Career Lessons from Space

See that photo there? That’s a picture of the International Space Station (ISS) rocketing by Vancouver from a viewpoint at Point Atkinson Lighthouse. It’s not easy to catch; the photographer had to splice together a series of images taken at a series of intervals and then stitch those together to capture the station’s path.

Careers are a bit like that too. A shutter click of moments and people. High points and low points. Achievements and failures that make a story only once you’ve lived them. In real time, they’re just goals, things that happen, decisions (good and bad) and outcomes. Dots in space, really.

I wouldn’t call myself a space junkie, by any means, but after having read Chris Hadfield’s memoir, An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth, I can tell you I am looking at the sky and careers a different way.

Case in point: you think of an astronaut and you immediately assume the classic spacesuit image – tethered to spacecraft, floating in space. But in actuality, many astronauts work for years supporting other astronauts before getting anywhere near a spaceship (or never make it at all).

These are the kinds of details that make Hadfield’s story so compelling. Really compelling. As one reviewer said, “Hearing astronaut Chris Hadfield talk about what going to space taught him, was one of those turn-off-the-car-engine, park and listen moments.”

I was talking about this book with Telus’s Katie Drechsel (stay tuned for her #StandApart Career Profile) and she made a great point: “Look at all of the guys who’ve achieved what’s, by any standards, the greatest successes on earth – all of them have turned to space. It’s the next place for mad success.”

If so Katie, I am watching. And in the meantime, I am reflecting. Here’s some of the shining stars in Hadfield’s memoir – 5 unforgettable career lessons from space:


1. Don’t let life randomly kick you into the adult you don’t want to become.

Well said, Col. I’ve always been interested in the roles of intentionality vs. happenstance in careers. Hadfield nicely winds the two together. One one hand, he decided to be an astronaut at nine-years old. On the other hand, some variables played out that he could have never planned.

It’s all about capitalizing moments – and being ready to do so because you’ve put time, energy and considerable commitments into making a choice. What drives you? Where are you heading? What will it take to get there? Are you ready?


2. Have the Patience to Sweat the Small Stuff

Hadfield is a huge proponent of sweating the small stuff. He writes, “NASA’s fanaticism about details and rules may seem ridiculously finicky to outsiders. But when astronauts are killed on the job, the reason is almost always an overlooked detail that seemed unimportant at the time.”

In work, as in space exploration, we can sometimes get blinded by major goals: that next promotion, winning the client, a senior’s admiration. But when we bend or overlook our own personal rules – let’s call them values – we can unintentionally contribute to our own demise. A few lies, a couple of missteps, a less than integral approach to a work relationship can all seem trivial in the moment, but in the long run, those kind of oversights can catch up with us.


3. Forgive Your Mistakes, But Don’t Brush Them Off

Hadfield addresses the overlooked value of negative feedback early on in his book. When you make a mistake at NASA, he explains, it’s a feeding frenzy of “what went wrong?” – a loose string the whole organization pulls hard on to see what else might unravel.

How often do you invite negative criticisms? Do you ever draw attention to your missteps? Do you maximize failures for their learning opportunities? Are you in a safe enough environment to do so?  If it’s not with your boss, you might want to try building a supportive network around your career. Dissect your failures with peers so you can learn from them. Agree to collectively “cut each other some slack.”


4. Pour Yourself into Someone Else’s Success

If for nothing else than the glory of a shared mission, help someone succeed. Vancouver Events Specialist, Stephanie Fowler (formerly with the BC Lions Football Club), had the privilege of working with the Canadian Space Agency as a co-op student when attending Simon Fraser University. She told me:

“I worked on the Human Behaviour and Performance Team making sure Chris’ psychological well being was being accounted for while he was away. There are so many moving parts to put a human on the ISS. An enormous amount of teamwork goes into every mission. This was a major milestone in Canadian space history particularly, because he would be the 1st Canadian commander of the ISS and it was only the 2nd long duration space mission a Canadian astronaut has taken part in. The team I worked with poured so much energy to support this one human.”

Even before he was a social media superstar, Hadfield was just an astronaut going to space. And even as an Astronaut (Capital A), he was always part of a bigger mission. How many people on your team are pursuing the same mission, goals, strategy plan that you are? We could all do a better job of learning to recognize and respect when it’s someone else’s time to shine on that mission – and make it our goal to get them there.


5. Endings Don’t Have to be Emotionally Wrenching

In my line of work, I see a lot of people transitioning. And while some of those people chose a fresh start (switching companies or industries), for others it’s a forced move (laid off, restructured, personal conflicts).  But whatever propels someone into a new beginning, one thing stands true: it was proceeded by an ending.

Hadfield says that everyone kept asking him how sad he was to move into retirement. But, as he puts it, “I wasn’t that sad at all…I did the best I could and I served my purpose, but the time has come to move on.”

Eras end, missions close, stars burn out. Endings abound. What can you be proud of? What do you have to look forward to? And what’s left?

For Hadfield, it’s “the value of humility and the perspective it gives you.”

What will it be for you?