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Matt Hall – Fighter Pilot

Following your passions.  I suspect we spend a lot of time paying lip-service to that adage.  When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?  Most of us probably changed our minds at least a dozen times … a vet, a nurse, a singer, a painter, a writer.  As we get older, the reality of life tends to dawn hard – there are bills to be paid, a car to be bought, maybe some travel, aspirations and dreams to be funded.  Somehow.  And then there are the expectations of others.  Parents.  Teachers.  Society.  All of them wanting the ‘best’ for us, but often seeing the ‘best’ as meaning financial gain and financial security above all.  So what happens to the things in your life that you simply love – to paint, to draw, to write or compose, to create, to dream, to run as fast as you can.  Maybe faster than anyone else!  One of the most common questions I ask my radio guests is, “How did you find the courage, the stamina, to follow your dreams?  To chase your passion and to aspire to not live a beige life?”  Mind you, if painting is your thing, you might be quite fond of beige.

It’s June 2010.  I guess I’d now consider myself a proud Novocastrian, although ‘officially’ I have another three years of residency to qualify.  Matt Hall is a real Hunter Valley-born Novocastrian who most Australians perhaps came to know through the 2007 television series “Real Top Guns” – a documentary about Australia’s fighter pilots.  I’ve interviewed Matt a number of times over the last couple of years as he has begun chasing a different dream.  Matt Hall is a third generation pilot.  His grandfather was a pilot who flew during WWII.  Matt himself took his first flight at the tender age of two with his father.  It was obvious to Matt that flying was his passion, his dream, his muse.  A career with the RAAF beckoned, during which time Matt became a Fighter Pilot and Elite Fighter Pilot (Top Gun) Instructor, he served with both the RAAF and with the USAF on exchange and was decorated for service in combat by both Australia and the USA.

But for many years, Matt also enjoyed flying as a sport pursuing both competition and display aerobatics, ultimately leading him to being offered to take part in a workshop for Red Bull International Air Race pilots.  In 2008, Matt Hall became the first Australian to be awarded the Red Bull Air Race Super Licence, and finally to be selected to compete.

Flying.  Racing.  Aerobatics.  All sounds rather expensive, doesn’t it.  So here’s the question, just how did he turn his RAAF Fighter Pilot career into that of a professional athlete?  How do you make the decision to throw in an obviously very successful and secure  job with the defence force, and start fending for yourself while pursuing a new dream?   “That is actually quite a challenge believe it or not, there’s a lot to be said about doing what you love and chasing your passion, making a career of your passion, but that also has the ability to sap the enjoyment out of your passion because your livelihood relies upon it.  It is quite a delicate balance because you have to make sure that something that was a hobby and that you wanted to spend all of your time doing, all of a sudden when  it really does take all your time to do it – that it doesn’t lose all of the value of where it started in your life.  The only way to do that is slap yourself in the face, take a step back, and take the wholistic view that ‘you know what?  I’m one of the most privileged people in the world in that I can take my hobby and profession and travel the world combining both of those things’.  Otherwise I can find myself looking through a microscope at all the little individual bits and pieces and that can seem overwhelming and make you feel like throwing your arms in the air and saying ‘it’s not worth it’ because of all the stress and effort you go through.

Matt Hall – Windsor, Ontario, 2010

How hard is it to keep the love of what he does and not throw it in?  “It does take effort.  My wife and I talk about it quite a bit, I also have a sports psychologist and that’s one of the aspects we always work with.  I’m effectively a professional athlete now, and I think nearly every professional athlete in the world goes through this cycle where if you’re not enjoying it, you’re not loving it, your performance drops off.  The best athletes in the world love their sport and have a great time when they’re competing.   When you get in a rut in any sport, you aren’t actually enjoying your sport anymore.   They’re trying too hard, worrying about the dollars, where their future is going rather than instead of, ‘You know what? This is fantastic!’  We’re earning enough money to live and having a great life so let’s just enjoy it as it happens.”

Is that the key?  Enough to live?  “That is the key.  If you treated it like a get-rich-quick retire-in-two-years scheme, you wouldn’t enjoy it because there’s so much turnover of money in this sport, any money that comes in via sponsorship or race fees goes straight back out and if one of your goals was about becoming rich quick, you’d become depressed pretty quickly and wouldn’t do it.  So it really has to be about life, how you’re experiencing life and the moment, enjoy the journey and not the destination.  I think that’s the key to most of life – it’s great to set goals, it’s a necessary thing, but you don’t want to spend your life wishing you were already AT the goal – you want to actually enjoy the journey.”

This is a theory expanded upon in Arun Abey’s book, “How Much Is Enough: Money, Time, Happiness: A Practical Guide to Making the Right Choices”.  How much is enough is perhaps the question we never really ask ourselves as we’re rushing from one pay packet to the other, trying to juggle and make ends meet.  What truly IS enough?  Perhaps, again, this stems back to our childhood dreams and aspirations, the things we REALLY wanted to be or do when we grew up.  Arun Abey was the co-founder of ipac securities, a very successful financial planning business.  I suspect the success of ipac stems from the founder’s personal principles around happiness and wellbeing – that a new car might make you happy for a week, but wonderful experiences shared with loved ones will last a lifetime.  A quote of Abey’s that I’m very fond of is about his own parents, “My parents gave me unconditional love and never expressed any ambition for me in terms of profession, as long as I didn’t do anything bad.  That allowed me to explore because I knew I would have the support of the significant people in my life.  Parents are the biggest obstacles to people living authentic lives, especially in Asia, where children are expected to become doctors, engineers, lawyers, or, at the very least, accountants.  So people are living their parents’ dream, but so many parents aren’t aware of it.”  ipac was ultimately sold to AXA Asia Pacific, but Abey remains as ipac’s Executive Chairman – because he loves it.  Passion.  Dream.  Authenticity.  Success.

Matt Hall – Red Bull Air Race – Abu Dhabi

So if we start with our children, how do we combat this current ‘cult of celebrity’?  Matt Hall is living his personal dream of flying, but how does he share that amazing journey of his,the pursuit of passion, with children and young people?  Does he see himself as a role model?  “Yes, I do, I often speak to kids at school and at the races.  One of my personal goals was to find a valid reason to do it (race) because when I was in Defence I had a very clear direction and reason for what I was doing, to then become an athlete I had to look at myself and ask, ‘How am I improving the world?’, because that’s important to me, and I realised that I can now do that by motivating people to chase their dreams.  So I do a lot of speaking in my spare time, especially to young people, about the fact that I’m no-one special, I didn’t come from a wealthy background nor have I been chasing wealth, I’ve just been having a go at chasing my own dreams and not being scared of failure.  As long as I had some sort of backup plan in place that didn’t leave me in the lurch, but set a reasonable structure of a plan in front of me – have a goal – aim for the stars and you might make the moon!  That’s what I’ve done most of my life.  You make your own luck.  That’s what I try to get through to the kids, do it for life, not for material gain.”

What about taking risks?  I’m a pussy.  I’m a lily-livered, card-carrying coward.  Well, at least when it comes to physical safety.  What is Matt Hall’s limit, where does he draw the line in pursuit of his own passion and the possible impact of injury to himself, or of tragedy for those who love him?  As a parent, do you have the right to take big risks?  And how do you actually determine how big the risk is?  “When I first started racing, I said to my wife that I never wanted to scare her.  That’s the baseline.  The good thing about racing is that I’m in control of most of the risk I’m exposed to.  Every aspect of life has risk that you can’t control, you could get hit by a runaway bus, but with the aircraft – it is under my control, I control 99% of that.  I will never push hard enough to scare my wife.  She’s my test.  Every time I go flying, I ask her how she was with it.  People think I’m an adrenaline junkie, but I’m actually quite a thoughtful and calculated person, I like being in control and I do feel in control in the race.  Base-jumping is not for me!”

But what about the ‘warrior psychology’ – how do you make the move from defence and aggression in the air – and Matt has seen active combat in his time as an RAAF and USAF Fighter Pilot – to the ‘achievement’ psychology required for success as a professional athlete?  “There IS a warrior mindset, and I think I do possess that, but you need to be aware of what drives that warrior mindset.  When I was in the defence force, I felt that I was a protector – that’s quite a powerful motivator for that job.  So, yes, I had to figure out how my brain was structured so I could use that passion and aggression for success, and rather than taking a hostile or defensive or offensive posture to feed that mentality, it became more about internal satisfaction and seeing the enjoyment of others.”

And what I personally learned from Matt Hall?  I would fly with him.  It is a great pleasure to know you, Matt!  So – are YOU living authentically?  Living your dream?  Pursuing your passion?

Matt Hall – Red Bull Air Race – Budapest, Hungary, 2009

You can listen to my ABC Local Radio interview with Matt Hall here:

Carol Duncan & Matt Hall June 2010 ABC Radio Newcastle