Think like a Fighter Pilot: The Power of the Question Mark

Albert Einstein famously said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” He also said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Seems like sound advice from a guy who knew a thing or two about thinking and problem solving. These two statements taken together describe what we know as a critical thinker.

But first let’s touch on the archenemy of the critical thinker: groupthink. Groupthink is what happens when a group of people’s desire for harmony or conformity outweighs the group’s purpose, resulting in irrational or dysfunctional decision-making. Simply put, groupthink is the epitome of “form and fit over function.” The late, rotund philosopher Tom Callahan would say groupthink is comfortable, like a guarantee on the side of a box; makes you feel all warm and toasty inside. No extra thought needs to be committed to whatever solution is presented, which is convenient because that’s about as much thought as everyone along the way put into it.

In the other corner: the critical thinker. Easy to say, hard to do, and even harder to work with if you’re a group thinker. The critical thinker’s reputation precedes them, and they can be a force to be reckoned with. His or her thoughts or ideas tend to extend meetings or worse; they usually asks questions that no one has the answers to, resulting in follow-up tasks. This tends to be more effort that the group thinkers want to commit to a simple much less complex problem. Quality has a cost, there’s no denying it, and so does poor quality. As the saying goes, “there is never enough time to do it right the first time, but there is always time to do it over again.” Tom Callahan would eloquently contend that a box full of groupthink is akin to a poor quality brake pads and all you really end up with is “a guaranteed piece of shit.” So groupthink is bad and critical thinking is good. Seems easy enough, so now what? We’ve talked about the great Albert Einstein and Tom Callahan, what gives? I thought this was about thinking like a fighter pilot!First 2007 RF-A exercise ends on positive note

There is a difference between pilots who fly fighters and a fighter pilot. It’s not semantics, it’s a mentality. The great fighter pilots are somehow able to do things others can’t. They solve highly complex problems seemingly before they even occur; leap small buildings on a single bound. The very performance of a fighter pilot exudes a credibility that attracts disciples of other fighter pilots, consequently making them an unspoken leader. It’s quite a thing to see.

The key to unlocking this potential inside you is simple yet often overlooked: properly identify the problem. Too often actions don’t actually solve problems, but rather only alleviate a symptom of a problem. Groupthink feeds this needless cycle by creating short-term solutions for long-term problems, or worse, create solutions for things that aren’t even problems. With the continual application of problem solving through groupthink, the problem will likely manifest itself again only this time with another symptom. To properly identify the problem, it is critical to understand the overt and covert facts and assumptions in the situation. This is where the power of the question mark comes in.

Critical thinking constantly throughout the problem solving process challenges assumptions and validates facts. There are numerous methods out there with various steps. Fighter pilots break problem solving down by simply asking questions. Three simple questions to be exact: what, why, and how. What is the problem? Why is the problem occurring? How do I affect the environment to solve the problem? This is where the magic happens!


Another great technique is to continually address a rather polarizing statement like “So what? Convince me to care.” This approach forces a validation of the importance or necessity for action. Obviously this can’t occur airborne where decisions need to be made to solve problems in a split second but in planning or a staff meeting it can be highly effective. Stated somewhat differently, it categorizes a problem that is simply interesting versus compelling.

The fighter pilot actively thinks about identifying the problem at hand and why it has occurred.  Then they envision the performance of a solution and the potential problems that may be encountered in its execution. The best critical thinkers dive into the second and third order effects of the identified solution with no sacrifice in expedience. With this mentality, the fighter pilot is well prepared to execute against the most likely course of action but equally prepared to adapt to the most dangerous course of action. All of this is useless without first being able to correctly identify the problem, the real problem, in the first place.

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4 thoughts on “Think like a Fighter Pilot: The Power of the Question Mark

  1. I always had three questions I asked every brifer- “What?”, “So What?” and “What Now?” In other words What is the problem or question, Why is it important and what course of action do we need (if any)


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