When I was a young man headed out into the world, trying to make a success of myself, there was an expression I heard over and over again: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
The subtext was clear. No matter how smart or capable or driven you might be, it would not be possible to become a true success unless someone who was already established took your hand and guided you through the gates of what might best be described as a members only club.
For the record, I never believed this theory of professional achievement. Or at least I didn’t for many years. And then one day I realized I was wrong.
While the old saw isn’t entirely correct, it’s not entirely wrong either.
Admittedly, those who achieve notable success do not belong to an exclusive club, nor do they make an effort to keep the rest of us from achieving the level of success they have attained. But it would be very difficult to become really good, really successful at pretty much anything without knowing the rules, and the risks, and gaining some insight into what challenges might be encountered along the way.
In that sense at least, the expression is valid. It helps to have a mentor, a guide, someone who can share a tip or two with you as you work you way down the road of life. To a degree at least, who you know can have a direct impact on what you know. And that matters.
Which brings us to my favorite subject of all: General aviation.
Let’s say you’re a young person who is hoping to make something of yourself in the long term. Or perhaps you’re the parent of a young person who you hope to see become self-sufficient, productive, and fruitful over the course of their life. Either way, having an association with general aviation and the people who populate it can be worthwhile.
It’s not about the celebrities you may meet, although there is something to be said for that aspect of the general aviation experience, too. It’s been my good fortune to watch an airshow performer wheel through the aerobatic box overhead, fully aware that the gentleman standing to my right was Chuck Yeager. I’ve found myself ambling along at an airshow, chatting with arguably the greatest pilot of all time, Bob Hoover. I once shook hands and spoke briefly with Frank Borman, the commander of Apollo 8, the first manned space mission to leave earth orbit, visit the moon, and return. I’ve met Tuskegee Airmen, and Flying Tigers, and WASP who tallied accomplishments I will never flirt with in my life.
Those encounters feel pretty special when they happen. The memory is a treasure that lasts, too.
But there’s more than that to general aviation. On the ramp, in the pilot’s lounge, at the lunch counter, and maybe even in the seat next to you, you may encounter lesser known men and women who have something of real benefit to offer you — if only you were given the chance to meet them and establish a relationship, a turn of events that is not an impossibility by any means.
I’m talking about bank presidents, lawyers, doctors, and architects. Car dealers, executives from large regional grocery stores, international retailers, sports figures, musicians, and authors all populate the airport environment from time to time, just like the rest of us. They’re accessible, often friendly, and as drawn to the sound of an aircraft engine overhead as any of the rest of us. At the airport, we are peers. In the boardroom, not so much.
It is unlikely you or your teenage kids will bump into any of these luminaries of business in the hallways of the local high school. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but a general aviation environment is much more conducive to a productive conversation and the building of a fledgling relationship than simply passing someone by on the street.
I will acknowledge I was once passed by Thomas Meskill, the governor of Connecticut, while wandering aimlessly between classes in my sophomore year of high school. Not surprisingly, the governor was surrounded by a phalanx of adults who either could not see me, or didn’t care enough about me and my ratty little teenage peers to stop and talk for a moment. That’s an opportunity lost, for one of us at least.
I’ve never experienced the same bum’s rush at the airport. Neither have my kids.
A couple are only casual airport visitors, but one of my young ‘uns has made a semi-career out of working at the airport. Whether loading passengers into a biplane for a trip around the local area, or working the counter at the FBO, she’s working her way through college and making some great discoveries for herself as she meets a wide variety of people her friends who work at burger joints never seem to meet.
In fairness, the expression that began this column needs some work. Just a little tweak here and there to really make it sing. If I may, I would offer this little twist on words: It’s all about what you know, who you know, and what you do with that knowledge.
I suppose you can make that work anywhere. But it sure seems more appealing, and a whole lot easier, when it happens at the airport.