Paul Jacobson | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Paul Jacobson


Delta Air Lines flies passengers to more than 300 destinations around the world. Its headquarters and largest hub are at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport. 

The Mistake:

When I was 7 years old, my dream was to become an airline pilot. That’s all I ever wanted to do. I took pilot ground school classes as a teenager and went to college to become a pilot. I read about what pilots do; they get into the ROTC programs and study engineering. So I enrolled in engineering at Auburn University — and in Air Force ROTC — and had lots of successes early on, with the exception of engineering. I was always really good at math and was pretty good at physics, too, but you have to take calculus-based physics in engineering. So I switched my major to aviation management.

My sophomore year, I had the aptitude test, the leadership, the grades and physical fitness tests — all lining me up for a coveted pilot slot in the Air Force. But I self-reported that I had asthma until I was 14. And even though I had outgrown it and never required medical treatment, I was medically disqualified. I didn’t have the financial wherewithal to put myself through private flight training to become a commercial pilot, and it really shattered that dream.

When I was 7 years old, my dream was to become an airline pilot.

The Lesson:

I learned at that point why you never put all of your eggs into one basket. It wasn’t meant to be. I still had a passion for the airline industry so I went back to business school. I showed up at Vanderbilt with a single purpose, and that was to get a job in the airline industry. For two years, I did well in school and interviewed with every airline, and I got rejection letters from all of them. Just when I thought that this really wasn’t going to happen, I was introduced to a Vanderbilt alumnus who was working in finance at Delta. I’m a pretty spiritual guy, and I believe that it was one of those things that was meant to be. Everything lined up perfectly; I was hired at Delta as an analyst out of business school. I’m a firm believer that if you’re passionate about what you do, things are going to work out.

Follow Delta on Twitter at @Delta.

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