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Ben Stein

Profile in Service

Alumni

Veterans

I am a super tough guy. I want that to be very clear in this profile. Say that I’m extremely physically capable, and imposing. A warfighter. (Laughs) Well, the truth is that I spent a lot of time as a kid playing video games, which left me with exceptional hand-eye coordination. I had a ton of practice interpreting complex information on my screen and making quick decisions. When I was learning how to fly a fighter jet, it occurred to me that it was just like playing a terribly designed video game. Real flying has no reward loop – no bright, flashing lights or pleasing sounds to give you the dopamine hit that makes you want to keep playing. None of that happens when you’re flying an F-18. At best, in a debrief you’ll get a “Hey, congrats – you didn’t fuck it up.”

Fighter pilots have a reputation for being self-centered jerks, so I didn’t know what to expect when I started flying at the highest level. After finishing flight school, I headed to the Marine Training Squadron in San Diego to learn to fly the F-18. Marine and Navy fighter pilots who had fought and won the war were there to teach me. I thought, “I have arrived. My talent has been noticed.” Then the ruthless banter began. We didn’t need to worry about hurting feelings because no one had feelings. These were the meanest people I’ve ever met, and this was how we showed love for one another. They were the best. I’ll never have closer friends.

I really enjoyed being a pilot. It was always challenging – that was part of the draw. I wanted to prove I could master it, prove I could manage the complexity and keep my cool with that amount of stress and danger. In a sense, it was like a professional athlete’s existence. You spend all your time becoming the very best you can be at this one thing. It was exhilarating to excel at something so elite. But I also had plenty of failures.

I remember one of my early experiences on an aircraft carrier. It was my first flight alone wearing night vision goggles. I catapulted off the front end of the boat and from then on, everything went off script. When it came time to land, I was fumbling around, still trying to catch up with the jet, which goes fast whether the pilot keeps up or not. At that moment, I badly wanted to be in a jet that was not moving. Once I knew I had the back of the boat cleared, I reduced power and came down hard enough that my tailhook bounced over all three arresting wires in the landing area. Then I did it again… and again, wondering over and over how could I have spent so much time on the flight deck without catching a wire.

After three straight failed attempts, I knew I had to get my act together. I was at the height of frustration and running low on fuel. I also knew I had an audience. Every landing on a ship is televised. When someone is having trouble landing, it’s like schadenfreude TV. “Here he comes again… he’s screwed it up a few times already… what’s he going to do this time?” Pilots are notoriously competitive, and other people have to suck at something for it to matter that you’re good at it.

I circled around again on my last lap, desperate to avoid going back to the beach to refuel. I had a terrifying and inspiring realization: No one can do this for me. Every now and then, sheer force of will means more than expertise or training. There was no chance that I would miss the wires this time around. No chance. I finally landed, screaming gleeful obscenities into my mask as I felt the hook catch a wire and the jet decelerate violently. I didn’t feel victorious as much as I felt relieved.

You know what’s easier than eating that much stress? It would have been easier to say: “I’m going to fly back to shore, land on a great big runway, and learn to be an accountant.” I cleared the landing area and parked the jet. I was sitting in the cockpit, rehearsing my speech. It started with, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Then I realized they would probably make me stay on the boat and do less glamorous work, which would be even worse. I got out and walked to the ready room. I was still in my flight gear when the most senior pilot on the entire aircraft carrier tracked me down. This is not a guy you’d see often. He flashed a huge smile, and then patted me on the back and said, “Welcome to Naval Aviation.” It was validation that I had struggled, lived through it, and learned from it. No one likes landing a jet on a boat in the middle of the ocean on a moonless night. That’s why they pay you!

My flying career was incredibly satisfying, but I knew I would eventually do something else. I was attracted to tech, which I understood to consist of big-brained people with an optimistic view of the world solving important problems together. As my transition date approached, I looked for a graceful exit to the next chapter. I didn’t want to start over, but do you know what tech companies were not hiring? Fighter pilots. That’s where BreakLine came in.

The BreakLine team helped me tell my story and connect the dots for decision-makers in the tech world. I went through the program in 2017 and met Dan Streetman, BMC’s EVP of Worldwide Sales and Marketing. He had traveled a similar path, saw me for what I was, and took me under his wing. That kind of executive sponsorship and mentorship made all the difference. It’s not that he’s a safety net – I still have to do the work and I can still fail. But I have sage counsel at a moment’s notice. I know he’ll always be an honest broker and steer me toward what’s best for me and my family.

As soon as I took my first job at BMC, I started working, producing, and delivering again. I’m climbing faster than I ever could in the Navy. I know that if I want even more responsibility and I’m willing to do what it takes to operate at that level, my hands are at the controls. I’ve laid down the mantle of being a fighter pilot, and I’m building new habits around other things that bring me joy. BreakLine is one of those things. Nothing gives me a lift like engaging with other veterans making the leap. It feels good to throw down a rope and say, “Your talent matters and you will get a great job. You will succeed.”

© 2022 BreakLine. All Rights Reserved.
© 2022 BreakLine. All Rights Reserved.