If you happened to be on-line in recent years, the chances are that you may have seen chatter about a You-Tube video of Canadian astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield strumming his guitar and singing a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Odyssey”. (If you missed it, check it out. It’s pretty cool.) Not only is it a good cover, but it was also filmed when Hadfield was at the International Space Station (ISS) where he was finishing up his time as Commander. (Hadfield also gained fame by taking some superb photos and implementing loads of space-to-classroom educational outreach components. He’s seems to be pretty awesome, and an overall good guy.)
In his book, Hadfield takes the lessons that he’s learned on his journey training to be an astronaut and the first individual to go to space representing the Canada Space Agency. I love space exploration, but I haven’t really paid much attention to it since the most recent shuttle tragedy. I don’t know a lot about physics, some aspects of engineering, and other science-y details, but this lack of knowledge is entirely my fault for not paying better attention during my earlier school years. However, after reading Hadfield, I can’t say that I’m suddenly a well-informed expert in these matters, but I know a lot more than I did before this, and all the kudos should go to Hadfield for making his space experience fun and interesting via easy to understand and well written information.
Along with describing his long and arduous astronaut training, other ongoing themes throughout this read are to be a lifelong learner, to work well with others, and to pay attention to details as well as your bigger goals. (Other people will probably draw other conclusions, but these are what I pulled from this. To use a clichéd business expression: these are my take-aways.) So, perhaps not particularly new or unique thoughts, but when it’s wrapped in Hadfield’s life story and his career in space, it’s extremely palatable. Hadfield has a charming way about him – he’s seems to be brimming with enthusiasm, itching to keep on learning, whilst being extremely humble of his role in life. It’s a great combination, and one that kept me reading. (I’m usually not a big self-help book person, but this book is much more than that. Trust me.)
To wit, Hadfield wrote this about the importance of life-long learning:
It’s never either-or, never enjoyment versus advancement, so long as you 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 end up staying on the same rung.
I love this quotation as it’s exactly how I feel about life-long learning myself which is something that I frequently strive to do. I’m a big believer in the “beginner’s mind” approach to life, and really enjoy being exposed to new things and adding more details to the topics I already have familiarity with, so this advice really resonated with me and made me smile. Hooray for a fellow tribe member!
Here is his writing about the importance of preparation (vital if you’re an astronaut):
Preparation is not only about managing external risks, but about limiting the likelihood that you’ll unwittingly add to them [the risks themselves]. When you’re the author of your own fate, you don’t want to write a tragedy. Aside from anything else, the possibility of a sequel is nonexistent.
(Above) Chris Hadfield doing a space walk.
One of Hadfield’s big pushes in the book is to have a big plan ahead of what you want to happen, but pay attention to the pesky details that need to take place beforehand. His advice: “What’s going to be kill me next?” From an astronaut’s POV, that refers to thinking logically and chronologically about the immediate actions whilst keeping your eyes on the end goal. To me, he’s recommending a balanced “forest and the trees” approach, instead of an either/or dichotomy.
But the book wasn’t all life advice – some of it were descriptions of everyday life on the International Space Station which were fascinating. For example, when you’re in space for a long time (months vs. days), your vertebra spread out as there is no gravity to weight down on it and so when people return from the ISS assignments, they will be taller than when they left. (Hadfield was an inch or so taller upon his return.) But the new height is only temporary as when you return to Earth and its gravity, you start to shrink back to your more typical height.
Another thing that’s very different was when Hadfield tried to shake hands solemnly with the outgoing Russian commander, a fellow astronaut who was leaving the ISS to return home. Shaking hands in space (without gravity, of course) means that when you actually do the action of shaking hands and you do the brief up-and-down movement with your hand, your whole body goes up and down whilst your hands actually stay still which, for some reason, just seems really funny to me.
After being an astronaut on the ISS, wouldn’t life seem rather mundane once you had returned to Earth and resumed your normal life? Hadfield addresses this too which I thought was rather cool. So many people seem to do One Big Thing in their lives (astronauts or not), and then rest on their laurels and do very little after it. Hadfield’s approach is to applaud the hundreds of little steps that were taken day by day to get you to that high point as well as acknowledging and recognizing the people who made that One Big Thing possible at the same time. Again, not particularly new or unique advice but I just loved the way that he wove his space experiences with normal everyday life. Most people are not going to be astronauts, but can probably relate to his sensible approach related above. The manner that Hadfield wrote in was notable: he seems to be very humble, down-to-earth, and witty whilst being very smart and capable at the same time. This came through again and again through the read, and it really impressed me.
Along the same lines, Hadfield reminds us that it’s not always all about us; sometimes we need to be the support staff for someone else’s dream (or for a team to reach a much bigger goal such as space exploration). It was just such an excellent read at a time when the general milieu is about new year resolutions, setting new goals, turning a new leaf…
So, in case you can’t tell, I loved this book. As I mentioned above, this is an autobiography of an astronaut more than a self-help book – his advice is just slipped in between the lines of describing emergency space walks and being the U.S. Navy’s top test pilot, so it’s so subtle that you don’t really notice the suggestions. Even if you do notice the recommendations, they are straight as an arrow and very sensible that it would be difficult to disagree with any of them.
To wrap this up, I loved this book and Chris Hadfield has been added to my list of “Interesting People to Come to my Dinner Party”. (Other invitees so far: Robert Lacey and Nick Hornby. Date and place TBA. Guest list is a work in progress.)
If your interest in space is tweaked after this review, another great read about every day life in space is Mary Roach’s “Packing for Mars”. (Anything by Roach is going to be good – this title just happens to be about what’s involved if you need to pack for a trip to Mars.) Hilarious and informative which is always a good thing.