[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success, the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than a million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.
In this episode we what happened when our guest, astronaut Chris Hadfield, went blind during a spacewalk and how he made it out alive. We talk about the mental toughness necessary to survive extremely dangerous situations just like that. We discuss in depth how astronauts deal with fear. We look at the vital importance of powerful training to deal with huge risks and much more with Chris Hatfield.
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In our previous episode we discussed how a neurologist’s perspective on your brain fundamentally ignores the health of the entire system. We talked about your gut biome’s role in depression, mood regulation and how the micro-biome controls your behavior and emotions. We ask why it is so hard for people to break negative eating habits, looked at the biochemistry of addiction, discuss the incredible importance of understanding your micro-biome and gut health and much more with Dr. Kulreet Chaudhary. If you want to get the neuroscience behind your gut in your micro-biome, listen to that episode.
Now, for the interview.
I want to make a quick note before we dive in. Chris had to dial in via phone, so the audio quality on this episode is a little bit rougher than some of our typical interviews. Remember, we are interviewing experts across the world, people in many different industries and in many cases, you know, astronauts like Chris are not professional podcasters. They don't have a professional recording set up. We do the best we can to try and deliver the highest quality audio possible, but I just wanted to give you heads up that the audio quality on this interview is not the best that we've done, but the conversation is amazing. I know you’re going to get a ton out of it, so let's dive right in.
[0:03:15.7] MB: Today we have another incredible guest on the show, astronaut Chris Hatfield. Chris, who the BBC called the most famous astronaut since Neil Armstrong, has been part of several space missions with the Canadian Space Agency and NASA. He served as the Chief of Robotics and the Chief of International Space Station Operations. Chris was the first Canadian to command the International Space Station and was awarded the NASA Exceptional Service medal and inducted to the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame. In addition, his work as an engineer and astronaut, Chris is an author, musician and speaker.
Chris, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:50.4] CH: Thanks, Matt. It’s really nice to be joining you. That’s almost embarrassing to listen to all of that introduction, but thanks for mentioning everything.
[0:03:57.0] MB: You had quite a storied career and some really, really fascinating experiences. I’d love to start out, for listeners who may not be familiar with you and some of your background, tell us how did you become an astronaut and what were you doing before that?
[0:04:12.3] CH: The simple question, or I guess how to answer to your question is, I decided to be an astronaut when I was a kid and I started trying to turn myself into one starting at like 10 years old. I really had no idea, but I thought astronauts fly in space, so I’m going to learn to fly. Astronauts have to know how to operate complex machinery, so I’m going to become an engineer. I noticed that a lot of astronauts traditionally at the beginning were test pilots, so I thought I’m going to try and become a military test pilot and see if all that works or not, and if it doesn’t, that’s all still a bunch of interesting things to be a pilot and a test pilot and an engineer. That's the path I followed.
I served 25 years in the Air Force and became a test pilot, actually even serving with the NAVY, U.S. NAVY as a test pilot. At the end of all of that, I even got a university degree in Tennessee, in fact. After all of that, I got selected as an astronaut and then served 21 years as an astronaut.
[0:05:09.9] MB: That’s fascinating. Both of those things, how do you — I know it’s such a competitive and challenging field even just becoming a test pilot, let alone becoming an astronaut. What do you think enabled you to make your way through that incredibly difficult selection process?
[0:05:28.4] CH: Three different things, Matt. I think let me get through all that. Number one was an unquenchable burning desire. You really, really have to want to do this just because there're so many dead ends and obstacles and unlikely opportunities. The second is a huge amount of work. I love work. I grew up on a farm work. I think work is interesting and productive and it gives me satisfaction. I think in addition to an unquenchable desire is also a big appetite for hard work. Then the third is luck. If I’ve been born 10 years prior, I couldn't have been an astronaut. It’s just timing, and health, and circumstance and such. There’s always going to be some luck involved.
I think if you have a burning desire, you have a huge amount of ability to work at something and then accept that there's luck involved, that's not a bad recipe for no matter what you’re dreaming of doing.
[0:06:21.3] MB: One of the most famous things that you're kind of known for is this infamous spacewalk that you talked about in your TED Talk. Could you share that story with the audience?
[0:06:33.1] CH: Sure. I’ve done two spacewalks to help build things orbiting the earth. I helped build part of the International Space Station. Spacewalks are hard. They take many, many years of training, development, invention, practice, but even while they're happening, they’re physically very demanding and very technically complicated. Nothing like you see in the movies ever. But stuff goes wrong during spacewalks all the time naturally. We try and keep it safe, because your danger is very hard and, touch wood, we've never lost an astronaut during a spacewalk to this point, but we recognize the risk and the danger of them.
During my first spacewalk there was contamination inside the suit that got into one of my eyes, sort of stopped it from working. Suddenly I couldn't see out of my left eye. I just kept working, because I figured well maybe it will clear and I couldn't do anything about it anyway. I couldn’t rub my eye or anything. It’s stuck inside a helmet. My eye was irritated enough by the contamination. It was tearing up, and without gravity, the tears don’t go anywhere. They just stay in your eyes like this big ball of contaminated saltwater and tear.
Eventually, that ball of contamination got big enough that unfortunately it bridged to the side of my nose and flowed this little bubble of contaminated stuff flowed into my other eye and contaminated my other eye. So then both my eyes were contaminated and I was blinded during my first spacewalk. That was a difficult thing to deal with, being outside, holding on to the outside of the ship suddenly unable to see.
I think if we hadn't practiced, if we’ve taken it lightly, if we hadn’t done all the work in advance, that would've been cripplingly scary and unsolvable. I was outside with a guy named Scott Parazynski, a classmate of mine, really competent fellow, and we practiced for years and years and help invent everything we’re going to do out there. One of the things we had practiced is just in the category of if one of us becomes unable for whatever reason. You might have a loss of communication, so your suit might short out or you might lose oxygen or you might have a leak in your suit or whatever. You might have a heart attack. Who knows? We call that incapacitated crew rescue.
Scott and I had practiced that. In fact it's one of the things you have to qualify at in order to be trusted to do a spacewalk. In this case I was incapacitated to some degree. I could talk. I could think. I was still fine. I could communicate with everybody. I just couldn’t see. Without being able to see, you really can't do the job out there. I talked to everybody and we ended up realizing that it might be something pretty serious contaminating my suit, and so I opened up the purge valve. The in-consultation with mission control down in Houston opened up the purge valve on my suit to let the contaminated atmosphere around my head flush and squirt out into space and then tapping into my limited reserves of pressurized oxygen in the suit. Listening to the oxygen hiss out of my suit alone out of the universe, and the universe is kind of bit to re-pressurize with one oxygen tank. I knew I was going to lose at that eventually.
What it did was it brought enough fresh oxygen, and therefore atmosphere into my suit, that it allowed the contamination to evaporate around my eyes and sort of build a crusty ring around my eyes, and my eyes continued tearing. After a while the contamination got dilute enough that I could see again and could get back to work and my eye stopped tearing.
It turned out just to be the anti-fog that we used on the visor, sort of a mixture of oil and a harsh soap and it’s as if someone had just squirted oily harsh soap into your eye. Your eye doesn't work anymore. Nothing super technical, just a thing, but enough that it definitely upped the danger and decreased our chances of success. We practiced and prepared enough that the mission control allowed us to continue and finish the entire spacewalk actually and got everything done. Since then we've changed the anti-fog solution that we use, when in truth we use Johnson’s No More Tears now, which probably what we should use right from the get go. That little problem manifested itself into me being blind, alone, out of my very first spacewalk, pretty interesting place to be.
[0:10:57.6] MB: What goes through your mind in that moment when you completely lose your vision and you’re floating in outer space?
[0:11:06.1] CH: Well, in my case it was, number one, what caused it. I’m thinking, “Okay. What can be causing — What’s irritating my eyes? Why am I struck blind by this?” I’ve studied all of the stuff very carefully. I know how all of the systems in the suit work really well. I’m trying visualize through all of the schematics and chemistry and everything of what might be causing this problem. Two; frustration, because I'm not able to do the things that I’m there for. I’m supposed to be building this huge robot arm to Canada onto the outside of the spaceship and now I’m useless and just there hanging on waiting for this problem to clear. I’m kind of frustrated at this event.
Then, three, having to tell Houston, because I know just what a grenade that's going to be at mission control to tell everybody down there that I’m blind. They just have a real serious problem to try and give me good advice on. I’m just thinking about all of those things.
The real bottom line is am I okay or not? As soon as you established yourself that, “Okay. I’m breathing. I’m fine. The only thing is I can’t see. So what? If you close your eyes, you can't see.” It’s just a matter of just something to deal with. Not a problem I wanted to deal with, and hopefully nothing that’s going to strike me permanently blind, but still just one sense out of five that I lost and let's try and solve the problem. Let’s work the problem and get to the solution of that. Let’s not going to worry and panic and overdramatic about the thing. Let’s deal with it and move on.
[0:12:33.7] MB: How do you cultivate the mental toughness to be in such an incredibly high stress situation and maintain that kind of calm presence of mind to be able to problem solve and work your way through it?
[0:12:48.9] CH: That’s why NASA hire the astronauts that they do. NASA is currently going through an astronaut selection, and 18,000 people have applied for like 8 or 10 slots, 8 or 10 positions. If you have 18,000 people to choose from, you don't just choose people that are fit or you don't just choose people that have a certain type of university degree. You try and choose people that not only are fit and have a certain type university degree, but also have a proven ability to make good decisions under really complex and high-stakes situations. Who would you hire? You’ll hire test plots, because test pilots are used to balancing all of that stuff, a very dangerous job. Test pilots are killed all the time, because the job itself is dangerous. Also, have that a learned and trained ability to deal with huge number of factors simultaneously. You’re flying the airplane, you're testing something new, you're dealing with unexpected circumstances and you still, at the end of it, have to somehow get home and land.
Or we hire medical doctors, and not just run-of-the-mill medical doctors, but as competent as possible, or we hire people who have ran large stage of life, or not only do they have all the raw material, but they have the proven ability to make good decisions, but the consequences really truly matter. When you never have enough information, you’ve shown that you are the type of person that can be trusted to make the right call and not just get all panicked. Then that’s how we do it; the right type of people chosen and then years and years of training and preparation and study.
I was an astronaut for 21 years, and I was only in space for six months. For 20-1/2 years I was training and studying and preparing and helping to support and invent space flight. That’s how you deal with it.
[0:14:40.5] MB: Wow! That ratio, it really demonstrates the point which I think is vital that training and practice is so important. Talk to me a little bit more about that and how critical that is. For somebody who's — I’m trying to draw this back to almost an actionable insight for someone who’s listening in. How vital is training and how can people integrate that lesson of how they can build toughness in their own lives?
[0:15:05.2] CH: I think a lot of people just count on good looks and charm and luck and such. If you do that, that’s fine. Sometimes it will work and sometimes it won't, and if the consequences are low, then so what? It’s no big deal. So this didn’t work out. If the consequences of what you’re trying to do are life and death and also it meant financial consequence, or if you get this wrong, that you have wasted an entire shuttle flight or you’ve ruined a piece of equipment that cost a lot of people a lot of money. We take it immensely seriously.
If that’s the type of thing you're trying to accomplish, then you don't just count on random events. You don’t just count on luck. It changes your entire job. Your job is now to do everything that is possible prior to this event happening so that you could optimize your chances of success. To do that, you don't visualize success. You visualize failure. Like in the book, my first book, the Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, what I call the power of negative thinking. There's not much point in just visualizing success, because if it happens it's great. If it doesn't, then visualizing it didn’t help.
Visualizing failure serves you well. This is what I’m trying to accomplish. What is the most likely thing to go wrong and am I ready to face it, and how do I know? Let’s practice that thing going wrong and see if I can deal with it. If I can't, let’s practice it again and again and again until, “Okay. If that thing goes wrong, I now know how to deal with it, and then let’s move on to the next most probable thing to go wrong and let's practice that until we understand it and then the next and the next thing.”
I don’t know. We practiced 10,000 different things, and that's what astronauts do for a living; visualize success. They practice for failure all the time. They live in a world of negative thinking, because then when something's coming along, like space fuck, and suddenly you’re struck blind. You’re like, “Okay. What’s really gone wrong here? What am I dealing with? What could have caused this? What are the impacts? What can I do next? What did we practice? What do we know about this and how can we improve it for the future?” It just changes what your role is. You don't count on luck. You count on your own learned and practiced ability to deal with the probable things that are going to go wrong, and that applies to everything. It applies to driving your car down the highway.
Eventually in your life, Matt, driving down a road, you are going to have a tire go flat, but how many times have you practiced it? How many times have you actually look at your model of car, whether it's front-wheel-drive, all-wheel-drive, rear wheel drive. W type of steering do you have? What type of run flat tires do you have? All that information, you know in one minute you could look it up. What is the right thing to do if you’re going 60 down the highway and your front left tire blows? What should you do? It’s a thing that's going to happen sometime in your life and you can learn exactly what you're supposed to do in 10 minutes on the Internet and the next time you’re driving your car, you can practice it 10 times. Just say, “Okay. Right now my front left —” on some empty stretch of road while you’re just driving long anyway. “My front left tire just blew up. Okay. What are my actions? Do I break? Do I not break? Do I downshift? Do I go into neutral? What do I do? Do I go left? Do I go right?” Just practice it. After you've done it, looked it up and done it 10 times, then you just file that away inside yourself as, “Okay. this is one of the things I'm now ready for.” Astronauts treat everything, like that flat tire. That’s how we fly in space.
[0:18:39.8] MB: It’s amazing that when you look across people who’ve been incredibly successful in various different disciplines. I’m thinking about Charlie Monger, Warren Buffett. The business partner, the cochairman of Berkshire Hathaway, a guy we talk about all the time on the show. I’m thinking about people like the ancient Stoics. They all have very, very similar lessons, which is this idea that it's not necessarily about focusing on and visualizing things can go right. It's about figuring out the most probable things that can go wrong and planning and optimizing and building a strategy so that you can minimize those things.
[0:19:16.3] CH: Yeah. That’s the only way that NASA has been successful in putting people that are up on the space station right now and driving our probe through the plumes of Enceladus that are going around Saturn right now and flying out beyond Pluto and driving the probes around on Mars and all these stuff we’re doing. It is purely the results of setting ourselves a goal and then starting to visualize failure and then learning incrementally better and better, how to get closer and closer to what it is we’re dreaming of and not counting on luck.
No astronaut launches for space with their fingers crossed. That's not how we deal with risk. That’s just not an actual way to step up to something, and anything we’re doing in life, the people that you just mentioned. They have a set of goals in life. Things that they value, things that they want to get done. Any of the choices that they make have risk. Whether it's personal, reputational, financial, life or death. Anything worth doing in life has risk. Then the real question is, “How are you changing who you are so that you have a better chance of succeeding when you’re faced that particular risk?” That's really the whole recipe for success in spaceflight and really, I think, in anything worthwhile in life.
[0:20:35.8] MB: That brings up a couple of points that I want to dig into. One of them is the relationship between danger and fear. Being somebody who's been a test pilot, an astronaut, you’ve put yourself in some incredibly dangerous situations, I guess, by most people's estimations. How do you view the interaction between those two things and are they the same?
[0:21:00.0] CH: People ask you all the time, “Was launch scary?” or “Boy! Doing a spacewalk, that must be scary.” I became aware years and years ago as a test pilot and then as an astronaut that things aren't scary, just people are scared and they’re fundamentally different.
Some people are afraid of whatever; a mouse or some people aren’t. Some people are afraid of — I don’t know, marriage, and some people are afraid of flying. The thing doesn't change. The mouse doesn't change, whether you’re afraid of it or not, or the airplane or the idea of flight or whatever. The real question is, “What are you prepared for and what are you unprepared for?”
If you're unprepared for something then, really, the only recourse that we have is to be afraid, because fear causes physiological changes in your body. When you’re afraid, your body changes; you shiver or the blood drains from some part of your body or adrenaline gets released into your veins. Your body recognizes that, “Holy cow! This guy isn't ready for the thing that's happening. This wildebeest that just jumped out of the woods at him, he wasn’t ready for that.” And so I need to change momentarily this person's physiology so that they could deal with it. We call that change of physiology fear, because it allows us maybe for a momentary period to be able to face up to a risk. You don't want to fly a spaceship just by using adrenaline in your veins. It’s harmful to your body, but also it’s transient. That's not exactly how we fly spaceships. It’s not relying on super quick muscle twitch and reaction. It relies on complex reasons, a practiced deep technical understanding of how to do things.
You can draw the parallel to just about anything. I don’t know, learning to use a skateboard. First time you get on a skateboard, you're useless at it and you fall, and so you’re kind of a little bit scared getting on a skateboard at first when you're a kid or, even worse, as an adult, or you don’t have the skills yet and you have a pretty good chance of falling and least skin in your knee, if not breaking a leg or busting a tooth or something, because you are incompetent at it.
If you spend a time and you turn your natural talent into a honed ability, if you practice skateboarding until you can get on one, not even think about it, and now you could start to do tricks and jumps and all the cool things that the good skateboarders can do, you get to a point where it is no longer scary at all. In fact it's just sort of freedom. It's a cool thing. The skateboard didn’t change. The skateboards exactly the same. The physics didn’t change. It’s just you that changed, and that’s the difference between fear and danger. Things aren't scary, just people are scared. The only reason you're scared is because you didn't do your homework, you didn't practice, you didn’t get ready. You’re just trying to count on luck to carry you through this thing. It will work for some things in life.
I think that gives you then the choice of you can go through life afraid, and one of our ways of describing perpetual fear stress. You could be overwhelmed by it, but just pick off one thing at a time. What is the thing that I don't how to do that I wish I could that is causing me danger or causing me stress, and let’s try and get good at that today. Let’s spend the next hour getting good at that thing so I don't longer have to be afraid of that. Then let’s go on to the next thing and the thing after that and the thing after that. That’s how I trained as a pilot. I used to be a downhill ski racer as well, same thing. That’s how I t rained as a test pilot and that is the absolute essence of training to fly in space, is to recognize the difference between danger and fear and then use all the available time to be ready for the risk so that you optimize your chances of success.
[0:25:05.7] MB: What a great point. I really, really like that idea, that fear is essentially lack of preparation. If you prepare enough, if you train enough, it's possible to overcome any fear. Really, in many ways, fear — The kind of logical conclusion of that, is that fear is simply a signal telling you that you need to do more preparation.
[0:25:27.4] CH: Yeah, or don't do that thing. I’m afraid of heights. Just generically, I think everybody should be afraid of heights, because if you’re in a position where you can fall without any control, then you don’t have to fall for much higher than your own standing height do yourself damage. You can crack your skull just by falling from your own standing height. That’s kind of the limit of how tall evolution is allowed our bodies to be, because if you fall from any more of your own height, you did.
If you're standing on the edge of a cliff and one tiny little random gust of wind or lack of attention will kill you, then your body should be screaming at you that this is not where you ought to be, and either anchor yourself to something or do something else, but don't put yourself at risk if there's no benefit to what you’re doing.
If this is a thing you really want to do, if there’s some great benefit to it. This is accomplishing some goals for you, then that's a different set of circumstances and you need to build all the skills you have so that you won't fall.
The raw idea of fear is really just trying to protect you against hurting yourself, against ending your life unnecessarily. So you should listen to fear, but you should not keep fear from allowing you to dictate the constraints of your life. If you can't, you should locate, “This is important to me, just because I'm afraid.” Well, the afraid part is just because I’m not good at this yet. Let’s start gaining skills so I can do this thing that’s important to me and not just spend my life being stressed and wringing my hands and crossing my fingers and being afraid.
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[0:28:25.7] MB: Another example that you’ve shared around this is the idea of dealing with spiders or fear of spiders and walking through spider webs. Can you share that example?
[0:28:34.2] CH: what I was trying to explain to folks how is it you can change your own threshold of fear. One of the examples that occurred to me was spiders, because a lot of people are afraid of spiders and there’s a good reason for that, of course, and that some spiders are quite venomous. The venom that they have has a really nasty negative effect and there are some that are really awful that can cause — That’s a neurotoxin or cause really bad damage to the human bodies. Black widow has a certain reputation or a brown recluse. They’ve even got bad names.
Of course, most spiders are fine. Almost every spider on earth is just a little bug and it’s just being a spider and it’s terrified of you because you’re huge and can squish it any moment. If you have no understanding of spiders at all, then you could treat every single little thing in the corner of your eye that might turn out to be a spider as the most venomous spider that exists, and some people do. They treat every single little bug that they see as potential death, and that’s unreasonable, of course, because the odds of actually running into one of those spiders that does you harm is really low. Rather than spending your life screaming and running every time you see a bug, why not say, “Okay. Some spiders are bad for me, but most aren’t. Where I live, how many spiders are actually poisonous or venomous? How many actually do me harm?
For a lot of the places in the world, you’ll find that the answer is none. There are spiders at all that exist where you live that are venomous, or maybe there’ just one or two, and you could look up where they actually exist. Maybe they’re only in a certain type of cave or at a certain type of circumstances and maybe they’re easily identifiable. Like a black widow has a great big red hourglass on its back. It couldn’t have a clear, like a danger marking on it just to let you know.
Then say, “Okay. Now I know what the actual danger is. If it's just any other type of spider, I can treat it like a ladybug. It’s got the same threat to me as a ladybug, but there's a couple of spiders I have to watch out for, or this type, and what do their nest look like, and I won’t walk into one of those type of webs, like the small web, like a black widow that build close to the ground, often dark corners.”
Then say, “Okay. Now I know what the risk is, but I still have this fundamental sort of gut reaction, my instinctive reaction of fear. Every time I feel a spider web on my face walking in the dusk, I feel that same raw animal fear.” Then say to yourself, “But that can’t be a venomous spider. They don’t build spider webs up here. That can't be it. So I'm just being silly.”
To overcome it, what I recommend is walk-through spider webs deliberately. Find a spider web that you know actually isn't a threat and walk through it and then find another one and walk-through that. Go up to an attic where there’s a whole bunch of spider webs that are obviously not any sort of threat and just walk through to them. Get over your primitive, illogical, instinctive, fearful reaction and actually look into the information. Find out — Use your brain and figure it out and practice and practice and practice. After you walked through a hundred spider webs with no consequence, then you could start to change your fundamental instinctive reaction. You can start to control your own instinctive fear, and now you can make your decisions based on reality and not just on the same amount of intellect that a simplest forms of life put into their decision-making.
We treat everything like that in the space business. How does this spider web, or how does this spider actually shape up as a threat? What’s the real threat? What is the real threat look like? How am I going to recognize the real threat from all the noise of the non-threats so that I don't overreact, because if you don't know what to be afraid of, then you're afraid of everything, and I don't think that’s a useful way to go through life. I just think it’s self-destructive.
[0:32:47.6] MB: I love the example of forcing yourself to walk through spider webs, and I wanted to hear the story, because, to me, I personally am kind of afraid of spiders and so it was very relevant story. I almost instinctively hear, and maybe this is just a lack of knowledge, but I sort of instinctively hear myself saying like, “Yeah. That sounds like a great idea to go walk through some spider webs, but what if?” I think it's the what if that always gets me and like makes me more fearful. It’s like, “What if that web that I happened to walk through happens to be a dangerous spider?”
[0:33:20.4] CH: Right. That’s where your intellect comes into effect, and actually look and do the work in advance. Don't just count on randomness. If you are afraid of jaguars, that doesn't mean you need to be afraid of kittens, house cat kittens, but they’re both cats. You can spend your entire life terrified of kittens because you’re also afraid of jaguars, but it doesn’t make any sense. Yet, for whatever reason, you’re going to put spiders in the same category
Just do the work in advance. If you have no information, then you have to assume the worst, but you have your whole life to gather information, so why not do it? Why just assume the worst all the time?
[0:34:04.4] MB: The cat and the kitty jaguar example definitely brings that into light and shows sort of how ridiculous that framework of belief is.
[0:34:12.0] CH: Yeah. It’s the difference between belief and knowledge. If you’re just running around instinctively reacting on belief, that you may as well be a pug. I have a pug. He’s a delightful dog, but he’s not a deep thinker and he just deals with stuff the best he can and just instinctively reacts to everything, but we’re not pugs. We are the most rational of all beings, and what do you choose to do with your ability to think I think has a big effect on what happens in your life.
[0:34:42.7] MB: That kind of makes me think we’re transitioning a little bit into another thing that you’ve talked about which I fully agree with is this idea that dovetailing that concept of risk and danger, the Idea that most people's perception of how dangerous their lives are is actually totally disconnected from the reality that today we live in the safest, healthiest period ever in human history and the world is actually a much better place than people realize.
[0:35:14.1] CH: Absolute. Everybody wants to feel significant, of course. It’s a fundamental human natural need, and that's good, and you should recognize that you are no different than everybody else. You want to feel worthwhile and significant.
One of the ways to increase your own significance is to exaggerate the problems that exist. The people that hold up the sign the end of the world is coming, it's because the world has been here for 4-1/2 billion years and this person has painted a sign and stuck it up here in there, particular 75 years on earth, because they want this to be the most significant 75 years out of all the 4-1/2 billion, because it makes them feel good, but it’s kind of ridiculous. The world isn't about to suddenly end just because this person held up a sign.
I think that natural lack of temporal perspective of yourself and the desire to feel significant tends to let you over exaggerate the risks that exist in your life. I never been harder to whatever, to raise children or to do anything, it’s never been harder than it is now. Boy! You shouldn’t have to go very far back in human history to find examples that counter that argument. Like gosh, the 400 million people died of smallpox in the last century, which is the population of Europe, or the number of people that were killed in World War I and how, or the influenza epidemic of 1919-1920 that killed millions and hundreds of millions of people around the world, or whatever, child disease. The number of people that make at their full natural lifespan now is higher than it's ever been for our species worldwide. The opportunity just in the cellphone you hold in your hand, you have the library of Alexandria. Some total of human knowledge available to you and we’ve eliminated a lot of the diseases that used to plague us all the time.
Yeah, life isn't easy, but I think in an effort to sometimes — I don’t know, feel a little more significant, we tend to over exaggerate the problems that face us right now. Looking back into history of studying the problems that our predecessors faced, hopefully the helps put us into a little clearer image in the mirror.
[0:37:29.1] MB: In many ways, it’s almost the same lesson, which is the idea that the more informed you are, the more you understand how reality really is, the less fear you have about sort of vague things that are out there that people are worried about and afraid of.
[0:37:44.7] CH: Yeah, I think so. People say often to me, “Gosh! Would you take a one-way trip to Mars?” I sort of remind myself all the time that, “Hey, we’re all in a one-way trip,” that you can't get away from that. You get your years of then life is done. Get over that part. Don't pretend that you’re going to be the first person ever to never die.
The real focus then is not to prolong some vestige of life for as desperately long as possible, but actually to do things that are important to you while you are alive. That's the real key. What is important to me and what should I be working on? Because there’s a randomness to life, and what should I be working on? How should I be trying to change who I am? What are the things that I love and that I want to do and that I hope to get done? Let's work on those and not just spend my life cowering under the pillows and hope that somehow that will extend my life by one more day. Deal with the difference between fear and danger and recognize that you are kind of the thinking link between those two so that one doesn't need to overpower the other.
[0:38:56.0] MB: Let’s change directions. I want to talk about another kind of quote or idea that you’ve shared, which is the idea that the sky is not the limit.
[0:39:03.5] CH: Yeah, I think it's funny when you see some advertising campaign and somebody says the sky's the limit. I’m going, “Wow! Have you ever looked through a telescope? Have you ever gone outside at night?” I’m just thinking, “What a funny phrase? The sky is the limit.” Maybe that made sense before the Wright Brothers got flagged at Kitty Hawk or before Yeager went through the speed of sound during, whatever, ’47, or Al Shepard flew in space in ’61, or Neil and Buzz walked to the moon and ’69, or Peggy, who’s commanding the space station right now when she did — This is her second time commanding the International Space Station. The sky is this ghostly reflection of light that is the tiniest of vestige of onionskin tin sheaf around the hard rock of our planet. That’s what the sky is. To think that sky is the limit, it just makes me laugh.
[0:39:59.3] MB: I think that kind of hints at the — One of the things that I've heard a lot of astronauts talk about is this idea that viewing the earth from outer space fundamentally shifts your perspective and gives you a much deeper understanding of the shared journey that humanity is on and the fragileness of earth. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience and what that was like?
[0:40:25.5] CH: Sure. Earth is incredibly tough. Earth has been here 4-1/2 billion year, which is an almost — It’s such a big number. It's almost infinity, 4-1/2 billion years, and we’ve recently found fossils on earth from 4 billion years ago, the earliest of the two worms that were growing at the rift at the bottom of the oceans. There's been life on earth for 4 billion years. Life tough and the earth is tough, but certain little styles of living. They’re transient, of course. They’re fragile, and the earth gets hit by big events, huge electromagnetic pulses from the sun and other stars and huge million year-long volcanic eruptions and caldera and asteroid impacts and stuff. The earth is tough. It withstood all of those.
Life is precious, and the earth, as far as we can tell, is the only place that life exists so far. We haven’t found life anywhere else. There's lots of probabilities out there, but we have found no evidence of life anywhere except on earth so far, and we’re looking. Maybe we will find it, but we haven’t found it yet. I think you need to balance those when you’re onboard a spaceship and going around the world in 90 minutes. You can see the rugged, self-repairing, ancient nature of the world. You can see the onslaught of life and the flow of it and the undeniable rejuvenated nature of it, because you go from 56 north to 56 south and you see the whole planet has — Or our orbit is tipped from the equator. You get to really truly understand the world without anybody telling you what to think. You just actually get to see it.
The common shared way that we set up towns and villages and cities. It doesn't matter whether you’re over Timbuktu or Timmons, or Phoenix, or London. It doesn't matter. That pattern of how we choose to live as people is the same worldwide. Our common goals, we have different cultures and languages and histories and religions and beliefs, but the stuff that is common to us way outweighs the stuff that is different amongst us. We tend to exaggerate the differences naturally enough. It’s just human nature, but I think orbiting the world, you are very much struck by the shared nature of human existence and the commonality of it and the transient nature of it, but also the necessity to cherish it. All of those part of being one of the human beings that gets a chance to orbit the world.
Also, the reason you mentioned at the outset that I’m an author and a speaker and such is not squander that experience to let people see it as clearly as possible. To try and express it through words or images or music or whatever, to let people truly see where we live and the fact that we’re all breathing out of the same bubble. I think those perspectives are fairly new to us as a species. It’s the result of our new technology that allows us to see ourselves that way and what we do with that information I think is important.
[0:43:49.1] MB: Another idea that you’ve shared is the concept of aiming to be a zero. Can you tell me about that?
[0:43:55.4] CH: When I was a young man, I, of course, was very confident. Like a lot of young men, that’s sort of bravado and feeling of invincibility, and I was a downhill ski racer and a pilot and becoming a fighter pilot, and so you sort of become over-sure of your own decision-making ability and your own ability to do the right thing. Of course, you're nowhere near perfect and you make some good decisions and you make some bad ones, but you only see the world through your own eyes and sometimes it gets pretty distorted.
I found the natural thing to do is, especially when younger, was to assume that no matter what I decided, it was probably right. The way I tried to explain it to myself was no matter what I do, I’m going to be a positive influence. If I come in to a situation and I look around and a bunch of people are doing stuff, what they really need is me to tell them what to do, or at least to express my opinion. That'll sort everything out.
If I can be a positive, I called myself — Like I’m a plus one. No matter what I do, I come in as a positive plus one influence. Of course, if you're coming into a complicated situation that's been going on for a while, there are all sorts of subtle influences and factors and history and things that are going on that you’re unaware of and you’ll come blundering in with some ideal that just occurred to you as if you're the only person that could have thought of that idea, and everybody around you recognize that you’re not a positive. You’re a negative. You’re a minus one, and everybody around you immediately says, “Wow! I’ll wait till this guy leaves, because what an idiot.”
I tried to be slightly more realistic in my own abilities and instead of just assuming I was a plus one, and inevitably under a lot of complex circumstances in effect being a minus one, I tried to do instead come in to a new situation deliberately saying, “Okay. I’m going to aim initially to be a zero here.” I’m just going to aim to actually not cause harm. To try and give myself time to notice what’s actually happening, to become informed, to become sensitive to the subtleties that actually dictate what's happening here, and then be a lot more selective and deliberate in how I'm going to try and be a plus one and be a positive influence.
There are lots of times that won’t work. The classic example is if the building is on fire, it's not time for a nuanced interpretation of what needs to be done. You need to take action. Is something bad is happening, then you don't have time for consultation. You just have to go with everything you’ve learned to that point of take action and do your absolute best to be a plus one. But the building is very seldom on fire and yet we often treat it like it always is.
I think it's good to have a bunch of tricks up your sleeve, but you are better served in life to come into a new situation deliberately targeting yourself as a zero than just assuming that you’re going to be a plus one. I think it'll serve you better, but it will also serve the environment around you a lot better.
[0:47:02.0] MB: What is one piece of homework that you would give for somebody listening to this conversation that they could do to concretely implement some of the ideas that we’ve talked about today?
[0:47:12.7] CH: Two things. One is find something that you’re really interested in, that you're passionate about, that expires you, that raises your pulse just to think about it, that makes you want to know more, and start using your free time to become more expert in that area. Actually, if you’re interested in — It doesn't matter what. If you're interested in — I don't know, trees. It doesn’t matter. Spend some time actually studying it, learn about it, become expert in one part of it and then another part of it. Start making expertise in the areas that you’re interested in part of who you are. Try and really tap into what naturally motivates you and then allow yourself the privilege of becoming expert and competent in the areas that motivate you. I think that will serve you well no matter what.
The other is have a look at what it is that makes you fearful and don't just accept the fear, but actually say, “Why does that make — I could tell when I'm feeling fearful. That unsettled feeling in my gut, that I can feel the cleanliness of my skin. That makes me afraid just to deal with that.” Then start to treat it clinically. What is it about that that actually is the danger? What is the real problem that I'm trying to solve? How can I change who I am so that I could deal with that problem better? What skill am I lacking? Why am I allowing myself just to be a terrified little chihuahua here when I’m a functioning homo-sapiens? How can I change who I am so that I’m not just relying on fear to deal with that facet of my life? Because fear to me this is a destructive long-term solution to anything. It’s okay in the short term, but you don’t want to have that the way that you deal with something in life.
I think if you balance those two things, that's probably enough homework for today.
[0:49:10.0] MB: Chris, where can listeners find you and your books online?
[0:49:14.7] CH: The books, of course, are available everywhere, any of the online booksellers; Amazon or something. They can go to chrishadfield.ca, Chris Hadfield, chrishadfield.ca, and all of the stuff is available there. Then there're all sorts of stuff available online as well. I perform music with symphonies and have various music available and ideas and the books. Then I speak all over the world. If you go to chrishadfield.ca, you can look under events and see where and when I’m going to be speaking somewhere nearby. Yeah, it’s a world of information and relatively easy to access, but I think you can just Google under my name, then that's probably the best place to start.
[0:49:57.4] MB: Chris, thank you so much for coming on the show, sharing your incredible story and all of your wisdom, so many great lessons for the audience. Really, thank you very much.
[0:50:06.7] CH: It was a pleasure to talk with you, and I look forward to seeing you in person.
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