Stop Counting Your Bullet Holes

Estimated read time: 2 minutes

We can all feel a bit like this plane some days.

WW2 plane Survivorship bias

Lockheed PV-1 Ventura patrol bomber, Image by McGeddon

The Allied forces in World War II suffered heavy bomber losses to enemy gunfire. Planes that survived flew back to base peppered with bullet holes.

The U.S. Military inspected the planes and found the most holes pierced wings and tails. Armor is heavy and expensive, so they had to figure out the most optimal placement.

The plan was to add armor to protect those wings and tails from enemy fire. And so more pilots could fly back to base after a mission.

However, the Naval operations research team made a different conclusion. A mathematician named Abraham Wald flipped the idea upside down.

Wald realized that planes which flew back with bullet holes actually meant they could survive those shots. But the ones that crashed and never made it back for inspection were likely shot in the engines and cockpit. And that’s where the military ended up armoring the planes.

My friend died this week in a motorcycle crash.

He was 49. We grew up together. Even when he was a college student he’d still hang out with our ragtag church youth group every weekend.

He was a big brother to me. He introduced me to comic books, yo-yos, pocket knives, made incredible drawings, helped buy my first guitar.

I always looked up to him. He pretty much did everything better than me. He wrestled and played football in school. I wrestled and played football. He was varsity. I wasn’t.

We lost touch after he moved to the West Coast for work. We only got to visit him and his family once out there.

He restored a vintage car, owned a few motorcycles, set up a special room to practice judo with his sons. He volunteered at his kids’ local elementary school teaching music because the school had no budget — even after his sons moved on.

I heard through friends there were rocky patches. I know how that goes — we all do.

We all get hit by enemy flak.

It’s the knee-jerk reaction to wonder what if he had made different choices. Maybe things could have been different.

What were his last words — to his motorcycle buddies who rode with him that day, to his sons, to his wife, his siblings, his mom?

I am reminded not to count the bullet holes.

I am reminded to pay attention to what made him soar when I knew him.

His faith, family, friends. Those are areas that need bulletproof armor.

It’s not even about his choices or his circumstances and more about a wake up call to us.

Guard your engines and cockpit.

These are non-negotiables.

These are the vulnerable areas that will shield us from enemy fire and equip us to tackle our missions and survive to fly another day.

I’m not saying we ignore the pains and hurts, mistakes and regrets. I’m saying not to drown in despair and focus on non-critical damage.

Heal, recover, press on.

Of course one day we will all land for the last time. But today we write another page in our legacy. What have we written?

The measure of who we are will be summed up not by our bullet holes but by the way we flew. And all the more when we debrief back at mission control to equip new recruits.

Rest in peace, my friend.

Fly fierce, fly true — armor up, my friends.

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