Hitchhiking with an Astronaut

I think one of the reasons that I love to read (auto)biographies is the opportunity to live vicariously through the experiences of others. While I never dreamt of being an astronaut, Chris Hadfield, in his book An Astronaut’s Guide of Life on Earth, almost makes me wish I had. I guess it’s not so much the “being an astronaut” that is appealing, but the single-mindedness with which he pursued that dream from the time that he was nine years old. To be that age and eat your carrots because in the back of your mind you’ve already begun to make your decisions on “what would an astronaut do?” is a clarity of purpose that I sometimes wish I’d had.  While the journey he took in becoming an astronaut who lived in space was fascinating, his title really speaks to what I got out of the book, which is how to live a good life on our planet.

Lesson One: Fall in love…with learning. One of the things he mentions often in the book is that he knew right from the beginning that the chance of becoming an astronaut was very slim and so there was no point in going after a chance that small unless you were enjoying the journey. He knew there were many different kinds of expertise that would be required if you wanted to travel in space, so he took every opportunity he could to learn. I had to chuckle when I heard him on CBC during the Olympics talking about learning Russian and how it got easier after the first 10 years. But he knew that to travel in space, he might be travelling with Russians, so learning the language could be an asset. When he was commanding the International Space Station, there was a Russian on board, and his knowledge of the language was valuable. But the other part of this love affair with learning was working through failure. In his training they not only had to know how to make things go right, but to explore the many ways things could go wrong. The amount of time dedicated to preparing for the worst case scenario was what kept the fear at bay. Confidence doesn’t come from knowing you can get it right. Confidence comes with knowing you can handle it if things go wrong so embrace the failures as central to your learning.

Lesson Two: Strive to be…a zero. I was completely fascinated by his -1, 0, +1 theory of how people are perceived. “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. Everyone wants to be a plus one, of course. But proclaiming your plus-one-ness 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.” Chris Hadfield, p. 181-182, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.  At different points in the book he talks about going into the situation as a zero, and why it is important to know how and when to be a zero. If you go into a situation thinking that you’re there to add value, you’ll often miss the opportunity to see what it is that really needs to be done, and in that moment, miss your opportunity to add value to the situation. Many times he pointed out the tasks that seemed to carry the least amount of “significance” in the end were ones that made a big difference in how everyone worked together.  It was through this kind of humility and unity that you would be perceived as a plus one by the rest of your team.

If you’re looking for a biography for a gifted student, I think this one would be a great one. It is the journey of a gifted individual who in his journey of striving to be the “top in his field” understands the importance of discovering your humanity.

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