Reflecting on Life Lessons from Chris Hadfield


An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Life Lessons from Space, by Chris Hadfield

Chris Hadfield is a retired astronaut, the first Canadian to walk in space. If you have never heard of Chris, check out his version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” recorded on the International Space Station. Classic! Without doubt, one of his greatest achievements has been to make space and its many wonders more accessible to us all. 

The book, which I highly recommend, is a fascinating account of space travel and his journey to making a seemingly impossible dream possible, with nugget after nugget of inspirational gold. Woven into his captivating story are his many lessons on goal setting, work ethic, leadership, teamwork, decision making, overcoming fear and staying calm in a crisis. I’ve reflected below on some of the quotes from Chris that I found most thought provoking.

On looking forward to the challenges and opportunities life offers…

“Dwelling on the past is backwards to how life proceeds.” 

In ten words Chris has perfectly summed up a weakness that inflicts us all in some way, getting stuck in the past, a state of mind that makes it difficult to move forward in your life. All of our decisions, investment or otherwise, are framed by our past, but to make the right decisions for the future, we cannot be constrained by the past.

“If seeing 16 sunrises a day and all of Earth’s variety had taught me anything, it was that there are always more challenges and opportunities out there than time to experience them.” 

The great thing about the future is that it has still to be written, with endless possibility and adventure open to us. The limits are set by your mindset and sense of perspective on life than anything else. Of course, often beginning a new challenge comes with the ending of another. Chris takes a philosophical view on endings and moving on:

“Endings don’t have to be emotionally wrenching if you believe you did a good job and you’re prepared to let go.”

He was not sad about the ending of Nasa’s Space Shuttle Program, as reporters had expected, he was proud to be part of the Shuttle era and its achievements (The 30-year Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011, replaced by the Space Launch System). Rather than lament this ending, Chris recognised that the Shuttle spaceships, were “great workhorses of space exploration, and they had served their purpose”. He views his own retirement the same way: “I did the best I could and I served my purpose, but the time has come to move on”. While the Shuttle spaceships were retired to museums, retirement for Chris was clearly just the beginning of a new adventure.

In life, challenging yourself requires pushing beyond the comfort zone, taking risks and facing the inevitable endings as you move on to new opportunities. This can be tough, but if you always give your best and hold yourself to a high standard, there is nothing more you owe. You can proudly move on to new adventures. The easy option is the safe one, the difficult option requires the resolve to explore the unknown.

On learning and achieving excellence…

“It’s never either-or, never enjoyment versus advancement, so long as you can conceive of advancement in terms of learning rather than climbing to the next rung of the professional ladder. You are getting ahead if you learn, even if you wind up on the same rung.” 

The corporate world fosters a competitive culture that can make people lose sight of what is most important, learning. Each to their own but I’d rather focus on continuous learning than playing corporate politics.

If you want to be the best at your profession, never underestimate the benefit of over-preparation:

“You don’t need to obsess over details if you’re willing to roll the dice and accept whatever happens. But if you’re 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.”

That’s how you make it look easy!

On leadership…

Chris has many insights on leadership but the quote below says it all.

“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.”

Working in various companies and playing on football teams over the years I’ve seen firsthand how destructive poor leadership can be. Leadership should be about fostering an environment for other people to maximise their potential, to inspire real commitment to a common goal, and to leave people with a sense of purpose.

On maintaining control and pushing past fear…

“If you’re not sure what to be alarmed about, everything is alarming….But in order to stay calm in a high-stress, high-stakes situation, all you really need is knowledge. Sure, you might feel a little nervous or stressed or hyper-alert. But what you won’t feel is terrified.”

There is no substitute to understanding your environment. This is particularly relevant to investors inundated with noise, such as the fear gripping headlines on markets “plunging” following a 2% decline.  In our hyperbole driven world, a well thought out plan can provide a robust decision making framework to deal with all eventualities, offering a degree of certainty to a very uncertain world.

“A lot of people talk about expecting the best but preparing for the worst, but I think that’s a seductively misleading concept. There’s never just one “worst”. Almost always there’s a whole spectrum of bad possibilities. The only thing that would really qualify as the worst would be not having a plan for how to cope.”

On happiness and what you choose to focus on…

“Fundamentally, life off Earth is in two important respects not at all unworldly: You can choose to focus on the surprises and pleasures, or the frustrations. And you can choose to appreciate the smallest scraps of experience, the everyday moments, or to value only the grandest, most stirring ones. Ultimately, the real question is whether you want to be happy.”

I know what I choose. The little things can often be the most meaningful.

The wisdom of humility…

“One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as an astronaut: to value the wisdom of humility, as well as the sense of perspective it gives you.”

Earth is just a speck in the cosmos, a planet that is potentially 4.5 billion years in a universe that is estimated to be 13.7 billion years old! We’re only passing through, we might as well enjoy it.

Oh, and read the book!!

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