I read Chris Hadfield’s book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth recently, after being fascinated by his Masterclass course I saw a few years ago.

Here are my main takeaways and thoughts on the book. The subtitle is “What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything”, so you know it’s going to be fascinating!

Decisions matter

There are so many moments where you make a decision and you don’t even realize it.

Or sometimes you recognize it’s not the best decision, but you justify it to yourself. If it’s an exception or you have thought of it intentionally, by all means.

However, I have personally noticed that sometimes I will do something out of habit or laziness, more than as a treat or because I really think that’s the best thing to do. The risk is that the subpar behavior becomes the default one and you don’t even think of the other options you have.

Would an astronaut eat his vegetables or have potato chips instead? Sleep in late or get up early to read a book? I recognized even as a 9-year-old that I had a lot of choices and my decisions mattered. What I did each day would determine the kind of person I’d become.

Chris hadfield

Sweat the small stuff

This is what Chris Hadfield says about his training in problem-solving.

I learned how to anticipate problems in order to prevent them, and how to respond effectively in critical situations. Astronauts are taught that the best way to reduce stress is to sweat the small stuff.

In my experience, fear comes from not knowing what to expect and not feeling you have any control over what’s about to happen. We felt competent to deal with whatever happened—a sense of confidence that comes directly from solid preparation.

Nothing boosts confidence quite like simulating a disaster, engaging with it fully, both physically and intellectually, and realizing you have the ability to work the problem. Each time you manage to do that your comfort zone expands a little, so if you ever face that particular problem in real life, you’re able to think clearly.

I really like the emphasis on the importance of preparation and the knowledge that you can solve a problem, since you have already gone through the motions. It’s interesting to realize this shift in perspective:

Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive.

Practice and learn

When training, they would have multiple simulations on each aspect they had to prepare for. The goal was to learn and get everything done correctly, but this will only happen after a few sessions and mistakes, usually. What is really key is the fact that they were encouraged to share about their mistakes, so that others could learn about potential issues and could come up with solutions. To summarize, you need to practice in different scenarios and always highlight what you did wrong. Make it a point to learn as much as possible.

This concept is also used in Medicine, where doctors and surgeons will routinely share “near miss situations“: occasions in which thankfully nothing serious happened to the patient, but they realized there could have easily been an accident and that they need to improve the mechanisms in place in that particular area.

When I was preparing for exams at Uni, I would think to myself that asking a question to the professor during office hours and letting him know that I had not understood something was way better than this coming up in the exam itself.

Not only I could still be perceived as “ignorant”, now I was also “lazy”/unprepared and I had to face the consequences of a bad mark. I would often ask myself difficult questions and try and understand the nitty-gritty details, to be sure I was prepared and, when studying with my classmates, we would test each other on the trickier parts, where someone had made an unexpected mistake.

Create checklists

Chris Hadfield really stresses the importance of a checklist and to not trust your spontaneous judgment, especially under stress, if you had previously thought about the task at hand. Maybe you are in a hurry, maybe you have done the same thing many times, maybe someone asks you something else… You can be tempted to be as fast as possible and skip the checks past-you had decided were useful. Most times it will go well, but just one mistake will make you regret not having followed your own advice. Especially because it is not a new lesson or something you hadn’t prepared for.

In real-time, the temptation to take a chance is always higher.

Astronauts will create Flight Rules to protect themselves against the temptation to take risks. These rules were created when there was no urgency or pressure and they could analyse all angles, possible actions, and their consequences and make a solid judgment without stress.

I create checklists for tasks I have to routinely do, to make sure I don’t skip any steps, especially if it’s repetitive and requires little attention. I also create checklists of potential error causes and make sure to run through them before marking a task as complete.

Be in flow

The last point is related to the concept of flow, in my interpretation. I first found out about this idea in Cal Newport’s book Deep Work and I have discussed more about it in this blog post.

Chris Hadfield explains that especially since his dream job was, literally, one of the most common dream jobs, he could not and did not define himself as being or wanting to be an astronaut. It is important to have a goal in mind, but what is key is that it must not be the end all be all – you have to enjoy the ride.

He gives a simple example: “For me, the appeal was similar to that of a New York Times crossword puzzle: training is hard and fun and stretches my mind, so I feel good when I persevere and finish—and I also feel ready to do it all over again”

This can be summed up in the following quote:

You should try and find meaning and enjoyment in the day to day activities, embracing everything as a challenge, and making sure you have a goal in mind and you can track your progress, however small, and enjoy the results that come from the process.

chris hadfield

Final thoughts and recommendation advice

As you can tell by the number of quotes and takeaways from the book, I really enjoyed reading this autobiography, since it was very captivating and filled with nuggets of wisdom and funny anecdotes. I would recommend it to anyone who is fascinated by Space and is curious about the life of an Astronaut