Chris Hadfield: The Most Inspiring Astronaut. Don’t Give Up
Chris Hadfield is a former astronaut. He is the Canada’s first shuttle mission specialist, and the first Canadian to board a Russian spacecraft and walk in Space. Also, he has experiences as an engineer and Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot. He is an official TED speaker and well-known for his inspiring speeches. He is the author of An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth and has also published an album of photos he took while aboard the International Space Station: You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes.
*Audio is available here*
------So the first question is: For those who are not familiar with you, please let us know more about you. Why did you decide to be an astronaut and what allowed you to get through the difficult processes to realize it?
I was inspired by the actions of other people. I think that’s what helped me decide what I want to do with my life. Part of it was fantasy; reading science fiction and watching science fiction television and movies. But it’s easy to have a fantasy, the hard part is reality. I think I was lucky enough to have the fantasy underpinned by the actual reality of spaceflight and watching the first people leave Earth, and then watching those people travel all the way to the moon and walk on the moon. And it was that combination of fantasy and reality that really cemented in my mind the idea of deciding to turn myself into an astronaut.
And then what allowed me to get through all the difficulties? I think it’s a very worthwhile personal process to give yourself a near impossible goal in life and use it then to help you make decisions about all of the little things you are going to do. It’s easy to say I decided to be something, the hard part is to then actually change yourself, to turn yourself into someone else. For example, you can say I’m going to, whatever, climb Mt. Everest, but that doesn’t get you to the top of Mt. Everest. What is actually going to get you to the top of Everest is learning all of the skills, all the logistics, and all of the potential dangers for actually turning yourself into a mountaineer.
I think it was the combination of fantasy and of the fine examples of real people, and then keeping that as a long-term goal for myself throughout life. It helped me decide all the small things I wanted to do next. Then finally, recognizing that it was very unlikely that I was ever going to be an astronaut, so I did not make ‘being an astronaut’ my only measure of personal success. To continue the Everest analogy, if my goal is to someday climb Everest, I make a point to climb the highest mountain within driving distance of my home, climb Mt. Scuba and Mt. Fuji, that way I’ve already accomplished something; You can celebrate those things and they get you a little bit closer to your ideal goal. That’s how I’ve conducted my life – having a long-term impossible goal and celebrating each of the mountain tops that it took me to along the way.
Photo from Chris Hadfield's Facebook
------So it’s a combination of having some big, huge thinking and starting with something that you can do from today.
Right, and not waiting until some distant time in the future to celebrate victory, but allowing yourself to enjoy and define yourself by each of the small victories along the way. That way your actual life, which occurs with each of the small decisions you make, is as joyful, as celebration-filled and as satisfying as you can possibly make it.
------That’s really inspiring and also very practical advice.
If I can be inspiring and practical then I’ve succeeded in life.
------That’s true! So, second question – How does it feel like to be in Space, where you are completely outside your comfort zone?
Well, I think most of the exciting, interesting and learning experiences in life are outside your comfort zone.
For example, we have a little pug who did not really want to get out of bed this morning. Instead of going on his typical walk with my wife, Albert the pug stayed in bed with the blankets pulled up around his chin for the morning. He was definitely staying in his comfort zone and he didn’t learn a thing – he didn’t experience the day, he didn’t experience the change of weather, he didn’t sniff all the bushes – he was well in his comfort zone so he learned nothing, and if anything he diminished slightly. He’s slightly less of a being because he didn’t expose himself to anything that was new.
As a functioning adult human, we can often do the same thing. We just stay in the figurative bed with the covers pulled up to our chin with whatever boundaries of your life you’d call your particular bed and covers, but that doesn’t really expand who you are. We don’t expose ourselves to new things and so it’s really hard to have any sort of personal growth.
But on the other hand, you don’t want to get thrown out of bed and now you’re clinging to a cliff with your fingertips, terrified and ill-prepared. So I think, when you ask what it feels like in space, hopefully you have spent enough time preparing, anticipating, reading, and changing who you are so that when you get there, even though it’s not in your normal comfort zone, it’s still something that you’re ready enough for that it doesn’t overwhelm you. It deepens and expands who you are by putting yourself in an environment that will expose you to things that you would otherwise never see.
I think that’s a good way to live life. Every single day you would be exposing yourself to new ideas and the opportunity to see and learn, to hear and experience things. And so traveling on a spaceship is just the most distant and egregious example of that, but I would not be the person I was, not only if I hadn’t flown in Space, but if I hadn’t spent the 20 years prior to flying in Space changing who I was to become ready for it. It’s that entire process that turns you into the adult that you are, and I think it’s really worth looking at your life and saying how much of my life is spent with the covers pulled up to my chin, and how much of it is exploring and therefore trying to understand the rest of the world.
Photo from Chris Hadfield's Facebook
------Hm, so it’s like keep challenging the status quo, but at the same time you keep preparing for your challenge.
CH: Exactly, both those things. There are some parts of life that I’m quite satisfied with, but I also recognize that I sure don’t know everything, so I’m always looking to prepare which is one way to learn about new things, but actually experiencing it is the other way to truly cement and maybe give yourself the opportunity for inspiration that would come no other way. Therefore, if you do climb Everest, the difference between the years of training and preparation are going to have a significantly different impact on your body than just the experience of climbing Everest itself. The two of them together will help define who you are.
------ I think you help a lot of young people understand what is challenging and how they can deal with it. Deal with their comfort zones.
Right! And recognize that change is a form of education and an important step in that process of changing who you are by occasionally spending a little while thinking, “what am I going to do today that is different or new or challenging?” or at the end of the day just look back and review, “what did I learn today?” “how did I change who I was today?” “where was I just doing things that I’m really familiar with or where did I really push myself to one of my limits, such that I can do a better job of dealing with tomorrow?”
Photo from Chris Hadfield's Facebook
------ I totally agree with you. The third question: How do you deal with negative emotions such as anxiety and fear? Especially when you are trying something new and outside of your comfort zone.
I think fear and anxiety are cousins if not siblings. Both of them are the recognition that you’re unprepared for something. Anxiety is sort of a long version of fear and fear is a localized focused thing. And both of them can be pretty negative on your body. If you’re anxious all the time, it affects your heath. It affects your ability to deal with situations. So, often people are anxious or afraid because they don’t know what’s about to happen or they’re unprepared for what’s about to happen and they don’t have the skills to deal with it. For me I don’t want to go through life feeling anxious, and I don’t want to run into situations where the only thing I have going for me is fear.
We have a great evolved physiological response to fear which is your body injects chemicals into your blood that allows you to behave in a super human sort of a way for a very brief period with adrenaline and such, but it’s harmful to your body. And also, your reactions can only be the ones that are based on instinct and not an informed, maybe appropriate response. A lot of the things that are instinctive – if you touch a hot stove or if a bear jumps out of a closet at you, then your instinctive reactions are probably good ones; your hand pulls back from the heat, or your body produced the chemicals to allow you to run really really fast and scream and get away. Those are the million-year-old evolved responses. But in a complex, technological world, most of the responses are inappropriate – screaming and having adrenaline does not help you drive a car, or deal with some technically-driven situation. Instead, it’s the methodical preparation for a situation that is going change your fundamental, instinctive reaction into something that is more productive.
As an astronaut, we are constantly faced with a technological version of a bear jumping out of the closet. Constantly. Whether it’s flying a rocket ship or doing a spacewalk or docking with the space station and all the hazards of it, you can’t just rely on instinct and adrenaline. You have to anticipate what the thing that is giving you fear is going to look like and then analyze what the actual core danger is, because there may be no danger at all. It’s just your anxious feeling of it because you never really dug into it, instead look at what the actual danger to you is and then learn about that danger and train about what you’re going to do to deal with it. That whole process will change your instinctive reaction and then will fundamentally change your level of fear and level of anxiety.
What astronauts do for a living is prepare for unknown situations so we’re not anxious or afraid, but it doesn’t just apply to spaceflight it applies to everything - driving a new car, or giving a public speech, or meeting a new person, or traveling to a new place - all of those can be prepared for, even with five minutes, a week, and I think the way to deal with negative emotions is to get into the heart of what’s causing them and use the peaceful time in advance to prepare so that when they arrive you’re not just relying on gut instinct.
Photo from Chris Hadfield's Facebook
------Okay, what is the most important thing you have ever learned through your career?
I don’t think there’s one most important thing. To try and simplify 57 years of preparation and education and training into one thing of course is inherently inaccurate and wrong and no matter what you choose it’s going to belittle everything else... However, there are things.
One is, the only thing you can ever truly change is yourself. If you’re counting on other things to have changed for you, then you are going to be perpetually disappointed and surprised. But you do have the capacity to change yourself. So one of the important things I have learned is to be responsible for who you are. View yourself as a sculpture that is constantly a work in progress. And you’re never going to be anywhere near complete or perfect, but you can constantly change who you are and gain extra skills and capabilities.
Another is to give yourself enough skills that you’re not having your life dictated by fear. Most of the things that we choose to do in life have been shaped by things that we were afraid of, or felt too overwhelmed to even attempt, and so I think it’s worth looking into those and seeing “why am I deciding not to do that?” Choose something that will inspire or is important to you – “I will never swim 2 kilometers because I might drown.” Well yeah, you might drown but if you practice you can swim 2 kilometers because it’s important to you; you could become a better swimmer, hire a coach, or you could find someone who has swum 2 kilometers who you thought could never do that and be inspired by that someone who learned to do it. And in the process you can say “I can’t swim 2 kilometers, but I can swim 2 feet, or 2 meters, or 20 meters, or maybe 200 meters, and maybe tomorrow do 210 meters. Don’t let the fear of something large eliminate you from doing something important to you. Recognize that it’s with the incremental improvement and modification of yourself that you could then approach other things that seemed impossible.
And the last thing is to trust yourself. Once you have identified what is important to you, and you’ve slowly started evolving who you are into somebody different, you can start to trust yourself more and more so you recognize that your own judgment is valid. And that the choices your making, are not perfect, but a lot of them are going to be valid enough that you can view them as a platform to stand on.
And so I think those three things are the most important: never be satisfied with your own level of expertise, don’t let fear dictate a huge swath of things you’ll never attempt in your life, and be willing to trust yourself based on merit once you’ve started to build up skills.
Photo from Chris Hadfield's HP
------ I really appreciate your answers and messages that will inspire a lot young people around the world. All the things that you have just told me are not things you can just learn in school.
Yeah, it’s true, of course schools have to have a curriculum and grades, and teach people the basics, but most of the important stuff you learn in life, you learn when you put yourself outside of your comfort zone and learn on your own.
------Fantastic, thank you so much. If you can make a call to 20-year-old yourself, Chris Hadfield, what kind of advice would you give to him.
I decided to be an astronaut when I was 9-years-old. So by the time I turned 20, already for half my life I’d been pursuing it. I had made a lot of decisions in my life based on that pursuit. I learned to fly airplanes as a teenager by joining a program in Canada called Air Cadets, and I’d learned to scuba dive, I’d studied other languages, I’d taken a year to travel around Europe, and I was in university at age 20 studying engineering… So a lot of the decisions that lead to where I am today, I’d already made and put into action by the time I was 20. And in fact, I was already dating and just about to marry the woman that I’m still married to and have three children with together; So I think if I were talking to myself at 20 on the phone, I would say, “You’re making good decisions. Don’t give up. You’re going to run into a lot of moments where it seems that’s an insurmountable obstacle. Things are not going to go well and it looks like things are terrible. It’s good to remember that nothing is as good or as bad as it first looks. Nothing. Everything is somewhere in the middle, so don’t get overwhelmed by the the initial appearance of things. Understand that you have a purpose in life and that you’re evolving yourself into a person that you think can accomplish that purpose and on a regular and unpredictable basis, there are going to be obstacles that keep you from getting there, but you’re doing the right thing.” I think I’d give myself two thumbs up, and pass on that there’s some amazing stuff in store, so keep at it.
------That’s really inspiring.
Yeah, I’ve been lucky too. Very, very lucky. Helene, my wife – I would recommend everyone marry Helene, but she’s taken.
------That’s also a very good point.
Yeah, who you go through life with is important of course. Someone to tell you when you’re behaving like an idiot or someone to give you the freedom to pursue something whereas otherwise you might not have the ability to focus away from just the day-to-day and free you up to do something for a while. Someone to compare life notes with. When you see something beautiful, someone to tuck your arm around and say, “Look how beautiful that is!” I think by nature we’re a little bit solitary and alone, but life is also richer if you share it with someone you love, so I think I’ve been very lucky in that regard.
Photo from Chris Hadfield's HP
------ If you could leave one message to make the world a better place. What would be your message?
Each of us is born with a very small view of the world. We’re born in some sort of delivery room and someone slaps us and we cry, and our very first perception of the entire universe after we come out of the womb is a slightly enlarged womb. Maybe a room or a building. And then we’re raised in a very small place. We’re raised in an apartment or a house or a neighborhood or a village or some subset of some larger thing. But we start to think that the entire world is that womb. Or that slightly enlarged womb that we see growing up. Therefore, we start to conclude incorrectly what life is like everywhere else, and what values other people have. And that this particular little spot that we’re in is the most important one. Or the one that at least has the most significance. And so if I could try to leave a worthwhile message, I think it’s the one that could privy to as an astronaut and that is to see the entire world.
I’ve been around the world over 2,600 times. The first time you go around the world, you don’t really see it. All you see are the things that are familiar to you - your sort of projections of your understanding of the world onto the world itself. You only see your biases. When you look at Japan, all you really see is the shape of it and maybe you can pick out that big harbor in Tokyo and maybe you’ll see Mount Fuji, but you don’t see Japan. You just see your own preconceived perceptions of Japan. Or if you come across Spain and you look closely you may see Barcelona, or the Pyrenees, or the Northern Coast and how it joins into Portugal and Gibraltar. But you won’t really see Spain. The next time around and the time after that, the things you’re familiar with diminish and you actually start to see what’s there. And maybe the hundredth time around or the thousandth time around, you actually start to see the world. And you see the commonality of the human experience. And you see the age of the planet. It’s really hard to see the age of the planet, to see what four and a half billion years really means, it’s just so far beyond our ability to count and our ability to visualize. But you start to have that seep into you when you see the whole world over and over and you go around it in just 90 minutes.
In terms of improvement, the world doesn’t need to be a better place, it’s us that need to better and treat this place better. And I think it’s only through a better perception of where we are and who we are that we stand a chance of making ourselves better in this place. Recognizing the finite nature of it. It’s just one place. It isn’t an endless sequence of places. We need that to get into the heads of as many people as possible. Especially the folks that do things out of fear and hatred with which some of us are raised. If we can stop people from just seeing a tiny little piece of the world and proceeding to view the rest of it with fear and hatred and all the anxiety and suspicion that comes along with that, then I think we have the best chance together. And that’s part of reason why I’m speaking with you and why I’ve written my books, and do work with universities, and create a science animated series called, ‘It’s Not Rocket Science. It’s because I’ve been lucky enough to see the world for what it truly is, and that perspective is an important one for us all.
------ I feel what you have told is all connected. Instead of trying to change your environment or others, the first step is always about changing yourself. And the reason you need to keep trying something new is to open up your mind and broaden your perspective to see the thing as it is.
I agree with all of that. I’m glad you heard what I tried to say.
Edited by Jennifer Ann Garcia