An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

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Nov 20, 2013, 8:00 AM EST

[The holidays are coming up, so over the next few weeks I’ll be writing about some of the gift ideas I think you’ll like (mostly books and such). If you have a geek in your life — or you are the geek in your life — these will be relevant to your interests.]

When someone asks me how having people live in space helps us here on Earth, I have lots of answers ready. We are a species of explorers, hardwired to seek out that which we do not already know, and space is a vast example of terra incognita (if you will). If we wish to survive as a species, long-term, we must find ways of living in space. Spin-off technology from having humans in space helps our lives in countless ways while simultaneously increasing jobs and boosting the economy.

And so on.

What I don’t usually think about is turning that around and looking at it from an astronaut’s perspective on their own lives. 

Chris Hadfield thought about it. A lot. But then, he’s an astronaut.

And that’s why he wrote the book “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” (also available on the Kindle). Hadfield is the be-moustached space traveller, a man who has logged more than four thousand hours in orbit, mostly spent on the International Space Station. He tweeted and twitpic’ed his way into our consciousness, creating videos that really showed what it was like to be, to work, to live, in space. And, of course, to sing there. He’s also a genuinely nice, likable, and thoughtful guy, which shines through in everything he does.

When I got a copy of his book, I expected it to be full of tales of Hadfield’s exploits in space. And it is, of course, but they really aren’t the focus of the book. Those stories — as enthralling as they are to read — provide the context of Hadfield’s life, and how he set about becoming an astronaut.

But even that isn’t the main thrust of the book. Instead, Hadfield uses these anecdotes of getting to and being in space as a way of sharing his insight on how to live life on Earth. Far from being clichéd “it’s the journey, not the destination” exposition, he gives pretty solid advice on attitude, most of which runs counter to the overly-positive aphorisms you generally see.

One of my favorites, for example, was “visualize failure”. Hadfield learned that if you want to survive in space, you’d better be ready when something (or everything) goes wrong, so you’d better sweat the small stuff and figure out contingency plans for when things go south. This advice runs 180° from the “visualize success” motivational posters, which I have always found trivialize the process of achieving a goal. That kind of advice might be encouraging, but in the end doesn’t really help you actually get there. You can visualize success all you want, but when things go wrong you won’t be prepared. Far from being cynical, visualizing failure is pragmatic — it might save your life in space, but it might help you attain your own goals right here on Earth.

Another bit I liked was, “aim to be a zero”. Someone who actively makes things worse is a “-1”, and someone who actively adds value is a “+1”. But in general, walking into a new situation and trying to add value before you know the lay of the land (or worse, telling everyone how great you’ll be) can easily turn a positive value into a negative one. Initially aiming to be a zero prevents that — it’s like the doctor’s adage, “First, do no harm.” As Hadfield puts it, “You have to be competent, and prove to others you are, before you can be extraordinary. There are no shortcuts, unfortunately.” It’s very rare that someone is a +1 out of the gate, and chances are you won’t be.

I know, that’s not as inspirational as you might expect. But it’s realistic. That’s why I like it better.

I could go on, but honestly, just go buy the book and read it yourself. Hadfield is a good writer with an engaging style; I was always eager to get to the next chapter, and frequently found myself smiling at the stories he was spinning.

You might not think that someone who became an astronaut might have stories that will relate to your own Earthbound life, but in fact Hadfield has shown over and again that he’s a master at making it all relatable. From his photos of Earth from space to his videos showing the daily grind of life on a 100-meter wide orbiting tin can, he is all about real life.