Life Lessons from Top Gun: Maverick

Yesterday I saw Top Gun: Maverick on the big screen with my family. I kid you not, time stopped as I was watching this movie. I was engaged the entire time. And I got goosebumps hearing “Danger Zone” as F/A-18s launched and landed on the aircraft carrier during the opening credits.

Not only did the movie have a great plot, great visuals, and great actors, but it also had a lot of great underlying themes. In fact, in this respect, I think it is superior to the original. (But that’s not a knock against the original, because it was a different type of movie.)

After stewing over the film for a day, I had the idea to write about some of the lessons I walked away with. Who says fighter jets and dogfights can’t teach you about life?

At some point, you will be an old man playing a young man’s game.

The movie begins with Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) tinkering on his P-51 Mustang in a hanger somewhere in the Mojave Desert. Minutes later, he’s on his way to work—test-piloting a cutting-edge jet called the DarkStar. After learning that military brass has scrubbed the program because DarkStar has yet to meet its operational threshold of Mach 10 flight, Maverick opts to fly anyway.

The flight is somewhat successful (more on this in a minute), but Maverick ends up Rear Admiral “Hammer” Cain’s (Ed Harris) office and gets reprimanded, something it seems he’s used to in his career. Radm. Cain pages through Maverick’s record and asks him, after such a distinguished career, why he’s still a pilot—not a general or a senator. He proceeds to send him back to TOPGUN for his final assignment—which, whether he succeeds or fails at, will be the end of his Navy career.

Throughout the movie, the reality of his age begins to set in on Maverick. After getting thrown out of a bar (literally) for a credit card that bounces, he looks inside at the young aviators doing what he used to do—dancing, singing, playing pool and darts—and realizes that he’s not that anymore. And despite his desire to just fly, he gets placed in an instructional role teaching cocky, young know-it-all pilots how to execute the mission at hand.

Maverick begins to face what everyone has to face at some point in life: the inevitability of a chapter’s end.

After the movie, Dad remarked that some of these scenes touched him because that was him—a seasoned veteran at his job who was getting put out to pasture by the powers-that-were, making way for the next generation of employees. And there’s nothing Maverick or my dad could have done to change things.

Sobering as this is, we must accept it for what it is and have a plan for later. Perhaps it’s best to be like Maverick and step into a mentorship role, where you can find meaning from training up others.

Take risks—calculated ones.

At the beginning of the film, Maverick disobeys Radm. Cain’s order to cancel a test flight. Instead, he takes off in the DarkStar and proceeds to accelerate to Mach 9, the test flight’s objective. In so doing, he proves not only the capability of the aircraft but also his capability as a pilot.

But because the aircraft is supposed to be able to hit Mach 10, Maverick keeps accelerating. Slowly the readout increases… 9.7, 9.8, 9.9… and finally 10.0. Mission accomplished—right?

But Maverick doesn’t stop there. Against the judgment of mission control, he keeps pushing the DarkStar past Mach 10.

Caution lights flash inside the cockpit, then warning lights. Alarms start going off. The DarkStar begins vibrating uncontrollably. Mission control loses telemetry data and radio comms with Maverick.

The next scene shows the DarkStar disintegrating across the sky, and Maverick finds himself stranded in his flight suit in some small western town.

Needless to say, he more or less gets his butt handed to him—again. He took a risk, but not a good one.

Later in the film, Maverick finds himself out of his instructor role because Admiral “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm) isn’t happy with his progress training the TOPGUN elites. Maverick knows that Cyclone is going to change up the mission parameters and make it much more likely that the pilots will fail the mission and lose their lives. So what does he do?

He “steals” an F/A-18 and flies his version of the mission, proving his way is not only possible, but the best way.

Once again, Maverick finds himself getting a butt-chewing for insubordination and flying an aircraft beyond its structural limitations. But this time it pays off: He gets back the role of instructor, and gets to lead the mission he’s been training for.

Why did it work out? Because Maverick knew that his way was best, and knew that not only could he fly the mission, but that his pilots could, too. They just needed to see him do it to believe it could be done.

For better or worse, Maverick is the epitome of living life on the edge with nothing to lose. That cost him a lot in life—namely his F-14 RIO and best friend, Goose, and a relationship with his old flame, Penny (Jennifer Connoly). But it also helped him a lot, too: He got to spend his Navy career flying high-speed jets and being the go-to test pilot for top-secret projects.

Most of us aren’t flying air combat missions, but we do face daily challenges that require us to either step up or step aside. And though these challenges pale in comparison to facing down enemy aircraft that want to shoot you out of the sky, most of us opt for passivity. We take the easy road: to let “fate” or others dictate how our life will play out, and never rock the boat. We don’t take risks because we’re afraid of losing.

A mature (and for men, a masculine) way of living is to accept that risk is a part of life and we should not be scared of it. Apprehension is normal, but fear is indeed false evidence appearing real. We as humans know that it’s better to stand firm than to stand aside, but often we’re too concerned with what others will think or for our own safety to take chances.

Don’t be a meathead and do dumb stuff. Live wisely and take chances that can make a positive difference for you and for others. Be like Maverick and become a master of your craft, and believe in yourself.

Identity is everything.

At one point in the movie, Maverick visits his old wingman Iceman (Val Kilmer), who has told him to train these elite TOPGUN pilots. Feeling dejected about his ability to train these young pilots, Maverick says, “I’m not a teacher. I’m a fighter pilot.” He later elaborates, “It’s not what I am, it’s who I am. How do I teach that?”

To his credit, Maverick is very centered in his identity as a fighter pilot. That’s something a lot of us could learn from. Many of us identify with a job, a religion, or even a public figure or artist we admire.

But how many of us are the embodiment of the thing that defines us most? Do others see us that way? How do we get there? And even more, should we become that defined by just one thing?

I would argue that without a solid identity of who you are, what you believe, and why, your life is akin to a boat adrift at sea. I know, because I’ve been there—and still am, to an extent. When you feel dissonance between who you think you are and how others see you, or between your dreams and aspirations and your current course of life, it’s depressing.

In my case, my identity first is rooted in my faith in Jesus Christ. But I haven’t always lived that way. In fact, I used to define myself by things like my grades, my jobs, and my taste in music.

That’s like building your house on the sand, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. Grades, jobs, and musical tastes can change or be lost. And even Maverick’s identity as a fighter pilot is in jeopardy in this movie, as he faces the last assignment of his career and a discharge to follow.

Everyone has an identity. Some of us accept whatever other people tell us we are, and others seek to define themselves. But if we’re not clear on who we are, we will wander aimlessly through life. And if we base our identities on shifting sand, we’ll be in for a rude awakening one day when it is swept away from us.

So figure out who you really are and make sure it’s a firm foundation. (I recommend faith in Jesus as a starting point.) Then let that identity drive your actions, decisions, and existence. Everything will start to get simpler and more stress-free at that point.

Look out for those in your care.

In the original Top Gun, one point driven home throughout the movie is to never leave your wingman. Doing so puts both you, the pilot, and your wingman at risk at getting picked off by the enemy. Fortunately, by the end of the movie, Maverick learns this lesson, but it nearly costs him and Iceman in the final dogfight.

Maverick didn’t forget this lesson, either. At the start of the film, one reason he carries out the DarkStar test flight is so he could help keep the team employed on the project by proving the aircraft was Mach 10-capable. As an instructor, he crafts the special mission’s parameters so as to maximize the chances of his pilots’ survival—which brings him into conflict with both the pilots and the powers-that-be.

And, as we learn, Maverick has been trying to look out for Rooster, Goose’s son, as well—because he doesn’t want him to suffer the same kind of fate as his father did.

This is what also drives Maverick to test-fly the mission himself to prove to his pilots and the generals that his plan works. He takes the chance on his entire career (again, nothing to lose) because he wants the pilots to come home safely.

We all have a responsibility to look out for our families, friends, and those around us. One of the reasons I believe our society is falling apart is because of a lack of care and responsibility. Many people live self-serving lives (which is “human nature”), but it’s gotten to the point that it’s heartless and cruel. Just look at how people fought over toilet paper during COVID.

Looking out for others is a sign of leadership. As General George Patton said, “Always do everything you ask of those you command.” Be humble and consider others’ needs. You will earn respect for it and, perhaps most importantly, be able to sleep knowing you’ve done the right thing.

It’s not the plane; it’s the pilot.

This line is repeated throughout the movie. Maverick’s point is that aircraft are designed to perform to certain limits, but it still takes a gifted pilot to perform the maneuvers—and even push beyond the limits.

This can be applied to pretty much anything in life. As a guitar player, I used to think that the guitar I played limited my skills. I sought “better” guitars so I could play faster or more accurately.

Instead, I should have spent more time practicing and trying to work with what I had, rather than seeking the “holy grail” of guitars. The cost was that I plateaued in my guitar skills, and lost interest for a few years.

One need only look at great human achievements to see how people have achieved excellence despite limiting factors. That’s a really verbose way of saying that history remembers people who don’t limit themselves.

In other words, focus more on honing your skills and less on your instrument (airplane, guitar, computer, etc.). Doing the opposite places you in a mindset of “it’s not perfect and therefore I shouldn’t do anything”, which leads to nothing.

Sometimes you need to stop thinking and start doing.

This is another line repeated throughout the film. Maverick instructs the TOPGUN pilots that sometimes they need to just do what needs to be done, instead of worrying about the circumstances.

This goes along with taking calculated risks. We can be really good about procrastinating, coming up with excuses, or over-analyzing things—when what we really need to do is take action with what we have.

Sometimes it’s trusting that our skills will help us do a job right, even though it’s a job we’ve never done. Sometimes it’s making a decision, even though we don’t have all the information or resources we’d like to have.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s important to think and “count the cost,” especially when faced with weighty choices. But it’s easy to let fear or just trying to make the “right” choice paralyze us, when in reality there usually isn’t a “right” or “perfect” answer.

And sometimes we’re faced with spur-of-the-moment decisions, some of which can be life-threatening. Many people inside the World Trade Center on 9/11 tried to understand what had happened and literally could not comprehend it, so wandered around in denial or even tried to go back to work. Others didn’t try to analyze the situation, but just told themselves, “I need to get out of this building,” and did.

God gave us brains for a reason, but sometimes they can be our undoing. There are times when we need to trust our instincts and rely on what we have on hand to act. And many times that can be our saving grace.

Let go of the past.

At the end of the original Top Gun, Maverick throws Goose’s dog tags into the ocean, symbolizing the fact that he has come to peace with his friend’s death. Then he gets the girl and lives happily ever after, right?

Well, not quite.

Thirty-something years later, we learn that Maverick is still hanging on to Goose and the guilt from his death. This comes to a head when Rooster (Miles Teller), Goose’s son and one of the TOPGUN pilots, is one of the pilots Maverick is responsible for training.

Maverick tries to be a sort of father figure or guardian for Rooster, but this causes tension between him and Rooster, as well as among the other pilots. He wants to keep Rooster safe so he doesn’t die like his father did. He feels as if it’s his obligation, a way to atone for the past.

Mistakes, even innocent ones, have a way of haunting us for years, even decades. I know I’ve felt guilty or embarrassed when a distant memory of a mistake pops into my head for no apparent reason. The natural reaction is to repress them, to push them back down into the depths of our psyche and hope they don’t resurface again.

As I’ve learned, the better strategy is to think about why we still remember those mistakes. Some psychologists, such as Dr. Jordan Peterson, would say that bad memories linger with us because we still have something we need to learn from them. In layman’s terms, we hang on to the past because our minds want us to understand it, so we don’t repeat the same mistakes again.

We have the choice of hanging on to bad memories and trying to be controlling so they don’t repeat, like Maverick, or of learning the lessons of the past and letting go, so we can move forward in peace. And in taking the latter route, we must accept that even if history does repeat, that we will act with the wisdom learned from the last time so we achieve a different (hopefully better) result.

We could all use to let go and choose not to let the past define us or hold us back. After all, there’s so little we can control, anyway.

In conclusion

I’ve waxed very philosophical, but don’t take this that Top Gun: Maverick is a philosophical movie. It’s very entertaining and very well made. But one of the reasons I think it’s so great is because it probes into the characters’ lives and subtly teaches these life lessons outlined above.

My only disappointment? Maverick didn’t ask permission to buzz the tower, and no officer spilled coffee on his uniform.

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