Career advice from an astronaut3

Career advice from an astronaut

Back at the beginning of October I started digging into An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything” by Col. Chris Hadfield.  

There’s a quote in the book that resonates with Recharted Territory’s mission,

Our core skill, the one that made us astronauts – the ability to parse and solve complex problems rapidly, with incomplete information, in a hostile environment – was not something any of us had been born with. But by this point, we all had it. We’d developed it on the job.”

– Col. Chris Hadfield

According to Hadfield, the skills needed to survive and thrive in difficult environments are just like any other skill. You can’t expect to be an expert out of the gate but you also can’t expect to get there without some practice. But what kind of training regimen could you use if you don’t work for NASA?

I pulled out four lessons from the book but I highly encourage you to pick up a copy. From the behind the scenes view of life in space and at NASA, to the career and life advice that he offers in each chapter, it’s an inspiring and entertaining read.


1. Make decisions that align towards your goal but don’t get fixated on the end result

If you’re not motivated and excited about where you’re going, training and practicing is going to be infinitely harder to stick with and Hadfield gives great advice about letting your dream guide you without letting the result dictate your happiness.

He decided at an early age that he wanted to be an astronaut. It was cute reading about how he made decisions as a 9-year-old based on which action he thought an astronaut would take.

I had to imagine what an astronaut might do if he were 9 years old, then do the exact same thing. I could get started immediately. Would an astronaut eat his vegetables or have potato chips instead? Sleep in late or get up early to read a book?

– Col. Chris Hadfield

He made decisions throughout his life based on his dream to be an astronaut but never attached his self-worth to the end result. His choices were always about doing things that interested him and would also happen to set him up for his dream job.

Application to daily life

Step 1) Pick one of you goal roles, even if it seems impossible for you to ever get. ex. astronaut

Step 2) Check out job postings or company websites to find job descriptions for that role and see what types of qualifications or training they are asking for. Make a list of those skills. ex. mechanical skills

Step 3) Then indicate which skills you’re most excited about. The ones you’d love learning and practicing, regardless of the outcome. ex. building things and solving problems

Step 4) Take one of those skills and brainstorm a list of other careers or jobs that could use that skill. ex. mechanical engineer

By the end of this exercise you’ll have a list of not only your dream job but also alternative career paths that will make you happy while you’re prepping for that dream job.


2. Keep learning, practicing, and reflecting with your team

It was clear while reading the chapters about his career training in the classroom, in simulation environments, and in survival training, that astronauts don’t wing it. They can’t with such a dangerous job that involves expensive equipment that is so valuable for scientific research. And because they don’t wing it and instead practice over and over again, simulating as many scenarios as possible, they are more confident that they will be prepared to solve problems in any situation. Even mistakes are an extension of the training.

At NASA, where the organizational culture focuses so explicitly on education, not just achievement, it’s even easier to frame individual mistakes as teachable moments rather than career-ending blunders.

– Col. Chris Hadfield

Application to daily life

You could try to replicate parts of the NASA environment in your own job or hobby. If you did the first exercise then you’ll have a list of skills and experience that you need to move you closer to your dream job. Try to identify at least one step you can take every week in each of these categories.

  • Read a new book
  • Listen to podcasts during your commute
  • Sign up for a course
  • Teach the concepts you’re learning to someone else


  • Practice presentations
  • Role play potential scenarios
  • Run a computer simulation


Reflecting and recording
  • Create templates and checklists
  • Hold retrospectives and debriefs with your team. Discuss what went well and why but also what went poorly and why.
  • Create a team manual or set of lessons learned like the “Flight Rules” set of manuals that Hadfield described


3. Prepare for the worst

Hadfield talks about being trained to constantly think about what could kill him and how that’s actually a great thing,

Rehearsing for catastrophe has made me positive that I have the problem-solving skills to deal with tough situations and come out the other side smiling.

– Col. Chris Hadfield

Application to daily life

Try completing a “pre-mortem” for you next project. Imagine that the worst case has happened and you’re sitting in that future retrospective with your team.

Some questions to ask yourselves could be:

  • What went wrong?
  • Why did it go wrong?
  • How did the team react?
  • Did our reaction help or hurt the situation?
  • Were there alternative ways to respond?
  • What could have prevented the worst case from happening?
  • What would have helped us gracefully fix the situation and move on?


To really level up your skills, practice dealing with that fictional worst-case scenario so when it does happen you’ll handle it like a pro. And if it doesn’t happen, you’ll have the extra peace of mind and confidence that you would have handled it if it did.


4. Aim to be a zero

If you haven’t read the book and have no idea what I’m talking about, in Ch. 9 Hadfield describes three ways your team can view you, a) as a minus one, b) as a zero, or c) as a plus one. A minus one creates problems (even if unintentionally), a zero has a neutral impact, and a plus one actively adds value.

I never thought about it this way before, but his advice makes complete sense. He advises not to try to become a plus one right away (and definitely don’t ever announce your plus one status) because you’ll probably be perceived as arrogant, ruffle some feathers, or mess things up, becoming a minus one in the eyes of your team.

If you enter a new environment intent on exploding out of the gate, you risk wreaking havoc instead.

– Col. Chris Hadfield

It’s much better to start under the radar, observe and learn, don’t try to be a superhero, and focus on contributing without making anything worse. Over time you’ll build up enough knowledge and trust with your team to start taking on plus one tasks but if you really want your team to see you as a plus one, stay humble and never act like you are better than other people on the team or that some tasks are beneath you.

Application to daily life

During your next meeting just listen and observe. Focus on helping the facilitator push the conversation along instead of adding in your own thoughts and agenda. Volunteer to take on action items and to help other team members.


More resources

For anyone, whether you have or haven’t read the book, check out this Ted Talk by Col. Chris Hadfield. He talks about his experience in space and his advice for approaching fear.


What were your favorite takeaways from this book? How would you encourage people to apply those principles in their own work or life?

By the way, the reading for November is “Creativity, Inc.” by Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. When you’ve finished, check out the review here: Leading creativity: Lessons from Pixar.

One Comment

  • I really like the concept of “aim for zero”. Too often I’ve seen people tasked with implementing change come into a team or project and immediately start their attempt to make an impact. This is a dangerous path; within a complex system – a multitude of business and technical processes, teams, and typically and entrenched culture – any action can and does affect the multitude of dependencies and influencers across the system. Without understanding those dependencies, it’s hard to take a right action.

    I like the OODA-loop tool developed by USAF Colonel John Boyd. OODA stands for Observe-Orient-Decide-Act, and is a tool used in decision making to lead toward better outcomes. A great article detailing the approach can be found here:

    It’s a good read for us who aim to be zeroes in order to be better, more effective changemakers.

    Great post, Lisa. Lots of food for thought.

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