Col. Chris Hadfield (Photo: Alexander Nemenov/Getty Images)
To become an astronaut someday is no small dream for anyone, but for Chris Hadfield it bordered on delusion. He grew up in rural Ontario, Canada, and there were no Canadian astronauts. Let’s underline that: The job did not exist. But he persevered, beating out hundreds of thousands of applicants for a chance to train with NASA. He became the first Canadian to walk in space, ultimately logging 4,000 hours in orbit before he retired in July 2013.
His new book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, is just that—it advises you to think clearly on the high wire, no matter what crisis befalls (and Hadfield knows from crises, from being temporarily blinded on a spacewalk to nearly going bankrupt in pursuit of his dream). An Astronaut’s Guide reads like part adventure novel, part anti-self-help book: Hadfield advocates the power of negative thinking and sweating the small stuff.
The book is a smash hit, and so are Hadfield’s social-media accounts: He’s attracted over a million followers on Twitter with pictures and videos from his time in space, and he conducted one of the most popular Reddit AMAs ever. We spoke with Hadfield, now 54, on his 32nd wedding anniversary, about making it in today’s economy, the essential quality of modern manhood, the key to a long marriage, and his fear of heights.
You carved out a career against huge odds. You had some huge setbacks. How did you keep going?
I just had a long-term goal in mind. It helped me make all of the little decisions along the way. I didn’t realize this at the time, but you turn yourself into who you’re going to become, or the world’s going to choose for you.
It was probably key that it never became make-or-break for me. It wasn’t like, “If I don’t get to walk another mile, my life has been a failure.” It was more like, ‘I’d miss going these directions in my life. It’ll probably never happen, but if I don’t work toward it, it’ll definitely never happen.'”
Hadfield’s demos (above) and amazing photos from the International Space Station (below) earned him more than a million Twitter followers.
It’s hard to be that optimistic now: Whether you’re a recent graduate or further along in your career, it’s difficult not to feel discouraged by the job market.
I don’t think that’s changed. I don’t think it was easy in the Dark Ages or in World War I or World War II, or when I came out of college. We had the big economic downturn of 1982, and my wife and I almost went bankrupt. In 1986, the Challenger accident happened, and we weren’t sure the shuttle was ever even going to fly again.
There’s always economic problems. Even if there is a boom, it’s not going to last. It’s easy to fall into despair and get very frustrated; everyone does. I think the goal is to keep a longer-term vision if you can. Don’t hate the work that you’re doing, ever. I’ve had all sorts of jobs in my life, and there is delight and productivity in all work.
It’s what you do in your spare time that matters. You can constantly be educating yourself and training yourself and learning other things to do. Whenever anybody ever offers to teach you something for free, take them up on it. If you want things to go as planned, you’re guaranteed that they won’t. My life looks like maybe it went as planned, but it’s been reinvented continuously.
I was surprised to read that you have a fear of heights.
I’m not afraid of heights, I’m afraid of hitting the ground. [Laughs] So my challenge was, how do I keep myself from hitting the ground?
If you have enough backup plans or planned reactions, that allows you then to circumvent or deal with your fears. Riding a rocket ship, you’re afraid of two things: Blowing up or hitting the ground. If you can figure out a thousand ways to not blow up and a thousand ways to not hit the ground, then it really takes away the fear of riding a rocket ship.
You can do this every day in tiny ways: What is the true thing that is the core of this fear? Then start looking at it: “Okay, this is what I’m actually afraid of, so how can I not let that part happen? What can I do, if that does happen, to be as well prepared as possible?”
It’s easy to think that because manhood is occurring to you for the first time, that’s the first time it’s ever occurred.
What are you afraid of now? Or does spacewalking make you fearless?
I’m not fearless at all. Changing jobs was extremely fear-making for me: To retire from being a government employee after 35 years and count on my own ability to make a living. The way I dealt with it was to come up with multiple plans. How are we going to make money? How can we buy some transition time? Can we get some money in advance? How much do we have to save?
You write about the power of negative thinking. You say to always sweat the small stuff. How do you do that without allowing yourself to talk yourself out of action?
There’s a difference between sweating the small stuff and fretting the small stuff. Sweating the small stuff is like being at the fair at that game with all the little ducks popping up, and you have to knock them down one at a time. “Okay, there’s this huge daunting task in front of me, so I’m going to break it down into little things and then solve them one at a time.” Focus on that particular little issue and don’t get overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem.
Hadfield racked up more than 20 million YouTube views in eight months with his performance of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” during his final mission on the International Space Station
Before going into space, you rehearsed your own death. You said it was uplifting because it prepared you for every situation. Would that be helpful for every guy?
In the book, we call it “death sim,” but in NASA we call it a “contingency sim,” because it sounds less morose. [Laughs] My wife said it helped her think through things in advance, so she was less vulnerable. Although it’s a little bit odd, I think it’s a useful challenge.
I was talking to a friend of mine whose grandma’s getting very old and frail. I could see the terror behind her eyes: What was she was going to do without her grandma. I said to her, “The parts of your day that are wrapped up with your grandma, practice them right now as if your grandma wasn’t there. Pretend that we got a phone call that she died. What are you gonna do? Let’s spend a half hour just talking through it.”
At the time, I could see it shocked her. She didn’t want to face it. But she sent me a note the next day saying, “I can’t believe how helpful that was. I made a list of 10 things that I’m going to have to do. It won’t ease the loss, but it’s definitely going to improve the reaction.” It eased this oppressive, unspoken burden that she’s unprepared for.
If you spend your life by yourself, you’ll convince yourself of some really strange shit for sure.
What’s the most important quality for a man to have today?
To expect and accept change. I was raised in a very patriarchal household. My dad made most of the big decisions, and my mom ran the household and raised the kids. That’s what I was expecting a man’s role would be. Then I married a very strong woman who was raised as an only child by a single mom, so she had a different expectation of how money was distributed, how decisions were made.
It’s easy to think that because manhood is occurring to you for the first time, that’s the first time it’s ever occurred. You should be able to look in the mirror and recognize that the value system you have is not the only one, that you are not perfectly wrought and that you can makes changes within yourself for the positive.
What about in relationships?
Something I learned a long time ago was that one of the hardest things—and most necessary things—is to deliberately change yourself for the benefit of the relationship.
My wife and I met in high school. We were married at 20 years old. We regularly remark to each other, how on earth are we still married—we shouldn’t stand a chance. I think it’s because of a willingness to change ourselves; just little things, not huge. You can’t expect someone to have a radical change unless there’s some radical problem.
If you spend your life by yourself, you’ll convince yourself of some really strange shit for sure. It’s good to have someone in life to point out to you when you’re behaving like a moron.
Who are your heroes right now?
Heroism is in the eye of the beholder, of course. I’m really impressed by people who have taken great initiative to accomplish that they loved passionately. It could be service, it could be business success—someone who’s taken the best of their skills to, and a tenacity and a sense of purpose to accomplish something. There’s lots of examples of that. If you look at it at that point of view, there’s heroism in almost everyone.
Buy ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything’ here.