Two years ago, I read the excellent An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield, the most social media-savvy of all astronauts (The book promo video is worth the look). I’ve wanted to talk about this book for a while, but never felt like the opportunity came up.
Then last week, I got a front-row seat to a discussion with another astronaut, Col. Yvonne Cagle, an extremely charismatic 59-year-old African American space surgeon (That’s the advantage of living just down the road from NASA). Not only has she flown all kinds of jets, but she is an internationally recognized expert on human performance: besides providing guidance on recovery programs to sports teams like FC Barcelona, she has provided medical support and rescue in a variety of aeromedical missions, studied astronaut’s health, been a professor at Stanford on cardiovascular medecine, and pushed the boundaries of knowledge on how our body functions.
The discussion I attended was in the context of a Google event on expatriation. While being an American, Yvonne Cagle had plenty of wisdom to share on dealing with people from different cultures and being an expat. In fact, she even wrote a “Creed of the Expats” slam poetry.
There is something awe-inspiring about astronauts. They’re just like you and me, but a million times better in every aspect; the crème de la crème of humans. They’re stronger physically, speak more languages, have more analytical, practical and emotional intelligence (you have to be emotionally intelligent if you’re gonna make it crammed with 5 other people up in space for months at a time). They’re basically rockstars: if you want to hear what complete silence sounds like, you had to be in that room when Yvonne Cagle told her story, as suspense hung in the air.
Since she was a little girl, Yvonne has been fascinated by the stars. One night in mid-July 1969, she was perched up on a tree looking at the stars, when she heard a voice calling her name. With the naiveté of a little girl, she thought “My time has finally come!” which made me think of this scene from This is the End:
But alas, it was her father who was calling for her. As she stepped back into the house, there she saw it, on her black & white cathode television: a man landing on the moon. This event was the catalyst for her lifelong passion. Chris Hadfield also said that specific night was the moment he consciously decided to become an astronaut, even at 9 years old.
50 years later, 10 year-old girls (and boys) are more concerned by looking down at their smartphone than looking up to the stars. There are little scientific events that have galvanized the zeitgeist of adults and kids alike. Scientists have recently discovered several Earth-like planets that could harbor life, but there is so much noise in our news media that this has gone unnoticed. Nasa has shut down some of its programs. So how can we still get kids to be interested by space exploration?
Yvonne Cagle is doing her part: she has partnered with Disney to voice her own character in the cartoon series Miles from Tomorrowland and is giving talks around the country to get girls excited about science.
Through this article, I may not motivate any kid to become an astronaut, but I certainly hope to show how much they have to teach us. And maybe, just maybe, you will acquire that motivation and competence to achieve your goal, whether it’s leading a space mission to the Moon, or leading a humanitarian mission to Costa Rica. So here are 16 things we can learn from astronauts.
1. What’s your uncompromisable creed?
That’s the question Yvonne Cagle asked us to consider. Having an uncompromisable creed, or a unifying perspective, is what will get you through tough situations like moving countries, or dealing with people from different cultures.
An astronaut crew, when they’re in space for months at a time, has an uncompromisable creed. Their creed is “I am here to learn.” Chris Hadfield also alludes to this in his “Plus One” idea, which I’ll talk about further down: “If you’re really observing and trying to learn rather than seeking to impress, you may actually get the chance to do something useful.”
How do you learn from each other? Don’t bring one mindset into space, but bring mindfulness. You have to RESPECT the other unconditionally; the others have a different skill set from you and have something to teach you.
So think: what creed will you not compromise on and live your life by?
2. Be crazy ambitious
Both of Yvonne Cagle’s parents were in the Air Force; So Yvonne started her career driving dozens of different jets and doing airborne surgery / refuel missions of all kinds. But after 15 years of doing that, she remembered her childhood dream of being an astronaut, and she told herself “These jets don’t go fast or high enough… Let me go to the space shuttle.” And that’s how she got into NASA. Easy right?
Once at NASA, her ambition only increased. “After a while in space, everybody wants to come home to their families. But not me, I want to colonize [Mars].”
Ambition is what propelled the first Space Shuttle astronauts, in 1981, to step into that rocket, even though they had a 1 in 9 risk of dying. “Everything worth doing in life has risks.” says Chris Hadfield. “The question you really need to ask is: What risks are worth taking in my life?”
The lesson here is that you should never let that ambition die: getting married, moving to a different continent, accepting a new job… Calculate the risks and decide whether they are worth taking, but in the first place have that ambition to make these thing work.
3. The overview effect
The overview effect is what astronauts call that mind expanding feeling, that “sense of clarity” when they hover above Earth and see it in its entirety. Chris Hadfield recalls with endearment his first Space Shuttle mission, when he realized, a few minutes in, that he was flying over the town he grew up in.
He explains: “The overview effect is when you sense that there is something that is so much bigger than you, so much more deep than you are, ancient, has a natural importance that dwarfs your own. But you’re a person that’s interpreting it, understanding it in your own way.” “That pervasive sense of the shared experience of being a human being, that seeps into you aboard a spaceship. The world becomes one place in your mind.”
I can attest first hand seeing Jarelle experience this overview effect when we travelled to Mexico, as he wandered Chichen Itza, bewildered at the idea that Mayans worshipped their gods on that temple, and played sports in that ball court, thousands of years ago. He himself described it as a “sense of shared human experience.”
This overview effect is very powerful in making us align our priorities and realize what’s important. How many of us could benefit from this overview effect? Too many times, we are unclear on our priorities, don’t give the attention to the people or things in our lives that deserve it, and waste countless hours doing mindless stuff. The entertainment industry, our low attention-spans and increased egomania have desensitized us to the world around us.
Unsurprisingly, the impetus for Chris Hadfield to create the channel “Rare Earth” (one of my favorites) with his son Evan Hadfield was to offer a “different view of the world.” To say “Hey, look at that, that’s amazing. Everybody should see that and start thinking about it.” Their creed is that “Everywhere on earth is unique and interesting if you look at it through a perspective that shows what that place offers.”
Hopefully, the more people have this overview effect, the better we can make better collective global decisions, and less jealous, narrow, local decisions.
4. Dealing with a group with lots of cultural differences
When you’re in a group with lots of cultural differences, the key is to open yourself, and share your weaknesses. Learn about what each person brings, their unique skillset. Even if that skillset is bringing joy into people’s lives: Yvonne Cagle recounts a mission where their commander was a quiet and reserved person, but an amazing cartoonist. So they would wake up excited each morning to watch him draw (apparently, astronauts have a lot of time for artistic activities).
You need each other to make it work. One experience that really built her was during her Army training, when the Army smartly designed a confidence exercise that required at least another person to finish.
Everybody has different ways to solve problems, so embrace that.
5. How to be a good leader
Yvonne Cagle referenced another pilot, Antoine de Saint Exupéry, in one my favorite quotes on leadership: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up men to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Chris Hadfield defines it a bit differently, but the same themes are there: “Good leadership means leading the way, not hectoring other people to do things your way.” “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.”
I’ve seen these themes played out across my managers, and in conversations with other colleagues about their own managers. Micromanagement and telling people what to do is not being a good leader. Being a good leader is setting a vision, making people subscribe to that vision and focused on it, and then letting them build out their brilliant ideas to achieve it.
6. Be resilient
Both Yvonne Cagle and Chris Hadfield have emphasized the importance of resilience in becoming an astronaut. But they also think it’s a major quality to have in your own life; especially when it comes to undergoing a risk-taking venture, such as expatriation.
The early explorers who crossed the ocean showed real resilience. “When Antonio Pigafetta, the assistant to Magellan on his trip around the world, reflected on his boss’s greatest and most admirable skill, what do you think he said? It had nothing to do with sailing. The secret to his success, Pigafetta said, was Magellan’s ability to endure hunger better than the other men.” (Chris Hadfield)
I would never compare myself to Magellan, but even coming here to the US demanded a lot of resilience from me: I had to spend a year and a half applying to jobs, go through countless interviews, get a rejected 12 times, until finally the 13th was the good one. And even then, that “yes” turned into a “maybe”, as our Google legal teams pondered whether I was eligible to come work in the US. It took another few months, filling out never-ending immigration questionnaires until I finally stepped on American soil.
So don’t give up at the first sign of hardship. Be resilient.
7. Achieving your goal is not a linear process
“It’s nothing but dead ends, guessing and trying” says Chris Hadfield. When he wanted to become an astronaut, it was simply impossible: he was Canadian, and Canada didn’t have a space program. So he looked at what the first astronauts did, and tried to aim his life in the same direction. “Sometimes inspiration and dead ends can lead to a pretty amazing life of dreams.”
In her creed, Yvonne Cagle echoes this sentiment: “To, for just this one day, not Predictably cave – in the face of “Impossibility” – but instead, to passionately create.”
Chris Hadfield created his own path to becoming an astronaut, coming up with creative solutions to overcome the obstacles of coming from a country without a space program. This is the whole premise of the book The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday: “When we believe in the obstacle more than in the goal, which will inevitably triumph?” “See things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must. What blocked the path now is a path. What once impeded action advances action. The Obstacle is the Way.”
8. You’re only as good as your community
Yvonne Cagle has emphasized that statement. We can’t live alone in a vacuum. The richness in our life comes from interacting with a community. Especially as an expat, you need that sense of belonging, and you can do that by participating in expats communities and promoting each other’s interests.
Chris Hadfield concurs: “Promoting your colleagues’ interests helps you stay competitive, even in a field where everyone is top-notch. And it’s easy to do once you understand that you have a vested interest in your co-workers’ success. In a crisis, you want them to want to help you survive and succeed, too.”
9. You need competence to succeed at anything
The most important quality to have if you’re an astronaut is competence, says Chris Hadfield. But he argues it’s also the most important for anyone, anywhere, who is striving to succeed at anything at all. “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.”
“An astronaut is someone who’s able to make good decisions quickly, with incomplete information, when the consequences really matter. […] In order to stay calm in a high-stress, high-stakes situation, all you really need is knowledge”
“In the ocean, things can go wrong in one breath, and the stakes are life or death. That’s why in order to get a scuba license you have to do a bunch of practice dives and learn how to deal with a whole set of problems and emergencies so that you’re really ready, not just ready in calm seas. For the same sort of reasons, trainers in the space program specialize in devising bad-news scenarios for us to act out, over and over again, in increasingly elaborate simulations.”
It’s the same as my girlfriend, who’s in the Navy. She has tests where she’s strapped to a helicopter seat, and the helicopter is upside down in a pool of water. She has just a few min to escape.
“Nothing boosts confidence quite like simulating a disaster, engaging with it fully, both physically and intellectually, and realizing you have the ability to work the problem. Each time you manage to do that your comfort zone expands a little, so if you ever face that particular problem in real life, you’re able to think clearly.”
10. Embrace the power of negative thinking
“My optimism and confidence come not from feeling I’m luckier than other mortals, and they sure don’t come from visualizing victory. They’re the result of a lifetime spent visualizing defeat and figuring out how to prevent it. Like most astronauts, I’m pretty sure that I can deal with what life throws at me because I’ve thought about what to do if things go wrong, as well as right. That’s the power of negative thinking.”
You’re starting to see a theme here: negative thinking breeds readiness (through thinking or working through those worst-case scenarios), readiness brings competence.
This echoes Tim Ferriss’ advice to define your fears not your goals and envisioning in painstaking details the worst case scenario. “Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive. […] It sure is a good idea to have some kind of plan for dealing with unpleasant possibilities.” (Chris Hadfield).
11. Astronauts are scared of aliens just like you and me
For all the negative thinking exercises they do, there’s at least one thing astronauts are scared of. Yvonne Cagle explained that, as an astronaut, you start adopting “Mars brain”. Her brain is totally different than ours, she thinks about things that we don’t think about. As an example, she told us the only thing she’s scared of. And that’s hearing a sound in space, a “tu-dum, tu-dum”. Given that space is a vacuum, this would be physically possible. And that’s terrifying.
Chris Hadfield sheds a light on that fear: “In my experience, fear comes from not knowing what to expect and not feeling you have any control over what’s about to happen.” That perfectly illustrates Yvonne’s scenario: in the noise-in-space situation, her expectations about physics would be shattered, and she would realistically have no control over the alien encounter that would be about to happen…
12. What’s your contingency plan?
Astronauts do a good job at being humble. Even though we’re a tenth of the human they are, they will make you feel like you are their equal. One aspect of their superior intelligence is that they think about EVERYTHING. As we’ve just seen above, they spend year simulating thousands of different scenarios, just in case that scenario ever happens. Having a contingency plan is part of that readiness that I mentioned.
On a more comical level, Yvonne Cagle has a weird taste for ketchup. She has ketchup bottles in every cupboard of her house. That way, if she’s lost in thought (as she often is), she can just mindlessly reach for a cupboard and there will ketchup there. She also has them on the second floor of her house in San Francisco, “just in case there’s an earthquake and the ground floor of my house is inaccessible.”
At least I feel good at knowing there’s one thing I’m better at: food taste. Seriously, ketchup all the time?
13. How to be a plus one
In one of my favorite parts from Chris Hadfield’s book, he defined what is a plus one and how to become one:
“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, of course. 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.”
He then gives the example of a National Outdoor Leadership School survival course he attended, in which one of his space crewmates, Tom Marshburn, also participated. Tom was the ultimate outdoorsman: a vastly experienced mountaineer, having submitted on several continents and walked the Pacific Trail—alone—from Canada to Mexico, covering more than a marathon each day. And yet during their survival course, he never imposed his expertise on anyone or told them what to do. Instead, he was just quietly competent and helpful. If they needed him, he was there in an instant, but he never elbowed anyone out of the way to demonstrate his superior skills or made others feel small for not knowing how to do something. Everyone on the team knew that Tom was a plus one. He didn’t have to tell them.
“It was also a big part of what made him a plus one on our crew. Not only did he bring a wealth of experience and knowledge, but he conducted himself as though no task was beneath him. He acted as though he considered himself a zero: reasonably competent but no better than anyone else.”
That should give you strong pointers in how to behave in a group or a novel environment.
“Especially when I’m entering a new situation and don’t yet have the lay of the land, I think about how to aim to be a zero and try to contribute in small ways without creating disruptions.
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.
One benefit of aiming to be a zero: it’s an attainable goal. Plus, it’s often a good way to get to plus one.”
14. Astronauts make corny jokes too
A week ago, Jarelle made the corny joke that Impossible has “I’m” and “Possible”. Guess what? Yvonne Cagle made the same joke, and it’s also on her Twitter bio.
But she didn’t stop at that. She told us “You’re on the waitlist to go to space.” “Weight + Less. Get it?”
15. Home is inside of you
A big question during this expatriation panel I attended was “Where is home?” Like the panelists, as a third-culture kid, I struggle with that question. The moderator mentioned the idea that home is where you have your traditions, but the others discarded that idea. When you move all the time, you more often than not don’t build any traditions.
Yvonne Cagle said it best: “Home is here.” (as she tapped on her heart). So even if she’s going to space, home will be with her. Personally, having moved to 6 different countries and 11 different cities, having had to make new friends every time, I’ve also discovered that home is wherever I am at a given moment. If I were to pack my bags tomorrow and travel on a motorcycle through South America (yeah I know, it wouldn’t happen… I don’t know how to ride a motorcycle), I would take home with me.
The ideas that home is where your traditions are isn’t completely useless. We have to understand where that statement is coming from: traditions make us feel like home because they give us the feeling of familiarity, love, and certitude.
Hence why exploration, or moving to a whole new country, often feels like leaving home: because you’re stepping into the unknown. So if you can find this feeling of familiarity, love and certitude in something else than a place, that’s how you’re always going to carry home with you. Perhaps home will be in the embrace of a loved one, or in the familiar routine you create whenever you move to a new place, however different the streets or people look.
16. Love is the most powerful feeling
Amongst the 3 things Yvonne Cagle would take into space, one of them is her daughter (the other two are ketchup and juggling balls). Even if her daughter probably doesn’t want to go into space, she would drag her there by force.
This reminds me of the end of the movie Interstellar when the hero decides to go back to space to find the woman he loves, who’s all alone up there, completely lost. At the end of the day, when everything is on the line, our decisions come down to the simplest and also most complex of human emotions: love.