Learning from Astronauts

I’ve recently finished Commander Chris Hadfield’s book “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: Lessons from Space” (2013).

Hadfield’s book is really about the story of dedication, self-motivation, leadership and teamwork. It’s not only a rare insight into perhaps one of the least-accessible careers in the world, but also surprisingly applicable to life on earth. It’s also very refreshing to find a leadership book not placed amongst the “self motivation” shelves.

His amazing life journey consists of over five decades aboard fighter jets, NASA Shuttle, Soyuz, and the ISS, which makes interesting vehicles to his message: be a decent hard-working human being and it will (hopefully and likely) work out.

Despite the irrelevance of his own professional experiences to my life, the lessons he picked up along the way described my own two years’ of public policy/grad school.

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Being an astronaut is really about preparation, discipline, and also being a fantastic team player. Astronauts are exceptionally hyper competent compared to us humble mortals, but most people would likely find themselves in competitive environments that may bring out the best, or the worst, in all of us. Public policy schools not only demanded over preparation, but fantastic teamwork can literally make or break your experience, from the core courses down to the capstone project.

Here’s why Hadfield’s wisdom are great to remember in order to survive a public policy school:

1) On How Early Success and being a Big Fish in a Small Pond may not be great for your personal development:

“The astronauts who seem to have the hardest time with it are, interestingly enough, often the ones who are most naturally talented. …Early success is a terrible teacher, you’re essentially being rewarded for 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.” (An Astronaut’s Guide to Life, 100)

I’ve met many people in public policy schools dead-set on their interest of choice (and stuck to them in terms of project and course choices), but I’ve also interacted with more interesting people in classes where it’s clear they are exploring their limits departing from their prior experience. Both groups are talented and hardworking, but maintaining curiosity and being humble about your prior knowledge makes you stand out to your peers. There’s a clear division in how every students may approach school, but those that explore their limits earned my respect. Although many are quick to refer to their past accomplishments, making the best of the clean slate the school provided us was key to making interaction with classmates enjoyable. I think his perspective on early success is spot on.

2) Having a Plan B

“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.” (An Astronaut’s Guide to Life, 100)

Cost-Benefit Analysis, Research, Decision Tree, and Scenario Planning are part and parcel of what makes great public policies. In essence, anticipating changes in the future are one of the key principles of great public policies. Perhaps it’s also why we get thrown curveballs of assignments after another, but the importance of being over prepared, hyper prepared, and ultra prepared remains fresh in my mind. Risks are always high in public policy and commands a broad understanding of the factors that may influence a “wicked problem”. Working through those problems at the planning stage are worth the extra effort. Too many policies are shaped by factors beyond control; it’s best to anticipate them as if they are unknown space objects.

3) Leadership is another experience that you’re immediately confronted with the moment you enter public policy schools.

I’ve worked and interacted with so many types of leaders amongst my cohort, both peers and professionals.

Great leaders are charismatic, highly disciplined, but are also the most trustworthy and likeable teammates. They command attention not solely based on their skills but also because they are extremely likeable and helpful. Hadfield observes:

“…good leadership means leading the way, not hectoring other people to do things your way. Bullying, bickering, and competing for dominance are, even in a low-risk situation, excellent ways to destroy morale and diminish productivity.”(An Astronaut’s Guide to Life, 105)

This is even more apparent as I start to think about what sort of leader I want to be in the future. I personally had to learn to develop larger bandwidth of patience, understanding, and skill to stress-test leading group work, and embracing that it leadership is never pretty.

4) Reframing Competitiveness

“It’s not enough to shelve your own competitive streak. You have to try, consciously, to help others succeed…It’s counterintuitive, but I think it’s true: promoting your colleagues’ interests helps you stay competitive, even in a field where everyone is top-notch. And it’s easy to do once you understand that you have a vested interest in your co-workers’ success. In a crisis, you want them to want to help you survive and succeed, too. They may be the only people in the world who can.” (An Astronaut’s Guide to Life, 162)

Take a group of overachieving Type A students, most of which happen to also already finished their first Masters degree in other fields, have fledgling careers, and are used to being “smartest in the room”. Place them in a highly competitive environment competing for limited scholarships, awards, grades, and accolades. It wasn’t pretty for the first few weeks, when vocal students were trying to get noticed and trying to outshine each other.

I had been intimidated from Day 1. I was convinced I was going to be jaded by the end of the program for fear of not being able to keep up. This feeling never went away, because competitiveness sometimes can be an ugly manifestation of envy and insecurity.

But, the times when I started to think in a “positive-sum” mindset rather than negative-sum, ugly competitiveness turned to be a motivator rather than hindrance. It became clear that when the cohort was doing well, it helped bring out the best in me as well.

5) Teamwork! Teamwork! Teamwork!

“Over the years I’ve learned that investing in other people’s success doesn’t just make them more likely to enjoy working with me. It also improves my own chances of survival and success. The more each astronaut knows how to do, and the better he or she can do it, the better off I am too.” (An Astronaut’s Guide to Life, 113)

There is an inside joke amongst classmates that sometimes grad school or public policy schools are “Death by Groupwork” arenas. There were moments of high-stress when cooperation and conflict overlap in five minute outbursts and friendships were rattled because we did not account for the interest of the group. Behind many assignments and reports were absolute chaos to get things done and but it was clear that groups that can tune in closely to their strengths and each other’s abilities could harness the “magic” better. Respect is a key component not to only to lead a life of better conscience, but also a happy productive group.

6) Risk management vis-a-vis group dynamics:

“Risk management is crucial when you’re in the middle of nowhere. Groupthink is a good thing when it comes to risks. If you’re only thinking about yourself, you can’t see the whole picture. ”(An Astronaut’s Guide to Life, 105)

Grad school can be a terribly lonely experience if you don’t reach out. There’s a big opportunity cost to trading your time for a 2-year program and if you don’t stay hungry and place bets on your best assets, the experience will be underwhelming. Personally, the activities at Bridging GAPhighlighted the importance of achieving small targets. I learned how simple sacrifices at an individual level can elevate the cause together. Small investment (or sacrifices!) of time and effort by each member of the group actually resulted in greater turnout in our events, greater reach of our message, and stronger bond inside the student group. More importantly, our final goal of spurring conversations on gender equality in public policy was strongly placed as the “bigger picture”, no matter who bore the brunt of the legwork.

7) Personal Glory is Overhyped

Hadfield also more importantly argues that there are three perceived impacts to a task:

  • “-1” = someone who is actively harmful
  • “+1” = someone who actively adds value
  • “zero” = someone who is neutral/impact is neutral

“Aim to be a zero.” (An Astronaut’s Guide to Life, 181)

Despite your ability, experience, and enthusiasm, there are times where levels of contribution needs to be matched with situation. Many people are extraordinary and talented, but no one automatically “gets it” at first try, and holding back despite these talents can be valuable for the bigger picture.

Hadfield makes a compelling case of truly appreciating smaller, seemingly insignificant projects (fixing the toilet anyone?) that makes the mission run smoothly than prioritizing larger, more prestigious personal successes on board his space missions.

Astronauts are willing to climb up and down the command chain gracefully. They are used to existing in teams of world-class trainers, scientists, and technicians working on death-defying missions.

Public policymaking is not a specialized skill as a space-walker, but many public policy issues are harder to resolve because they require teams of people, not single-minded individuals.

Behind every amazing astronaut (and public policy maker!) there are supporting teams made up of the equally impressive people who work through the smaller “zero” roles alongside +1 projects.

This sentiment sets the tone what I want to do now with my qualifications in hand. I had trained, prepared, and learnt as much as I can for the past two years, but now that it’s time to get on a “mission”, I still need to learn how to be a “zero” first before actively contributing to be a “+1”.

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1) Two other (better!) summaries of his book than mine: 1, 2.

2) My GoodReads Account, if you wanna add me.

3) Here’s the Space Oddity cover in all its glory because YOU HAVE TO SEE IT:

Update: Wow this blew up! Thanks to LKYSPP for their continued support to one proud alumNUS 🙂

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