One of the best books I’ve read this year is Canadian Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Easy to read, this book gives insight into the training and life of an astronaut as well as profound insights about a career and living life.
A brief bio – who is Chris Hadfield?
The book provides this summary of Chris Hadfield’s career:
‘Colonel Chris Hadfield is one of the most seasoned and accomplished astronauts in the world. The top graduate of the US Air Force Test Pilot School in 1988 and US Navy test pilot of the year in 1991, Hadfield was selected by the Canadian Space Agency to be an astronaut in 1992. He was CAPCOM for 25 Shuttle launches and served as Director of NASA Operations in Star City, Russia, from 2001-2006, and Chief of International Space Station Operations from 2006-2008. Hadfield most recently served as Commander of the International Space Station where, while conducting a record-setting number of scientific experiments and overseeing an emergency spacewalk, he gained worldwide acclaim for his breathtaking photographs and educational videos about life in space. His music video, a zero-gravity version of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, received over 10 million views in its first three days online.’
You may wish to watch his TED talk titled What I learned from going blind in space. The blurb says: ‘There’s an astronaut saying: In space, “there is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse.” So how do you deal with the complexity, the sheer pressure, of dealing with dangerous and scary situations? Retired colonel Chris Hadfield paints a vivid portrait of how to be prepared for the worst in space (and life) — and it starts with walking into a spider’s web.’
Eight valuable lessons
1. A career trajectory looks pre-ordained on paper. The reality is different.
Chris Hadfield decided at age 9 to become an astronaut after watching Neil Armstrong step onto the Moon. At that time the chances of him succeeding in this career goal were zero. Astronauts were American. NASA only accepted applications from US citizens, and Canada didn’t even have a space agency.
But, as Chris writes [p3]: ‘… just the day before, it had been impossible to walk on the Moon. Neil Armstrong hadn’t let that stop him. Maybe someday it would be possible for me to go too, and if that day ever came, I wanted to be ready.’
He wasn’t destined to become an astronaut. He had to turn himself into one.
Later he writes: [p18-19] ‘Being accepted into the Canadian Space Agency doesn’t make you an astronaut. It’s not something anyone else can confer on you … it takes years of serious, sustained effort, because you need to build a new knowledge base, develop your physical capabilities and dramatically expand your technical skill set. But the most important thing you need to change? Your mind. You need to learn to think like an astronaut. I was just getting started.’
A resume can make us look like there is a series of steps we took to take us to our current role. The reality may quite different. Plus, being picked doesn’t make you what you want to be. Being selected for a graduate program doesn’t make you a public servant, a lawyer or an accountant. There is still much to learn to turn into the professional we want to be.
2. It’s useful to sweat the small stuff – it could save your life
A few years ago someone proclaimed ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’. They wrote books, ran motivational seminars and generated much ‘evidence’ that sweating the small stuff is bad for you.
Chris writes about the importance of sweating the small stuff. He writes: ‘We’re trained to look on the dark side and to imagine the worst things that could possibly happen.’ By doing so, you become competent.’ For Chris, ‘Competence means keeping your head in a crisis, sticking with a task even when it seems hopeless, and improvising good solutions to tough problems when every second counts. It encompasses ingenuity, determination and being prepared for anything.’ [p36] In other words, it’s very useful to sweat the small stuff when it could save your life.
His point though, is that everyone needs to become competent. Sweating the small stuff as part of your preparation is really useful. Later he writes: [p76-77] ‘And it’s true, you don’t need to obsess over details if you’re willing to roll the dice and accept whatever happens. But if you’re striving for excellence – whether it’s in playing the guitar or flying a jet – there’s no such thing as over-preparation. It’s your best chance of improving your odds. In my line of work, it wasn’t even optional. An astronaut who doesn’t sweat the small stuff is a dead astronaut.’
Not everyone’s job is as potentially life-threatening as an astronaut. Wise though to pay attention to details that could make a difference to your performance.
3. Learning is still success and advancement
One of the misconceptions about astronauts is that they spend a lot of time in space. Chris Hadfield spent a total of six months in space out of a 21 year career. Most of that time was spent training to handle a vast range of dire situations in space, including pulling a tooth, removing an appendix, fixing the toilets and changing orbit to miss space debris. You can listen to his talk about this in an ABC interview.
Given this context, defining success in terms of being selected for a space mission is problematic. You could spend much time thinking of yourself as a failure. Chris writes: [p46-7] ‘It’s never either-or, never enjoyment versus advancement, so long as you conceive of advancement in terms of learning rather than climbing to the next rung of the professional ladder. You are getting ahead if you learn, even if you wind up staying on the same rung.’
If we define our success only by the promotions we win we are likely to be disappointed much of the time. Chris Hadfield has a mindset of always getting ready, taking opportunities to learn more, when others might choose to ignore such an opportunity. Such a mindset served him well in positioning himself for being selected three times for space missions.
4. Don’t rely on the big, shiny moments to feel good
In a job like an astronaut, a trap is thinking and relying on the big shiny moments in space to feel successful. Chris writes: [p267] ‘If you start thinking that only your biggest and shiniest moments count, you’re setting yourself up to feel like a failure most of the time. Personally, I’d rather feel good most of the time, so to me everything counts; the small moments, the medium ones, the successes that make the papers and also the ones that no one knows about but me. The challenge is avoiding being derailed by the big, shiny moments that turn other people’s heads. You have to figure out for yourself how to enjoy and celebrate them, and then move on.’
He goes on to suggest that most of us applaud the wrong things: [p279] ‘the showy, dramatic record-setting sprint rather than the years of dogged preparation or the unwavering grace displayed during a string of losses.’ Most of us either have only a few showy moments or none at all. So it would be wise to do what Chris does – to make the most of our time on Earth.
Yes, the ‘high-octane experience’ is great to have. But if we rely on these to have a sense of fulfilment, success, purpose, joy, then dealing with the stark realities of everyday life will be difficult. Chris does on to say:[p280] ‘The whole process of becoming an astronaut helped me understand that what really matters is not the value someone else assigns to a task but how I personally feel while performing it.’ As he puts it, better to have 10 wins a day than a win every 10 years or so.
5. Distinguish between perceived and actual danger to conquer fear
In his TED talk What I learned from going blind in space Colonel Hadfield makes a useful distinction between perceived and actual danger, using an example of spiders. He points out that there are hundreds of spiders in Canada, but only one is venomous, and then not dangerously so. This spider sticks close to the ground rather than weaving a complex web that you might walk into, and isn’t really much interested in biting humans. To conquer fear of spiders then, know the actual danger and then walk through many spiders’ webs to become accustomed to the feel and know that there isn’t a dangerous spider lurking in the middle waiting to grab you.
In his book Chris explains: [p52] ‘In my experience, fear comes from not knowing what to expect and not feeling you have any control over what’s about to happen. When you feel helpless, you’re far more afraid than you would be if you knew the facts. If you’re not sure what to be alarmed about, everything is alarming.’ Preparation and knowing your options are a sound basis for overcoming fear. Whether it’s a job interview, presentation, difficult meeting, it’s wise to consider what could go wrong and figure out how you would handle it. Otherwise, when things do go wrong, you won’t know what to do.
Some self-help gurus think conquering fear and gaining success can be achieved by visualising a successful outcome. While positive visualisation practices are useful, they will never substitute for serious preparation. Chris points out: [p71-2] ‘Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive. Likewise, coming up with a plan of action isn’t a waste of time, if it gives you peace of mind. While it’s true that you may wind up being ready for something that never happens, if the stakes are at all high, it’s worth it.’
It’s a mystery to me why people don’t prepare for presentations and job interviews. While much of that preparation may not be actually used, the peace of mind helps reduce nervousness. If you hit snags, you’ll be prepared, you’ll know what to do. Plus, the process of preparing helps inform everything else, improving your overall performance. Much of this preparation means sweating the small stuff.
6. The value of helping others to succeed
Teamwork is vital to the success of a space mission. While all astronauts are highly competitive, it’s not enough to just put this aside when working with others. Chris writes: [p114] ‘It’s not enough to shelve your own competitive streak. You have to try, consciously, to help others succeed. Some people feel this is like shooting themselves in the foot – why aid someone else in creating a competitive advantage? I don’t look at it that way. Helping someone else look good doesn’t make me look worse. In fact, it often improves my own performance, particularly in stressful situations.’
Take note managers and leaders. It’s not about you. Helping others succeed is part of your role. Strong team members will make you look good and speak well of you. If it’s all about you your reputation will be one of arrogance and self-importance.
7. Have a neutral impact – aim to be a zero
A temptation for a person in a new situation is to make an impact early, even proclaiming how useful you will be. Chris realised that a person in such a situation will be viewed in one of three ways: [p181-2] ‘As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.’
Of course, everyone wants to be a plus one. ‘But,’ writes Chris, ‘proclaiming your plus-oneness at the outset almost guarantees you’ll be perceived as a minus one, regardless of the skills you bring to the table or how you actually perform. This might seem self-evident, but it can’t be, because so many people do it… Sometimes the motivation is over-eagerness, rather than arrogance, but the effect is the same.’
So his advice is to enter a new environment with the intention of having a neutral impact, to observe and learn, and pitch in where possible. In other words, aim to be a zero, it’s an attainable goal.
8. The best definition of leadership
There are numerous definitions of leadership. Some are confusing, others don’t really clarify what leadership is. Chris Hadfield provides one of the best definitions I’ve come across: simple, clear, doable: [p234]
‘Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others’ success, and then standing back and letting them shine.’
A similar point was made during the 2014 100 Women of Influence awards. Michael Rose, chief executive partner of international law firm Allens and one of the Women of Influence Awards judges, said there was a sense of authenticity and humility among the leaders.
“True leaders don’t stand up and tell you what a true leader they are,” he said. “It is an unselfconscious approach, a lack of packaging around what they do.”