The only thing you actually control

11572307115_1194957269_oAstronaut Chris Hadfield had the unique ability to be a test pilot, which means putting yourself in an advanced fighter jet at high-altitude, then deliberately putting it out of control while figuring out how to recover as it falls to Earth (Hadfield 13). But hey, you have the rest of your life to solve the problem, right?

He admits at first he was pretty tentative but after a while he was actually hooked on the feeling of just how far out of control he could get the plane to go. (Hadfield 13). Psycho right? Obviously, most of us spend our lives trying to maintain control, not intentionally spinning out of it and then trying to figure out a way to regain it.

So to a certain extent it takes a unique individual to essentially put their own life in danger and enjoy the feeling of trying to save themselves. But when you think about it, life continually hands us events and circumstances beyond our control, and the more we know, the more experiences we have, the more we’ve learned will help us handle the problems before us, and if we’re savvy, helps us capitalize on opportunities. Hadfield wasn’t just putting the plane into a spin and then breaking out the algebra 101 book while the thing fell out of the sky. He relied on his extensive study, knowledge and experience to be able to figure out the problem. He also didn’t start out flying in an F-18 Hornet – he started in smaller, more stable aircraft, with an instructor teaching him how to fly, long before he strapped on a rocket with wings.

There is an interesting dynamic that happens in flight school. When you interview flight instructors, if they are being honest, many of them will tell you that females make better students than males. The reason is that females tend to listen to instructions rather than just assuming they’re call sign is Maverick and they already know it all. It’s an important lesson here for all of us. Since this is the goal setting time of the year, it is good idea to set a goal of learning to crawl before you can walk. When setting goals, don’t just set the big ones, set the small ones, the achievable ones you can work towards immediately.

Hadfield also took a humble approach to learning. Even during his first missions he watched more senior astronauts and put himself into receive mode:

“Tell me everything, keep teaching me, I’m going to soak up every last drop,” — Chris Hadfield (28).

This is also an important reminder that our success does not come without some support. Many times Hadfield gets asked what he does when he is not flying in space. “I always feel I’m disappointing people when I tell them the truth: we are earthbound, training, most of our working lives,” (Hadfield 29). Every space shot is a result of tens of thousands of hours of work by people who will never see outer space themselves. Every astronaut is supported by a cast of thousands and even while in space, people are working around the clock to keep them safe, informed and to ensure to the best of their ability, mission success? Imagine if one of those critical people decided to sabotage that success, either intentionally or just through incompetence? This is also a good time to assess who is on YOUR team – are they dedicated to your success and are you theirs? If not, take action now.

There is also a difference between being a participant versus being a professional. Recently, and more so in years to come, certain wealthy individuals and celebrities are paying for a ride into space. They are just participants though. They will have done just enough training for the ride, the equivalent of an advanced version of the safety briefing the flight attendants give on a commercial airline. But astronauts are different.

Astronauts. Professionals — must know how to solve problems, not the least of which is flying the spacecraft, but also must be scientifically productive and learn a variety of disciplines. They are entrusted with the life’s work of others and they are entrusted with each others lives. There isn’t room for pettiness, gossip at the office cooler and throwing your co-workers under the bus at every turn. In your job, are you a participant or are you a professional? Are you solving problems or creating them? Let me help you distinguish:

  • Astronauts are taught that the best way to reduce stress is to sweat the small stuff (Hadfield 36). In your world, do you pay attention to the details? Are you sweating the small stuff or are you just swooping in to take credit for the big win while everybody else picks up your collateral damage?
  • Astronauts are continually asking themselves the question: “okay, what’s the next thing that will kill me?” In your profession, are you asking the equivalent question? If you are providing a product, does it work? If you’re providing the service, is it fulfilling the users needs? Are you always asking, “okay, what’s the next thing I need to pay attention too?”
  • Astronauts are competent individuals. Hadfield says that every astronaut can fix a busted toilet as they have to do it all the time in space (Hadfield 36). “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,” — Chris Hadfield (36).

But the number one takeaway in terms of being a professional comes down to attitude.

“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,” — Chris Hadfield (41)

Hadfield says that no astronaut will ever utter the words “take this job and shove it.” In space astronauts must always be aware of the attitude of the spacecraft relative to the earth, to the stars and to other spacecraft. Maintaining attitude is fundamental to mission success but this attitude does not stop just at the spacecraft — attitude is also imperative as a professional. You maintain a good attitude at all times and constantly check your position and orientation throughout the journey.

And whether your aircraft, or your spacecraft or your life is spinning out of control, the most important thing you must always focus on, the ONLY thing you can actually control, is your attitude.

Hadfield, Chris. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. New York: Little, Brown and, 2013. Print.

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