How We Fly: Aircraft as Career Metaphors

If you visualize your career (or your entire life) as the piloting of an aircraft, what sort of aircraft do you see? Modes of flight work as great metaphors for your life and career. The story of Icarus, of course, is the best known flight-as-metaphor parable. On the abstract side of the metaphor, you have Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. On the pseudo-spiritual parable side, you have Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. In this piece you have a very literal-minded aerospace-engineer take on the subject (mostly stolen from other people; back story at end). Here’s a chart of major aircraft-choice personality types for you:

Aircraft as metaphors

Aircraft as metaphors

Take a moment to classify yourself (if you know enough about aircraft, you can of course pick one not on the list, and get specific beyond generic labels like “fighter.”)

The Backstory

I started thinking about aircraft as metaphors when I encountered a four-aircraft personality classification scheme in Vince Poscente’s The Age of Speed. Poscente’s model has fighters, balloons, zeppelins and rockets. The chart above roughly follows his description of the four personality types, though I changed the (negative) description of ‘rocket’ to a positive one, since rockets can do one thing nobody else can: launch satellites. Venture capitalists, perhaps, are rockets.

Then, I happened to go a leadership training week, as part of which my benevolent employer, Xerox, paid for a few sessions of executive coaching. The coach assigned to me began our first session with the question that opens this piece, and we spent a most entertaining couple of hours talking psychology and leadership in terms of aircraft. He came up with the other metaphors you see on this chart — fighters as leaders who lack the capacity to take other people along with them and so forth.

In case you are curious, we concluded that I ought to try and become more of a helicopter pilot.

What are you flying?

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Pamela Hale says

    I love this! I’ve written a book that is closer to the Richard Bach approach on your spectrum. It’s Flying Lessons: How to Be the Pilot of Your Own Life, and will be out in September. I teach the 7 lessons as a process one can use to raise the level of personal and professional functioning. Your classification would be a fun one for the corporate crowd. May I quote you?