Book Club: An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield


Here's a secret for you: if you are a Canadian, you have an innate need to love any famous Canadian. Or at least the non-embarrassing ones: Michael J. Fox, Terry Fox, Ryan Gosling, Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette, Wayne Gretzky, Diana Krall, Neil Young, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Mclachlan, Mike Meyers, and so the list goes on. We automatically love them and love to say things like, "did you know Elizabeth Arden, the CEO of the make up brand, is Canadian? She totally is. Same with Leonard Cohen.  Also, Canadians invented basketball."

So obviously, I love Chris Hadfield. He was the captain of the International Space Station, he showed us what happens when you wring out a cloth in space, and, most importantly, he made a David Bowie music video in zero gravity.


Also, he wrote a book.  The book is about the lessons he learned that helped him become the coolest astronaut around AND be a better human person.  I would highly recommend it to anyone.

Here are my main takeaways:

Aim to be a Zero

When my friend first told me about Chris Hadfield's "aim to be a zero" philosophy, I inwardly snorted in derision (inwardly because I can't execute something like that very well in real life).  I don't think an astronaut with three degrees "aimed to be a zero" in life.

Now I get it!  It's not about being a loser or not trying.  His idea is that there are three ways to contribute to a project: you can be a minus one by making things worse; a zero by contributing at a competent level without trying to be fantastic about it; or a plus one by really making things great and having everyone see how outstanding your work was.

No one really aims to be a minus one, but if you aim to be a plus one you are more likely to wind up being a minus one by accident because your focus is on showing how great you are instead of contributing to the project.

Aiming to be a zero means that you go into a room, find out what needs to be done, and do the work to your best ability so that you help the project move forward.  A zero operates to the greater good of the team, not themselves.

The special secret is that aiming to be a zero is the best way to wind up being a plus one, because your focus was on the work and not yourself.

Always be Prepared But Have Low Expectations

Part of aiming to be a zero is to be a really dedicated boy scout.  Be prepared for every possible circumstance, because if you're not prepared you can easily become a negative one.

In space this is important because every single possible circumstance wants to kill you.  If you aren't prepared for all of them, you will probably die and maybe cause a bunch of other people to die.

In life, it's about being ready to jump in where needed, no matter what it is, so that you don't bring the team down, while not forcing your way in to grab the glory.  Being really ready to jump in, of course, means you have to prepared.  You've practiced.  You know what the deal is.

An example he gives was when he went to a David Bowie concert.  He knew he had reached just a high enough level of fame that David Bowie might know he was there and know he plays the guitar, and that he might even ask him to come on stage and play a song with him, and that if he did, that song would probably be Space Oddity.

If all that happened and he wasn't prepared it would become a huge bummer: "Hey Chris Hadfield, want to come on stage and play Space Oddity with me?", "Sorry, David Bowie, I don't know the song."

Splat goes all the energy in the room, right?

So he was prepared, just in case.  Sure, there was a little ego involved in the dream of getting called onstage, but it's not like he showed up at the concert with a guitar and demanded he be allowed backstage.  He just practiced the song relentlessly until he felt he could confidently play it on stage, should the opportunity arise.

Then it didn't arise, and according to him, he wasn't even disappointed.  I don't know, I think I would have a moment of "aw shucks" when Bowie started playing Space Oddity and I wasn't on stage with him.  I would get over it, but I would be at least a little sad that my silly dream didn't come true.  But apparently Chris Hadfield is not only a super prepared, dream-oriented, hard working man, he also has no ego.

Focus on Your Mistakes

Unlike current culture which is all about not beating yourself up over your mistakes, astronauts focus on them.  A lot.  Because mistakes will probably kill them.

Every time any of them make a mistake, they inspect it from every angle: why it happened, what choices that astronaut made, what was wrong with them, and what can be done differently next time.

That is so they don't die when they are in space.

So our stakes aren't quite so high in life, but generally I think it's a good thing for us to thoroughly recognize our mistakes, publicly acknowledge them, and go over them with a fine-tooth comb: what, specifically, did we do wrong?  Why?

I mean, sure, we're not going to die, but little compiled mistakes still have consequences like divorce and getting fired from a job and economic collapse and water damage to your floor that is very expensive to fix.  It might be good to look at them.

Try Not to Ruin Everyone Else's Lives with Your Dreams

One thing I thought a few times while reading the book, which Chris Hadfield completely acknowledges, is that his dream of becoming an astronaut made life difficult for his family.  He has four kids and a wife who also has dreams, and yet he was gone a lot (like for most years, for most of the year) and kind of left them all to live in the shadow of being "Chris Hadfield's family."  That is rough.

He didn't compromise on his dream, but he did at least try to make it as good for them as possible.  Once his wife pointed out that he was taking on so many extra curricular projects that he was a stranger to his family, he cut back.  He learned that he couldn't return home and expect them all to drop what they were doing and celebrate him: he needed to focus on fitting back into their world.

The sucky thing is that a family can really only have one person with as big a dream as being an astronaut and stick together.  Everyone else, whether they liked it or not, became "Team Hadfield", because there is a lot of background work that goes into supporting an astronaut.

This is not a reason to not have a dream, but it is a reason to be wary of the impact of your dream on others.  Sure, they are on your team, but are you on theirs?  In a real way?  How?

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