What Will Kill Me?
Astronauts are taught that the best way to reduce stress is to sweat the small stuff. They’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 they learn to ask ourselves is, “Okay, what’s the next thing that will kill me?”
The upshot of all this is that they become competent, which is the most important quality to have if you’re an astronaut—or, frankly, 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.
Astronauts have these qualities not because they ‘re smarter than everyone else.
It’s because they are taught to view the world—and ourselves—differently. Chris’s shorthand for it is “thinking like an astronaut.” But you don’t have to go to space to learn to do that.
It’s mostly a matter of changing your perspective.
The Power of Negative Thinking
So many self-help gurus urge people to visualize victory, and stop there. Some even insist that if you wish for good things long enough and hard enough, you’ll get them—and, conversely, that if you focus on the negative, you actually invite bad things to happen. Why make yourself miserable worrying? Why waste time getting ready for disasters that may never happen?
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. While it’s true that you may wind up being ready for something that never happens, if the stakes are at all high, it’s worth it. Think about driving down the highway listening to the radio and enjoying the sunshine, versus scanning the road, noticing the oil truck up ahead and considering what will happen if, just as you pull out to pass, you’re cut off by the van that you’ve noticed has been driving a little erratically in the left lane for the past 10 minutes. Anticipating that problem would be the best way to avoid it.
You don’t have to walk around perpetually braced for disaster, convinced the sky is about to fall. But it sure is a good idea to have some kind of plan for dealing with unpleasant possibilities. Chris writes,
“When I get into a really crowded elevator, for instance, I think, “Okay, what are we going to do if we get stuck?” And I start working through what my own role could be, how I could help solve the problem. On a plane, same thing. As I’m buckling my seat belt, I automatically think about what I’ll do if there’s a crisis.”
But one thing Chris isn’t is a nervous or pessimistic person. Really. If anything, he’s annoyingly upbeat, at least according to the experts (my family, of course). Chris tends to expect things will turn out well and they usually do. His optimism and confidence come not from feeling he’s 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.
Climbing Down the Ladder
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, Chris would rather feel good most of the time, so to him everything counts: the small moments, the medium ones, the successes that make the papers and also the ones that no one knows about but him. 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.
Astronauts who’ve just returned from space get a lot of help from NASA with the “moving on” part. When you report back to the Astronaut Office at JSC, there’s no hero’s welcome. Rather, you get a brisk acknowledgment—“Good job”—before being unceremoniously booted off the top rung of the organizational ladder, at least in terms of visibility and prestige. Astronauts fresh off the Soyuz are reabsorbed back into the support team as middle-of-the-pack players, essential but not glorified.
In most lines of work there’s a steady, linear ascent up a well-defined career ladder, but astronauts continuously move up and down, rotating through different roles and ranks. From an organizational standpoint, this makes sense: it keeps the space program strong at all levels and also reinforces everyone’s commitment to teamwork in pursuit of a common goal—pushing the envelope of human knowledge and capability—that’s much bigger than they are as individuals. For astronauts, too, it makes sense, because it helps us come right back down to Earth and focus on our job, which is to support and promote human space exploration. Any inclination they might have to preen is nipped in the bud, because our status has changed overnight and they are expected to deliver in a new, less visible role, not sit around reminiscing about the good old days when they were in space.
At NASA it’s just a given that today’s star will be tomorrow’s stagehand, toiling behind the scenes in relative obscurity. For instance, Peggy Whitson, who was Chief Astronaut and ran the office in Houston for three years, is now back in the regular pool of astronauts, supporting other astronauts in orbit and hoping for an assignment with no better chances of being selected than anyone else has. One thing that makes this kind of transition easier is that the line between being a member of a crew and a member of the office is already more blurry than might be readily evident to outsiders.
If you’re part of that support team, you know full well that the meaning and significance of your work isn’t determined by how visible it is to outsiders. And once you’ve stood on the top rung of the ladder, where you are fully aware of how critically important the people on the ground are to the success of your mission, it’s actually easier and more meaningful, in some respects, to support other astronauts on their missions.
Spotlight Is Short-lived
Which movie won Best Picture at the Oscars five years ago? Who won gold in speed skating at the last Olympics? These were big events at the time, but soon afterward, they were largely remembered only by the participants themselves.
A space mission is the same. The blast of glory that attends launch and landing doesn’t last long. The spotlight moves on, and astronauts need to, too. If you can’t, you’ll wind up hobbled by self-importance or by the fear that nothing else you do will ever measure up.
Some astronauts do end up mired in the quicksand of bygone celebrity, but they are the exceptions. More than 500 people have had the opportunity to see our planet from afar, and for most of them, the experience seems to have either reinforced or induced humility. The shimmering, dancing show of the northern and southern lights; the gorgeous blues of the shallow reefs fanning out around the Bahamas; the huge, angry froth stirred up around the focused eye of a hurricane—seeing the whole world shifts your perspective radically. It’s not only awe-inspiring but profoundly humbling. Chris writes,
“Some people assume that after going to space, everyday life on Earth must seem mundane, lackluster even. But for me, the opposite has been true. Post-flight, I feel the way you might feel after a really interesting trip you’d been planning and anticipating for years: fulfilled and energized, as well as inspired to see the world a little differently.”
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. He adds,
“The whole process of becoming an astronaut helped me understand that what really matters is not the value someone else assigns to a task but how I personally feel while performing it. That’s why, during the 11 years I was grounded, I loved my life. Of course I wanted to go back to space—who wouldn’t?—but I got real fulfillment and pleasure from small victories, like doing something well in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab or figuring out how to fix a problem with my car. If I’d defined success very narrowly, limiting it to peak, high-visibility experiences, I would have felt very unsuccessful and unhappy during those years.”
Life is just a lot better if you feel you’re having 10 wins a day rather than a win every 10 years or so.