
20 minutes later, St. Peter called our names. We climbed the ladder to the steel heaven.
Walking onto that flight deck, 30 warplanes and 3,000 sailors full, my face gave in to the smile which threatened to lift my helmet off my head. This was a silent ballet, and I was the lead. Everyone around me carried out a job, with pride and excellence that could have shined those airplanes. Purple shirts – grapes, as we called them – filled the planes. Brown shirts checked the plane’s readiness, yellow shirts guided our plane to the catapult, and the green light signaled it was our turn. Within an instant, our plane reached 120 knots as we launched for our mission.
No one said a word; no one needed to. We were all steeped in enough excellence to know what everyone else was doing. The mission changed day to day, but the routine was always the same.
Three hours later, we returned overhead the ship. Every ounce of fuel, firepower, and patriotism was left in the skies. Now it was time to get home.
I donned my glasses – cheaters crafted to let me see just slightly better than 20/20. I popped the two sticks of Wrigley’s spearmint gum into my mouth, designed to shut off my monkey mind and let me do the work, and I started looking for the other planes returning at the same time. Out of the left windscreen, I spotted the EA-6B Prowler circling 1,000 ft below me. Follow him home.
The last plane on the flight deck launched, and 35 seconds later (always precisely 35 seconds), the first plane stopped in the wire without ever saying a word. Every 60 seconds, another plane landed, and the rest of us funneled down to follow.
When it was my turn, I banked the plane and pulled hard, bleeding off 180 knots of energy in 10 seconds. I maneuvered to land. I saw the lights, knew I was in a good spot, and let my brain stem do the rest of the work. 18 seconds later, I felt my seatbelt dig into my shoulders as the wire stopped our 120 knots of airspeed in 600 feet. I was home.
The only thing left to do was figure out how to be better tomorrow.
Every day of my 11 years as a Navy pilot, I lived on the edge of excellence. I immersed myself in a personal struggle to be better than anyone thought possible. It was an understatement to say I held impossibly high standards. I searched for any edge that would make me better.
Memorization of every possible outcome? I had memorized the angle of the landing gear override handle, a tool I had never once used in flight. Visualization techniques? I could visualize the way the smoke curled off a burning engine. Optimized diet? I measured every macro. I even tried smoking before aerobatic flights – the nicotine would slow down my blood flow enough to let me pull an extra half G. Like Bradley Cooper in Limitless, I would do anything for that extra edge. I was obsessed.
I’ve left that life, but damn do I miss that feeling of excellence. No fine dish tastes quite as delightful. The best smells – a baby’s freshly diapered bottom or the sweet smell of wild blueberries – don’t quite excite me the way the jet fuel and grease that enveloped my life did. I can’t relate to others who haven’t felt the pride of excellence. Their confused looks confuse me. It’s easier to hide my passion from myself than it is to try and make others understand. I hate the burning shame when I try anyways.
Most people scoff at the relentless pursuit of excellence. The “regular world” has tried to cheapen the idea as a marketing tool. We should distrust it. Most jobs are uninspiring, and the world rarely rewards excellence outside of making money.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.
Don’t push yourself in someone else’s game. I recommend taking the time to find the thing that lights your soul on fire. Give yourself time and space. Grab your tools: a pen, journal, and a silent routine of introspection, and try lots of things without putting pressure on them to be the one. When you find yourself wondering how an hour just went by that you didn’t notice, try that thing again. Push yourself a little more. You’ll find it. We all do.
12 years after my last deployment, I’m only now catching glimpses of what I want to put it all on the line for again. It took time and experiments – so many experiments that weren’t it but taught me something. Maybe for you, it’s sports, cooking, or being a parent. I feel it in my relationship with my children. I’m noticing the same in my writing. I’m feeling called to share and explore ideas that can help people feel more connected to the world. I’m finding glimpses of things I care more about than I ever did in the past. It’s taking years of unlearning to escape the absurdity I find around me. For the first time, my soul is starting to flutter again.
Those people who push themselves to the extreme – those are my people. I see them risking injury or worse to shave a half-second off a ski run, and I smile. I find breadcrumbs in Twitter threads or Substack articles and I feel the oxygen rekindling that fire in me. I pray for those of us who have tasted excellence and are putting it all on the line in pursuit of it. I know their confidence, bordering on bravado. I still practice my secret handshake, just in case we pass on the street. If you’ve ever tasted it, I see you.
And if you haven’t, get out there. Fuck mediocrity. The edge is a hell of a drug.
A dear friend of mine also spent his first career as a Navy pilot, flying jets from carriers, like you. Flight instructor, I believe. Now he flies widebody commercial, and is working on a very different third career. This helps me understand his earlier world. Bravo!
I see a little something hiding between your words on excellence... I'd say the reason it's ended up that we "should" distrust excellence is precisely because most jobs _are_ uninspiring, and excellence at something empty is empty itself—and so it's not just cheapened for the sake of marketing (although that is certainly true), but in that so much of our honest effort is put towards dishonest ends.
Excellent, excellent essay.