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“I was one of those kids growing up who saw the movie “Top Gun” and knew exactly who I wanted to be for the rest of my life: a fighter pilot.” - Actor and dancer Danny Lewis opens up about his flying.

What’s your backstory? 

I’m an actor, dancer, writer, and entrepreneur. This is my story. I grew up in a pretty normal middle class family in Rocklin, California, a suburb of the state’s capitol, Sacramento. Though my parents divorced when I was 9, they both supported my brother and me in our various endeavors. I was one of those kids growing up who saw the movie “Top Gun” and knew exactly who I wanted to be for the rest of my life: a fighter pilot. 

I worked my ass off in school, earned super high grades, and somehow convinced my congressman to nominate me for The US Air Force Academy. I was the nerd who was in Junior ROTC in high school, so I had been wearing an Air Force uniform since I was a teenager, but getting to The Academy as a cadet was a total shock. I went from being the top guy in a local ROTC unit to just another Freshman. 

It was a tough adjustment. I was always sort of a rebel growing up, and didn’t even make it out of basic training without earning a spot on the probation list. I made my way off the list, but I realized that I’m not a huge fan of bureaucracies. It’s tough to have a boss who’s your boss simply because he or she is older or has more seniority. It makes you appreciate hard skill, talent, and character. Don’t get me wrong, I had an amazing experience. 

I made lifelong friends, earned my degree, and commissioned as a lieutenant. I even earned a ticket to pilot training in Mississippi, which was a crazy and awesome experience. For over a year, my classmates and I hammered out 20-hour days learning to fly three different planes. We learned the basics, aerobatic flying, formation flying, it was all pretty fast and crazy. 

The stress was intense. 4:30am briefings so that we could get to the plane and prep to take off at exactly sunrise. It was intense, stressful, and the most difficult thing I had done my whole life. Pilot training was one of those life experiences that pushes you hard. It forces you to take massive leaps out of your comfort zone every single day. Just when you get comfortable with anything you’ve learned -- takeoffs, aerobatics, landings, and solo flights -- you’re pushed to do something new and super uncomfortable. You never feel quite right in pilot training. 

You never really feel settled. But I think that was instructive more me. It taught me to take a chance and do what feels uncomfortable. And when you lend some thought to it -- serious thought -- you intuit that the only way to grow is to push beyond one’s comfort zone. After earning my wings, the Air Force stationed me in Las Vegas, Nevada and tasked me with flying Predator “drones.” It was beyond surreal. 

I went from wearing a helmet, oxygen mask, and flight suit, flying 300 knots, to sitting in a modified storage container flying about 75 miles per hour in Iraq, Afghanistan, and a few other spots. It was one of those jobs that is 99% boredom and 1% pure adrenaline. I remember one night we went from flying on autopilot around a building for hours to celebrating hunting down Bin Laden. We were doing super important things, but it often felt mundane. I think that’s what the important things in life often feel like, and that’s OK. 

I just needed some excitement more often, so I got into ballroom dancing as a side project. Really, it was a friend who suggested I buy one of those daily deals and go with her. I took a week of convincing me, but I finally went. It only took another week for me to fall in love with dance. Now, maybe five years later, I perform routines all over and compete when I find the time. I absolutely love it! In fact, it’s a big part of what I do now as a performer. After a few years of drone flying, I got out of the Air Force and moved to Los Angeles. Ultimately, I thought my goal was to become a general in the Air Force, or an astronaut, or something like that. 

But it took me a few years to figure out that, even as a kid, I didn’t really want to be a pilot like in Top Gun. I really wanted to be the guy playing the pilot. I wanted to ACT. I wanted to create compelling stories filled with rich characters facing impossible odds. It sounds trite, I know, but I really wanted to plum the characters I’d met along the way in the Air Force. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been fascinated by what makes other people tick. What motivates them to do what they do. Acting, story-writing, and content production lets me do this on a deep level. 

I get to know a character inside and out, and I get to really understand what it is that drives people. It’s fascinating! I mean, I’m sure story exposition and character development aren’t everyone’s idea of fun time, but I just love the stuff! Now, I spend most of my time developing characters and stories with my various content partners, and hone the crafts of dancing and acting. I don’t think I’m world class -- I’m definitely a better pilot than I am a performer -- but I’m putting the time in to getting there. 

I think that’s the toughest part of any career. I think it’s super tough to keep your head down and focus on getting better, even when you don’t see an immediate return, but I feel like I’ve had a great of training that keeps me in the zone and focused on becoming better every day. And really, that’s all we can ask of ourselves.

If someone would want to emulate your career, what would you suggest are the most important things to do? 

It’s hard to give solid career advice to anyone who wants to pursue a similar career path simply because mine has been so unconventional and unique to me. But that’s probably true of most people, I would imagine. Even those careers tracks that seem boilerplate are anything but. Ask a hundred different performers how they got to where they were and I’ll bet you’ll get a hundred different answers. 

I think what is likely the unifier among them – career aside – is their willingness to find comfort in discomfort. Really, I think that’s the differentiator for the ones who make it; they know that life is about growth, both professionally and personally, and growth necessitates discomfort. If you think about it, it’s super obvious: you have to try new things – and sometimes fail – to expand yourself and become better. 

That’s really what I try to do everyday. I’m such a believer in embracing discomfort that I even gave a TED talk about it. Other than embracing discomfort, you really just gotta be yourself. Of course, you want to refine yourself and become a better you, but it has to be you. People see through those who are phony. Be you, the real you. Even as an actor, I always find my way back to me, and I think that’s who people are really interested in. I mean, in each of us. Every single person on the planet has a great deal to offer that no one else can, literally. You gotta be that person. Be you. 

What are the most exciting projects you are working on now? 

Honestly, I’m super pumped to be working on a new web series with my writing partner that explores real relationships between friends and lovers. We want to go deeper than your basic sitcom. Don’t get me wrong, comedy floats the series and moves it forward, but it’s anchored by weighty issues; it’s weighted by life. I can’t say too much more because of the nature of the series, but we really think people are going to love it. 

My side hustle is my drone services company, Skyborn. We act as a marketplace for realtors, farmers, developers, content creators, and so many more to find drone pilots they need for videography and photography, surveying, and real estate. It’s successful, which makes it tough to move on from. I love it, but I really love content creation even more, so I focus primarily on my content.

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