Sunday, 17 May 2015

book review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Chris Hadfield.
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.
Pan. 2013

Chris Hadfield is probably most famous for being the astronaut who sang David Bowie’s Space Oddity on the International Space Station; his YouTube video of it has over 25 million hits. But there’s more to being an astronaut that singing a song in space, a lot more. In his autobiography, Hadfield recounts his life in training, astronaut in waiting for the most part, and some valuable life lessons he extracted from it.

Rather than telling a mere historical account of his life, Hadfield picks and chooses anecdotes to illustrate his lessons.

One lesson can be summed up as be insanely over-prepared for every eventuality, no matter how unlikely. This is of course utterly essential in space, where anything and everything can kill you. But Hadfield lives this back on earth: read the story of how he prepared for the vanishingly small possibility that he would be called up on stage to accompany Elton John at a concert. (He wasn’t.)

Another important lesson is essentially don’t be a jerk (which he calls aim to be a zero). In an environment where everyone is a hyper-competitive overachiever, it’s important to channel that competitiveness into the team, rather than against it. Additionally, he works in an environment where even if one day you are space station commander, you soon literally come down the earth, and end up as ground crew supporting a commander who used to be your ground crew. So aim to be a zero (someone whose presence is neutral) rather than trying hard to be a plus one (someone who adds benefit), in case you are instead seen as a minus one (actively harmful).

There’s the odd touch of self-deprecating humour. Here’s his response when asked how his work affected his marriage.
pp7-8. A lot of people who meet us remark that it can’t be easy being married to a highly driven, take-charge overachiever who views moving house as a sport, and I have to confess that it is not—being married to Helene has at times been difficult for me. She’s intimidatingly capable.
The most important lesson is probably live the journey. An astronaut spends years training for a flight that might last a few days, or might not happen at all. Hadfield set his sights on an almost impossible goal: the training and studying and ground crew work had to be themselves the life worth living, not just something to be endured or suffered through on the way to the ultimate, possibly unachievable, goal. Everything he did was valuable and fulfilling in itself, not merely a means to an end.

This is a great read. I’m not entirely sure that all the life lessons translate to more mundane existences, but there is definitely a lot of food for thought, and a wonderful insight into one particular astronaut’s life.

And, yes, I’m one of the 25 million who watched the video.

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  1. "So aim to be a zero (someone whose presence is neutral) rather than trying hard to be a plus one (someone who adds benefit), in case you are instead seen as a minus one (actively harmful)."

    Seems like strange advice. Perhaps he meant that it's not a good idea to aim to be perceived as someone who adds value. But not to aim to add value? Really?

    1. As usual, a bald summary misses the nuance. But his point is that someone trying hard to be a plus one often ends up a jerk, a minus one, whereas someone trying to be neutral (and his neutral does actually add the benefit of keeping the system running smoothly) can end up a real plus one. Read it for a more eloquent description :-)