Technology, Culture, & Emotional Intelligence

The Top Gun Method: How to Keep Growing Once You’ve Plateaued

Excellence, as it turns out, may be best defined not as the uncovering of a vast hidden talent but as the result of an intentional process.

The Top Gun Method: How to Keep Growing Once You’ve Plateaued
Photo by Craig Manners / Unsplash

If you are like most people, when you hear the phrase “Top Gun,” you think of Maverick and Goose and Ice — what a classic. But have you ever heard the story of how the real Naval Fighter Pilot School was created?

The year was 1968, and the American armed forces in Vietnam had a problem. Well, they likely had several problems, but for the sake of this illustration, we will focus on just one: fighter pilots. When American fighters engaged with North Vietnamese combatants the results were getting worse and worse. In fact, from the beginning of the war until 1968, the American plane-for-plane balance in combat had slipped for the first time below a 1:1 ratio.

Top brass realized that the problem must be addressed with training, and they pulled the top fighter pilots together to put together the “U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program,” which (since it is quite the mouthful) quickly became known as the “Top Gun” academy. The rest of the story, you likely know. The program was so successful at pitting trainees against their much more experienced instructors that it literally turned the tide of aviation battles in Vietnam. Once those newly trained pilots returned to Vietnam and passed on what they had learned to other pilots, the ratio jumped back up. In 1970, just two years after the inception of the Top Gun program, the ratio had already climbed to a whopping 1:12.5 and the planes destroyed per engagement rose too as pilots became more effective with their weapons systems.

So, what is it that made the Top Gun Academy so effective? In his book, “Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise,” author Anders Ericsson (the researcher behind Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule) unpacks the process of training and development that produced such effective results. Remarkably, each of the three practices I will detail below are replicable for any leader desiring to grow in a specific area. Ericsson calls this method “deliberative practice.” The method of deliberative practice combines a clear goal and relentless dedication to continuous improvement (which we expect to lead to excellence) with the lesser-realized qualities of external support and continuously evolving methodologies.

Three Methods from the Top Gun School

As I walk through these three elements of the Top Gun method, consider an area of your work or life in which you desire excellence. How could your goal be achieved by utilizing similar methods?

Develop Yourself with People Who’ve Done It Before

At the Top Gun Academy, new pilots on the “Blue Force” flew daily missions against the instructors of the “Red Force.” After weeks of flying together, the Blue Force dramatically improved and then graduated. All the while, however, the Red Force instructors were improving too. With each new class, the Red Force became a force to be reckoned with — often leading new classes of pilots to go days and even weeks at the beginning of their training without ever landing a hit on their instructors. One of the secrets of excellence is to spend as much time as you can soaking up insights, methodologies, and advice from those “Red Force” mentors who have walked the path you desire to take. If they are good, it will take you a while (even years) to soak up everything they can teach you.

Process Out loud Every Practice As Soon As It Is Over

By all accounts, the true learning at the Top Gun school didn’t occur in the air. Instead, as soon as the planes landed, as Ericsson tells it, the instructors jumped out of their planes and began to:

“grill the students relentlessly: What did you notice when you were up there? What actions did you take? Why did you choose to do that? What were your mistakes? What could you have done differently? When necessary, the trainers could pull out the films of the encounters and the data recorded from the radar units and point out exactly what had happened in a dogfight. And both during and after the grilling the instructors would offer suggestions to the students on what they could do differently, what to look for, and what to be thinking about in different situations. Then the next day the trainers and students would take to the skies and do it all over again."

Reflection — the kind that emerges in the wake of self-awareness — is key to achieving excellence.

Once You Get Comfortable, Find A New Way to Get Uncomfortable

Because of these two methodologies, almost without fail, Top Gun trainees would see remarkable improvement in the first few weeks of their training. This improvement, however, ended up being the greatest challenge of all. The problem is often called the “curse of comfort.” Most (and I mean most) musicians, athletes, and performers never make it past good and on to great simply because they reached a level of achievement that was good enough for adoring parents and middling local competition. One of Ericsson’s chief — and perhaps most controversial — findings in his study of excellence is that satisfaction, not talent, is the real barrier that separates Olympic athletes and chess grandmasters from their peers. Remarkable achievement comes when those pursuing growth find newer and newer ways to push themselves beyond their previous plateaus. Even if those around them are satisfied, they never are.

After the Vietnam War ended, the U.S. Navy no longer had a reason to keep Top Gun open, but the experiment had been so successful, that they decided to continue it – even at great cost. For several decades, Top Gun graduates continued to push themselves more than any other military force on the planet, and when the need for fighter pilots finally returned, the results of their deliberative practice shone brighter than ever. Ericsson highlights just how big of a difference the training made:

”By the time of the First Gulf War, both (the Navy and Air Force) had honed their programs so much that the pilots were far better trained than those in almost any other fighting service in the world. During the seven months of the First Gulf War, U.S. pilots shot down thirty-three enemy planes in air-to-air combat, losing only one plane in the process—perhaps the most dominant performance in combat aviation history."

Excellence, as it turns out, may be best defined not as the uncovering of a vast hidden talent but as the result of an intentional and relentless process. So, what goal are you currently chasing? What plateaus have you been camping out on for a little too long? How could you utilize the principles of deliberative practice to push yourself just a little further?


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Jamie Larson