The 3 Things We Can Learn From Astronauts
Like me, you may have watched in awe the live-stream of the first “splashdown” of US astronauts into US seas for over 40 years. What an amazing achievement for SpaceX and for the future of commercial space exploration.
What are the key character and personality traits that astronauts have? And are these qualities useful for our lives on earth?
1. They embrace solitude and uncertainty
As the Elton John song goes “It’s lonely out in space….”. Astronauts learn how to cope with, but more than that, to embrace the solitude that comes with the job.
Many of us have found 2020 very lonely through world events that are completely out of our control. Not knowing when the pandemic will end is highly mentally draining.
Our brains are hard-wired to prefer certainty and predictability.
Psychologist Adam Grant interviewed astronaut Scott Kelly to understand how he coped with the loneliness of his record-breaking 340 days in space.
What Professor Grant uncovered is that Scott Kelly used a mental form of time travel — a uniquely human trait, to cope with the loneliness, monotony and uncertainty of not knowing exactly when he would be coming back to earth.
How did he perform mental time bending? Kelly time travelled to the future in his mind to picture the emotion that he wanted to feel at the end of his mission.
Did he want to feel proud, enthusiastic and happy — all the emotions that he felt when he was first chosen for the mission?
The key point is that he focussed on the positive emotional outcome rather than practical goals in order to get through tough, sad and lonely times.
How to apply: think ahead to when the pandemic is over and how you will want to feel about these though times. Do you want to feel proud of how you managed the loneliness and the isolation? Visualise how it will feel to have got through the uncertainty.
2. They sweat the small stuff
What can astronauts teach us about practical goals? In former astronaut Chris Hadfield’s book “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”, he highlights the importance of always giving focussed attention to his tasks.
With astronauts, the stakes are clearly high — the absolute definition of life and death situations, whether during take-off, spacewalks or re-entering the earth’s atmosphere for splashdown. Not to mention the unfortunate bumps to the head as happened to Doug Hurley upon entering the ISS with the eyes of the world on him.
As a result, astronauts prepare, prepare and prepare again for any situation that they could possibly encounter. They analyse the tiny details of their performance during the simulations and test flights.
They look at what when well and hone in on what they can improve next time. And they do this over and over again. In an astronaut’s world, there is no such thing as over-preparation.
Chris Hadfield says;
If you are striving for excellence — whether it’s in playing the guitar or flying a jet, there’s no such thing as over-preparation. It’s your best chance of improving your odds
If something truly matters and you are aiming to deliver a piece of work that will blow your bosses’ socks off. Or you want to finally beat your running buddy across the 5km finish line then there is no substitute for practice and preparation.
How to apply: Are you working on a project right now that’s particularly important to you? Focus on that one task at the expense of everything else. Carve out time to focus. Switch off messages and social media. Dive deeply into your task and prepare, prepare and prepare again.
3. They welcome criticism and feedback
I know many people who avoid asking for feedback and even those that do, find it difficult to really listen, accept and act upon the critique.
Chris Hadfield talks about the necessary culture of criticism at NASA, writing,
In any field, it’s a plus if you view criticism as potentially helpful advice rather than a personal attack. But for an astronaut, depersonalising criticism is a basic survival skill. If you bristled every time you heard something negative — or stubbornly tuned out the feedback, you’d be toast
Think about how well you react to feedback. How do you react to criticism from your partner? Do you push back on feedback from your boss? Do you ask questions in order to better understand their observations of you?
We should all aspire to be self-aware and positively self-critical but we shouldn’t ignore or outrightly dismiss constructive and well-intended feedback.
How to apply: Reflect on how you react to feedback. Perhaps you don’t ask for feedback at all. Start small and ask those closest to you. Ask your work colleagues if there was one thing they would change about your behaviour, what would that be?
These are just 3 of the many character strengths that it takes to be an astronaut. What others can you think of that could apply to your life?