When I heard that popular Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, had written a book on the keys to his extraordinary success, I’ll admit to being a little bit leery. Don’t get me wrong, I have a great deal of admiration for the man and what he has achieved in his life can only be described as extraordinary. If I cringed a little, it was at the notion of such a fabulous story being distilled into something as mundane as a self-help book.
Still, I was curious enough—and, as a Canadian, possibly patriotic enough—to give the book a try and purchased it in audiobook form.
Turns out, I had nothing to fear.
The book is fantastic and reads more like a memoir with only a gentle nod to guiding us earth-bound souls toward how we can achieve our own successes in life. I highly recommend the audiobook version as it is read by Hadfield himself. There’s something about hearing the author’s words in his own voice that makes you feel like you’re sitting in his living room as he regales you with his various adventures. One of my favourites was his tale of flying a fighter jet and discovering an understandably ticked-off snake had stowed away inside the cockpit. Hadfield has an often repeated astronaut’s adage in the book about keeping an eye out for “the thing that’s going to kill you next” and that certainly qualified in that case. He also goes into great detail about the humbling in’s and out’s of his astronaut training and his time on the International Space Station.
Like many kids of his day, Hadfield had been inspired by watching the moon landing on TV back in the summer of 1969. He was only nine years old at the time, but knew right away that he wanted to be an astronaut.
It’s at this point in the story that I had feared that Hadfield would launch into what so many self-help books describe as the correct plan of action for such a lofty goal… total, single-minded dedication… hurling oneself full force against any obstacles that might be in one’s path… surely nothing less could possibly be good enough for such a task.
As it turns out, this is not the plan of action that Hadfield took or recommends. Back at that time, Canadians didn’t even have a space agency and the chances of a Canadian joining the American space agency were close to zero. For many of those kids who dreamed of being astronauts, that’s where the dream would’ve died. Hurling oneself against such clearly insurmountable obstacles would seem hopelessly futile.
What Hadfield did instead was decide that he would get himself ready to be an astronaut just in case circumstances changed and the opportunity presented itself. As a kid, this meant doing the obvious things like studying hard in school and achieving academic excellence. As an adult he modeled his career path after that of American astronauts who often started out as test pilots before they went on to NASA. He flew jets with the Canadian Military Forces and earned both an engineering degree and a masters in aviations systems. Decades roll by and the world changed. Canada eventually did create its own space agency and, in 1992, Hadfield was accepted into its astronaut program.
This notion of “just in case” really resonated with me as there have been many times in the past few years where my own goals seemed to be stuck behind insurmountable obstacles. For instance, even with animation school a decade behind me, I still can’t stop myself from dreaming of someday working on a feature film at an animation studio. For a long time I found these dreams quite distressing because I kept getting overwhelmed by all the reasons why I felt it could never happen:
- I’ve been out the game for too long
- I would never make it financially as a contractor
- I would have to pick up my whole life and move to the US
…and so on.
My natural inclination was to try and find ways to satisfy all those unknowns and find solutions for any possible obstacle so that I would feel ready to commit myself fully to this goal. Certainly, if all those other self-help books were to be believed, only hurling myself against anything in my way like a battering ram was the only way I could possibly achieve success.
Of course by that logic, nine-year-old Hadfield would have needed to come up with the solution for there being no Canadian space agency. Faced with such an immense roadblock, no one would have faulted him if he had written off the whole astronaut thing right then and there. What he did instead feels much gentler because it turns its back on all the big scary questions and puts the focus on those things that one can tackle.
Yes, I’d love to work in animation so what things can I do now that might prepare me for that opportunity should it arrive?
- I can do some research and try to figure out what area of the animation industry I’d enjoy working in the most
- I can improve my drawing, painting and even animating skills through continuing studies classes or focused practice on my own
- I can come up with all kinds of personal projects that also help to develop the skills I might need
Most important of all, I can move forward with my life knowing that, even if I’m not working in animation right now, I’d still be ready if the right opportunity arose. Also, regardless of whether or not I ultimately achieve this goal, those tasks aren’t time wasted because I’m still doing things that I enjoy and building a life brick-by-brick that I feel passionate about.
Are there things in your life where you feel like you’re waiting for the stars to align before you’re willing to take the first step?
What would happen instead if you took your focus off all the obstacles and tackled those pieces that you can tackle right now?
Freelance cartoonist, Gavin Aung Than of Zen Pencils, did a great comic about Hadfield that perfectly captures this philosophy. It’s based off a quote from a Hadfield Q&A that was originally posted to Reddit:
Decide in your heart of hearts what really excites and challenges you, and start moving your life in that direction. Every decision you make, from what you eat to what you do with your time tonight, turns you into who you are tomorrow, and the day after that. Look at who you want to be, and start sculpting yourself into that person. You may not get exactly where you thought you’d be, but you will be doing things that suit you in a profession you believe in. Don’t let life randomly kick you into the adult you don’t want to become.
I was so inspired by both the quote and the comic that I bought and mounted the art print of it. It’s fitting that it was actually this comic that first piqued my interest in Hadfield and, in turn, to read his book.
I encourage you to check out An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth and to hang on to some of those big dreams… just in case.