2 lessons this elite fighter pilot says will guide you through a successful life

When Dave Berke was a kid, he imagined himself flying an F-18 off an aircraft carrier.

By the time he retired as a US Marine officer in 2016, he had not only done that, but he’d also flown an F-16, F-22, and F-35, taught at the elite Top Gun fighter pilot school, and served a year on the ground alongside Navy SEALs in the 2006 Battle of Ramadi as a forward air controller.

Today, he’s a member of Echelon Front, a leadership consulting firm started by two of those SEALs, Task Unit Bruiser commander Jocko Willink and one of his platoon commanders, Leif Babin.

Berke has spent the past year sharing lessons from his 23-year military career, and we asked him what insights were at the heart of his leadership philosophy. He shared with us two lessons he learned as a teenager, long before he ever saw combat.

Photo by Staff Sgt. Christine Polvorosa

Photo by Staff Sgt. Christine Polvorosa

They’re lessons he said became not only the foundation of his service, but his entire life, and they’re ones he’s had reinforced repeatedly.

Set specific goals and develop detailed paths to them.

Berke’s mom Arlene had become used to hearing her young son talk about how he wished he could fly fighter jets one day.

She told him that he needed understand that the role of a fighter pilot was a real job, one that existed outside of his daydreams. Berke said her message boiled down to: “You could sit there and think about wanting to be a pilot. By the time you’re 25 somebody will be doing that job. Spend less time fantasizing about it, spend less time dreaming about it, and spend more time coming up with a plan.”

Berke took it to heart, and in retrospect, probably took his mom’s advice even more intensely than she had intended. By 15 he knew that his goal was to fly F-18s off aircraft carriers and be stationed in Southern California. He wouldn’t go the more traditional Navy route, either, but would join the Marines and become an officer.

Photo by Staff Sgt. Christine Polvorosa

Photo by Staff Sgt. Christine Polvorosa

The Marines have fewer pilots, but even their pilots go through the same training as all other Marines. He wanted the best of both worlds, and to have his goal be as challenging as possible.

He accepted that he might not make this a reality, but decided he would act as though there were no alternative.

At 17, he met with a recruiting officer to nail down everything he needed to do to make his vision a reality, giving him a year to think about the resulting timeline before signing up for the Marine Corps.

“It keeps you disciplined because the risk of not doing all the things you need to do is failure,” he said about this timeline approach. “It’s a failure that you have nobody else to blame but yourself.”

 

USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Patrick J. McMahon

USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Patrick J. McMahon

Mental toughness is more important than abilities.

Berke said that he’s never been the biggest or strongest guy among his friends in the military, and as an 18-year-old, he was thin and average height.

He arrived at the Marine Corps Base Quantico for officer candidate school scared and intimidated. “I looked around and everybody else around me looked bigger, tougher, stronger, faster, and seemed to be more qualified than me to do that job,” he said.

But as the days went by, he would be surprised to see some of his fellow candidates break under pressure. A guy next to him that he knew was naturally a better athlete than he was wouldn’t be able to keep up in fitness trials, but it was because he didn’t share the drive that Berke had developed for years.

“As they started to fail, I started to realize that the difference between success and failure was mental toughness,” he said.

echelon front

Berke, middle, with the Echelon Front team and Jocko Podcast producer Echo Charles, second from right. Berke joked this photo proves his point about not having to be the biggest or strongest to succeed. Photo from Echelon Front

He became an officer. Next was the Basic School, where he would be given his role in the Marine Corps. He was one of 250 new officers, and there were only two pilot spots for his class.

“There’s no way I’m going to let somebody else work harder, be more committed, be more disciplined, and outperform me in that environment to accomplish what they want at my expense,” he thought. “It’s not going to happen.”

The same mindset is what got him through the chaos of Iraq 15 years later, when a plane didn’t separate him from the fighting on the ground.

“There’s no Plan B to losing in combat,” he said.

TOP ARTICLES
How the 65-year old B-52 Stratofortress just keeps getting better with age

When you add modern computers and tinker with the bomb bay, it turns out the the B-52 can kill more targets.

This Swedish fighter was decades ahead of its time

Its best-known combat was in the service of a fictional drug cartel in the movie "Fire Birds." But in the Cold War, the Draken was truly ahead of its time.

This is how Hanoi reacted to the epic Ken Burns 'Vietnam War' documentary series

Ken Burns' "Vietnam War" was released to relatively little noise in Vietnam. Here's a look at what audiences there had to say.

7 epic songs that prove 'Call of Duty' knows how to lay down tracks

Video game music has improved a lot since 8-bit days. A lot.

The Army is looking for ways to keep generals from misbehaving

Struggling with behavior problems among senior officers, the Army is putting together new mental health, counseling, and career management programs.

These are the heroics that earned this EOD Petty Officer a Silver Star

Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Bill Moran, recognized EOD 1st Class Thomas for his conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy.

This why the national anthem is played before sporting events

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that the "The Star-Spangled Banner" be played at all military ceremonies and other various occasions.

The Navy wants this drone to extend its fighter range beyond 1k miles

The Navy is exploring how to use unmanned aircraft to extend the range of fighter jets by 1,000 miles. The concept, at this time, is called the MQ-25 Stingray.

How the Pentagon plans to spend $700M to drop drones

ISIS has been using drones to drop bombs on Iraq Security Forces, and the Department of Defense is looking for a better defense against them.

The third Invictus Games just kicked off in Toronto — and it's awesome

Competitors, celebrities, royalty, and spectators came together Sept. 23 to kick off the 2017 Invictus Games at the sold-out Air Canada Centre.

THE MIGHTY SURVEY GIVE-AWAY

We want to hear your thoughts. Complete our survey for a chance to win 1 of 5 gaming consoles

COMPLETE SURVEY TO WIN