How to deal with setbacks like a Martian wide

How to deal with setbacks like a Martian tall

Have you run into any setbacks recently? Any disappointments? Did you feel like you took one step forward and two steps back?

This week, inspiration is coming from an unlikely place: Mars. We’ll talk about what we can learn from “The Martian” by Andy Weir, a super popular book from the Recharted Territory reading list that was recently made into a movie starring Matt Damon.

What does this science fiction survival story have to do with complex systems? Surprisingly, a lot. Hopefully your projects won’t be as dramatic as what the main character, Mark Watney, went through but survivor stories can provide a lot of useful tips that we can apply as we enter unknown situations, navigate, survive, build a little “colony” and stay mentally strong when things don’t go according to plan (which is guaranteed to happen).

Here are five lessons that you can apply to your projects:


1. Take stock of the situation

The morning after the accident that leaves him stranded on Mars, Mark looks around and assesses what he has.

“Today I took stock of supplies and did a quick EVA to check up on the external equipment.”

– Mark Watney in “The Martian”

How does that help? It gives him something to do to avoid staying in a pity party. It also helps him to sort out reality vs. where his imagination is taking over. He looks at what’s available and how he’s doing on food, water, shelter, energy, medicine, and communications. After understanding what he has to work with and which area needs the most help, he can decide what the highest priority is (which in his case is finding a way to communicate with NASA).

Application to daily life

Take a step back and make a list of everything you have available to complete the project. Think about people, resources, and tools. Also, reflect on how you’re feeling, what’s going well, and which problems are the most urgent and important to fix.


2. Focus on one problem at a time

Even when everything is going badly, Mark reminds himself to focus on one problem at a time.

“Of course, I don’t have any plan for surviving four years on one year of food. But one thing at a time here. For now, I’m well fed and have a purpose: Fix the damn radio.”

– Mark Watney in “The Martian”

It’s a technique that’s also used by the Navy SEALs. In “The Way of the SEAL” by Mark Divine, the author describes this idea as “front-sight focus.” It’s an intense concentration and focus on one task or target until it is completed. He maintains that it has a “calming and confidence-building effect.”

Similar to listing inventory, it gives you something specific to focus on and execute without splitting your attention across multiple problems. Studies have shown that interruptions and switching between complex and unrelated tasks can not only make the tasks take longer to complete but also cause more stress.

Application to daily life

List out the problems, pick the most time sensitive or critical, and don’t think about the rest until the first is solved. The astronauts went through years of training and simulations to rely on their mental checklists, reflexes, and intuition to determine what to focus on. You could use a value framework or an existing roadmap to decide what to start with. To stay focused, try closing all browser windows or applications and moving all physical clutter not related to the task.


3. Rethink standard purposes

Most people would be overwhelmed by the problems that he encounters but Mark is the MacGyver of Mars. He is able to turn things around by combining engineering, experimentation, and resourcefulness. He’s constantly thinking of ways to build what he needs and how to repurpose items to fit the problem he’s trying to solve.

Viewing the components different ways helps expand the options available to solve the problem. The reason why we have difficulty being resourceful is because of a psychological principle called functional fixedness. That means that we tend to focus on how an object is typically used, not the properties of the object. As an astronaut, mechanical engineer, and botanist, Mark has a lot of experience thinking about the properties of materials. That knowledge helps him when he finds himself with just a handful of items to use to solve a problem.

Application to daily life

Take the list of everything you have and think about the functions they provide vs. the functions you need. Try moving them to a different context, modifying them, or repurposing items. Back of the envelope calculations and experiments can help you make decisions before investing the resources (or taking a risk).

One way to improve your resourcefulness is to practice. Try this exercise multiple times a week. Pick an item in your house (it could be anything). Then set a timer and spend one minute generating ideas of different ways to use that item. After getting into that habit you’ll find yourself coming up with alternative uses for tangible and intangible things around you. It’s also pretty good practice if you ever want to be on “Chopped.”


4. Allow yourself to freak out (once in a while)

Mark is facing being stuck on Mars for years. Alone. No one’s going to be completely calm during that period so don’t feel bad if you don’t either. Mark lets himself freak out every once in a while, sometimes throwing himself a pity party. Then he is able to switch modes, calm down, and focus on the next step (usually on the same day or the next day).

“Sigh…okay. I’ve had my tantrum and now I have to figure out how to stay alive. Again. Okay, let’s see what I can do here…”

– Mark Watney in “The Martian”

The first three lessons covered rational techniques but when it comes to dealing with setbacks, your emotions can often be more impactful. If you don’t deal with negative thoughts then you risk having them take over the film roll/audio track in your brain. You have to be careful to avoid dwelling on them, which can send you into a downward spiral and make it more difficult to act. The mark of successful or brave people is not that they never feel worried or freaked out. It’s that they do the work in spite of that feeling and can push it to the side to focus on what needs to get done.

Application to daily life

Create a space to vent, whether a physical space or journal. Express your feelings, then move on to something else.


5. Keep it lighthearted

The characters in the “The Martian” are always cracking jokes. Humor has been shown to reduce stress, improve hope, and help you think more creatively.

“In the months leading up to the launch, the crew was put through a grueling training schedule. They all showed signs of stress and moodiness. Mark was no exception, but the way he showed it was to crack more jokes and get everyone laughing.”

– Dr. Irene Shields, flight psychologist for the Ares missions, talking about Mark Watney in “The Martian”

Application to daily life

Pay attention to your body and language. If you’re feeling tense or using negative language, crack a joke, smile, watch a comedy, or do something random but fun (like how Mark picks a theme song for his trip).


Related reading

If you liked this article, check out more lessons from space in Career advice from an astronaut.


What are your favorite survivor stories? How do they inspire you to overcome setbacks in your projects?


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