An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

Col. Chris Hadfield

Summary in 100 words or less

Fear comes from uncertainty. To overcome it, anticipate problems and figure out ways to solve them. To grow in a new environment, learn to depersonalize criticisms and embrace them as feedback. Saying "thank you" isn't enough when demanding that other people make real sacrifices for your goals. You have to be willing to do what you can to support others the same way they support you. If you think only your biggest moments count, you're setting yourself up to feel like a failure most of the time. Make all—small, medium, big—moments count.

Commentary

My Highlights

Things are never as bad (or as good) as they seem at the time. In retrospect, the heartbreaking disaster may be revealed as a lucky twist of fate.

Astronauts are taught that the best way to reduce stress is to sweat the small stuff. We’re trained to look on the dark side and to imagine the worst things that could possibly happen. In fact, in simulators, one of the most common questions we learn to ask ourselves is, “Okay, what’s the next thing that will kill me?”

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.

Getting to space depends on many variables and circumstances that are entirely beyond an individual astronaut’s control, so it always made sense to me to view space flight as a bonus, not an entitlement.

Ultimately, I don’t determine whether I arrive at the desired professional destination. Too many variables are out of my control. There’s really just one thing I can control: my attitude during the journey, which is what keeps me feeling steady and stable, and what keeps me headed in the right direction. So I consciously monitor and correct, if necessary, because losing attitude would be far worse than not achieving my goal.

If you’ve got the time, use it to get ready. What else could you possibly have to do that’s more important? Yes, maybe you’ll learn how to do a few things you’ll never wind up actually needing to do, but that’s a much better problem to have than needing to do something and having no clue where to start.

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.

Feeling ready to do something doesn’t mean feeling certain you’ll succeed, though of course that’s what you’re hoping to do. Truly being ready means understanding what could go wrong—and having a plan to deal with it.

No matter how bad a situation is, you can always make it worse. Preparation is not only about managing external risks, but about limiting the likelihood that you’ll unwittingly add to them. When you’re the author of your own fate, you don’t want to write a tragedy. Aside from anything else, the possibility of a sequel is nonexistent.

Lot of people talk about expecting the best but preparing for the worst, but I think that’s a seductively misleading concept. There’s never just one “worst.” Almost always there’s a whole spectrum of bad possibilities. The only thing that would really qualify as the worst would be not having a plan for how to cope.

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.

In any field, it’s a plus if you view criticism as potentially helpful advice rather than as a personal attack. But for an astronaut, depersonalizing criticism is a basic survival skill. If you bristled every time you heard something negative—or stubbornly tuned out the feedback—you’d be toast.

One of the main purposes of a debrief is to learn every lesson possible, then fold them back into what we call Flight Rules so that everyone in the organization benefits. Flight Rules are the hard-earned body of knowledge recorded in manuals that list, step by step, what to do if X occurs, and why. Essentially, they are extremely detailed, scenario-specific standard operating procedures. If while I was on board the ISS a cooling system had failed, Flight Rules would have provided a blow-by-blow explanation of how to fix the system as well as the rationale behind each step of the procedure.

Early success is a terrible teacher. You’re essentially being rewarded for a lack of preparation, so when you find yourself in a situation where you must prepare, you can’t do it. You don’t know how.

Good leadership means leading the way, not hectoring other people to do things your way. Bullying, bickering and competing for dominance are, even in a low-risk situation, excellent ways to destroy morale and diminish productivity.

Saying thank you every once in a while just isn’t enough when you’re demanding that other people make real sacrifices so you can pursue your goals. It’s not only the fun, showy things like vacations that get the message across. You also have to be willing to do what you can to create the conditions that allow your partner the freedom to focus single-mindedly at times. It’s not easy but it is possible with careful planning, regardless of the scope of your ambition or the demands of your job.

Prioritizing family time—making it mandatory, in the same way that a meeting at work is mandatory—helps show the people who are most important to me that they are, in fact, important to me.

Whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. 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. But 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.

When you have some skills but don’t fully understand your environment, there is no way you can be a plus one. At best, you can be a zero. But a zero isn’t a bad thing to be. You’re competent enough not to create problems or make more work for everyone else. And you have to be competent, and prove to others that you are, before you can be extraordinary. There are no shortcuts, unfortunately.

The ideal entry is not to sail in and make your presence known immediately. It’s to ingress without causing a ripple. The best way to contribute to a brand-new environment is not by trying to prove what a wonderful addition you are. It’s by trying to have a neutral impact, to observe and learn from those who are already there, and to pitch in with the grunt work wherever possible. If you’re really observing and trying to learn rather than seeking to impress, you may actually get the chance to do something useful.

When you’re the least experienced person in the room, it’s not the time to show off. You don’t yet know what you don’t know—and regardless of your abilities, your experience and your level of authority, there will definitely be something you don’t know.

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.

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.

A high-octane experience only enriches the rest of your life—unless, of course, you are only able to experience joy and feel a sense of purpose at the very top of the ladder, in which case, climbing down would be a big comedown. Suddenly, there’s no more applause, and you’re facing the stark reality of having to take out the trash and deal with the imperfections of daily life.

Endings don’t have to be emotionally wrenching if you believe you did a good job and you’re prepared to let go.

More book notes

Enchantment
The Champion’s Mind
The 48 Laws of Power
Ego is the Enemy
It’s a Jungle in There

Master your day, master your life

Receive the best content on productivity, money, psychology, and more—straight to your inbox—once a month. And get my free Output Journal templates as a bonus.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

👆 Join 3,100+ leaders, creatives, and knowledge workers today.

Dean is a strong voice in the self-mastery space. His newsletter consistently delivers insightful ideas on how to become a better version of yourself and is the only newsletter that I always read.

Sebastian Kade

Head of product and engineering