Fighter Pilots and Entrepreneurs – what they need to have in common

Serial tech startup rock star, small business owner, consultant, church plant pastor – doesn’t matter. We’re all entrepreneurs. While we’re certainly wired differently and may start and run different ventures, we’re all part of the same species.

So we share the same challenges – like how to deal effectively with stress.

That’s why we’re currently studying how stress affects the entrepreneur’s decision-making process and how it impacts the outcome of those decisions. Each of us responds differently under stress: Some freeze, some shoot from the hip, others take a step back to get more information… regardless of how you respond, stress definitely affects how effectively you make decisions.

Here’s the main problem: High stress decision-making comes with the territory of being an entrepreneur. But there isn’t a training ground for how to make those decisions under stress – at least not yet.

I first started thinking about high stress decision-making during a Starbucks meeting with Essan Soobratty, a brilliant, articulate, and seasoned trader working here in Chicago. He described the massive amount of research done on how elite, high risk-taking careers like hedge fund traders, elite military forces, rescue personnel, and fighter pilots make decisions.

He helped me connect an important dot that will have a huge impact on entrepreneurs in the future.

Here goes…

The primary job requirement in high risk-taking professions is the ability to perform in predictable and repeatable ways even while experiencing inhumane levels of stress.

  • Traders make high-stress decisions (often within seconds) while putting millions and billions of dollars at risk.
  • Fighter pilots endure tremendous amounts of physical and psychological stress while making split-second decisions that impact lives.
  • Elite forces like firemen, SWAT officers, Navy SEALS and Army Rangers train for countless hours to simulate the incredible amount of pressure they face in real-life engagements.
  • Without significant amounts of vetting, selection, development, and consistent, ongoing training, these individuals will make the wrong decisions – and at a tremendous cost:

    Imagine the consequences of a firefighter who steps into a five-alarm fire after a weekend of initial training.

    Or worse yet, a sub-standard Navy SEAL tasked with taking on a terrorist compound halfway around the world while protecting his team.

    Or imagine being an emergency room physician dealing with multiple high-risk patients within a 10-minute window and making life-changing decisions with very little information on hand.

    Expertise, competence, experience and confidence are everything in those situations.

    Now imagine being a first-time entrepreneur facing a major financial, human capital or legal setback who must make a timely decision – with no preparation, training, or experience.

    The outcome could be devastating.

    And usually is.

    Which leads us to a question I continue to pose to the entrepreneurial eco-system:

    “Why is the frustration and failure rate in entrepreneurship stagnant or getting worse despite massive improvements in access to information and support?”

    Part 1 of the answer is definitely Entrepreneurial DNA; people who select the wrong businesses, run them incorrectly, and engage with people, providers and insight not optimal for who they really are.

    It is becoming apparent to me that Part 2 of the answer is a total and complete lack of proper simulation/pre-launch training to prepare the entrepreneur (or budding entrepreneur) to make high-stress, split-second decisions in a cool, composed, and predictable manner – just like a fighter pilot.

    If elite forces, emergency room physicians, hedge fund traders, and fighter pilots benefit from high-stress cognitive training – so can entrepreneurs.

    We’re working hard this summer at BPI to build the ultimate entrepreneurship simulator to allow entrepreneurs from every industry and walk of life to step in and build expertise and competence. The predictable kind of expertise!

    And we’re looking for experts, researchers, technologists and guinea pigs to help us with this massive initiative.

    Feel free to toss yourself in the fire with us if you’re up for it. You’ll learn a lot – and I promise it will be fun!


    1. Dr Suresh Kumar on August 5, 2011 at 11:57 am

      Joe: You have asked a question that very few ask “Why is the frustration and failure rate in entrepreneurship stagnant or getting worse despite massive improvements in access to information and support?”.
      You also have part of the solution. Training using formal and non-traditional ways such as the simulation you have proposed BEFORE and DURING the entrepreneurial process is KEY. As Malcolm Gladwell found the most critical element of success is so basic – mastery of a process through repeated hard work. It works for entrepreneurs too, but you are right that there is so little about it. I learnt it the hard way- my making many mistakes, until i got it right. But that does not have the case.
      So you are on to something here.
      I can help with the simulation and the education pieces. You have my contact info. Lets do it!
      Good Luck!
      Dr Suresh Kumar

    2. Joe on August 11, 2011 at 11:51 pm

      Dr. K

      It has been fun to meet you on the phone since this post and collaborate on ways we can get this project to the next level. With guys like you guiding this thing, I can’t wait to see what happens next!

    3. Mark Levin on August 13, 2011 at 11:31 pm


      Perhaps I would qualify for the position of guinea pig although I have certainly learned ways as how not to run a business.

      I started working as an insurance agent in the financial services industry over 30 years ago. I was taught everything I needed to know about insurance, investments and ultimately financial planning. They also taught me a lot about sales from appt. setting to closing the sale. Like almost everyone else in this fleld, I was not taught much about running a business.

      Whatever I learned,I had to learn on my own. Perhaps they wanted me to always be somewhat dependent on them. The truth is we all could have ended up ahead if they helped me become a better entrepreneur.

    4. Joe on August 17, 2011 at 10:13 pm


      Thanks for volunteering. I’ll definitely invite you to participate as we get this going. Meanwhile, feel free to reach out if you ever want to grab a cup of coffee and chat!

    5. Derrick Jones on October 27, 2011 at 8:59 pm

      Veeeery interesting post. This is a topic I’ve been discussing among my peers for a very long time. Certainly there are a number of things as it relates to entrepreneurship that can and should be codified. You know, those things that traditionally are not taught in class rooms but every entrepreneurs knows about through personal experience. I’m actually working on an ebook right now where I layout a theory I have about the various stages of the entrepreneurial venture and the mistakes that are made in those stages. Definitely count me in as a guinea pig in this process or anyway that I can help. Shoot me an email and I will send along my contact information. Thanks again for a great post and great insight. It’s nice to come across like minded thinkers.

    6. Joe on October 28, 2011 at 6:54 pm

      Will do Derrick. Looking forward to reading your ebook as well. Sounds super interesting.

    7. Derrick Jones on November 13, 2011 at 10:30 pm


      I just finished packaging up the sample content. It’s due for release in January of 2012. Check it out here:

      I’d love to get your feedback as well. Thanks.

    8. Derrick Jones on November 21, 2011 at 1:25 am

      Hey Joe,

      I needed to give an alternative download option for those of my contacts who do not have Facebook accounts. You can get the sample content of the book here:

      You fighter pilot example is quite interesting since I talked about the similarities between them and entrepreneurs in my book. The core of the book really drives home the fact that too many entrepreneurs see themselves as “specialists” as you call them and not entrepreneurs first. Being a specialist is great if you work for someone but once you become an entrepreneur you have to shift your focus. I believe that is why there are a number of great inventions, apps and widgets we will never hear about. That engineer or specialist never saw themselves as entrepreneurs. And if you tell him he is essentially a salesperson he will want to strangle you. If you can’t sell or put someone on the team who can sell it for, you’re dead. No matter how fantastic the widget. Anyway, take a look when you get the opportunity. I think you find it an interesting read. See you in the Player’s Lounge (from the book).