Sweating the small stuff, means success in the big stuff

sts088-343-025Most of us are familiar with the book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff by Richard Carlson. It’s gotten a bad rap in some respects because to be successful we know that you have to sweat the small stuff – for want of a nail a war was lost sort of thing. However, Carlson was talking about the little things that really don’t matter that we make into more of something through our own interpretation. Not about the small stuff that really matters.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield in An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth stresses the importance of sweating the small stuff.

I’ve noticed in life that the small things, the easy to delete and forget about things, are the things that are usually the most important. I teach at MSU Denver in the aviation department and I try to explain to our students who are in the pilot program the difference between learning to fly as a civilian vs. learning to fly in the military. I can’t speak to the Air Force’s flight training directly but I can speak to the Navy’s and Hadfield’s experience in the Canadian military jet training course seems to be the same (Hadfield 73).

  • In civilian flight school, if you show up unprepared to fly, typically the flight instructor is going to run you through the briefing anyway and you’re going flying. They are paid by the hour and don’t want to lose the revenue either, plus, there is not a defined number of hours whereupon you must get your certificate. In military flight school if you don’t show up prepared to fly, that’s a “down.” Three downs and you can be out of training – forever.
  • In civilian flight school, if you’re doing poorly in training, your flight instructors may chat about you amongst themselves, but for the most part they want to get you through training. In the military, if you have to do a ride (flight) again, it’s posted for everyone else to see. 
  • In civilian flying, when you’re off a little bit (i.e. not on your game), you’ll fly again tomorrow or the next day. No blood no foul. In the military, you may be allowed one bad day, but after that you’re hosed. Most of the time your bad day is a direct result of a lack of preparation on your own part. Hadfield says: “I couldn’t afford to be unprepared in any situation where I was going to be evaluated, formally or not. I had to be ready, always,” (75).

And the thing that’s wonderful about preparation is that it’s largely within your control. I love to focus on things that are within our own control.

“There’s no such thing as over preparation – it’s your best chance of improving your odds,” Chris Hadfield (77)

One of the most scathing criticisms I received when I was in the Coast Guard was a public scathing, While the management industry says we’re supposed to praise publicly and criticize privately, it’s amazing how effective a public down-dressing can be. I can tell you this – it’s never more memorable than when it’s public. I think our politically correct society has not done us any favors here. But, if there’s going to be public criticism about personal performance it’s important that the proper culture first be established.

The medical field is well known for the public criticism when the doctors all get together to go over the procedures and treatments from the previous weeks – and then rip each other from stem to stern for all the screw up. The debrief is also a cultural staple at NASA (Hadfield 78). During every simulation or mission individuals are making notes on major events so that afterwards everyone reviews the highlights – what went well, what worked and what didn’t work, what things were learned (Hadfield 78). “Then it’s a free-for-all. Everyone else dives right in, system by system, to dissect what went wrong or what was handled poorly,” Hadfield (78). Far from being a public flogging the goal is to build up collective wisdom.

“The response to an error is never, ‘no big deal, don’t beat yourself up about it.’ It’s, ‘Let’s pull on that” – the idea that a mistake is like a loose thread you should tug on hard, to see if the whole fabric unravels,” Chris Hadfield (78).

Sometimes the criticism is personal and sometimes it stings (Hadfield 78), but in the business of space, where lives are on the line every mission, better to be publicly embarrassed for a screw up, than be vaporized in the vacuum of low-Earth orbit because you were afraid of getting your feelings hurt. But here is the most important part, so much so that I’m going to put it in bold caps:


The biggest problem with the feedback loop is judgement, particularly from management. Management needs to understand that mistake happen and not keep punishing the person over and over for the same sin. Even God Himself let’s it go after you’ve screwed up, confessed and paid the piper. Fact is, people make mistakes. Sometimes even the best and brightest amongst us, make mistakes. There absolutely must be a culture where it’s okay to make mistakes so that we can learn from them. I understand there is also a dividing line between incompetence but that’s were good decision-making and discretion comes into play.

— There’s a price to be paid for just getting by —

One of my key themes in my TedX speech is that when success comes too easily, you’re setting yourself up for a huge fall. Colonel Hadfield says that early success is a terrible teacher (100). “You’re essentially being rewarded for a lack of preparation, so when you find yourself in a situation where you must prepare, you can’t do it. You don’t know how,” (100).

No matter how brilliant you are, you will eventually hit a point where it’s no long possible to just wing it (Hadfield 100-101). If you never hit that point, you’re not pushing yourself to your truest potential. People with early success also don’t often realize their own weaknesses and are reluctant to accept responsibility when things don’t turn out well (Hadfield 101). If you’ve experienced early success, then it’s time to push yourself to the next level – it’s time to do something that forces you outside your comfort zone so you do the sets and reps that builds your muscles for the real challenges.

Doing the sets and reps is the small stuff. The daily exercises, the daily challenges, the daily effective habits and routines – it’s all small stuff and when you sweat it, you get to celebrate the big successes.

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


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