An Astronaut’s Guide to Mental Models

There isn’t a harsher environment for a human being to live than outer space. Chris Hadfield shares some of the thinking tools he acquired as an astronaut to make high stakes decisions, be innovative in the face of failure, and stay cool under pressure. 

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How do you survive in space? Turns out that mental models are really useful. In his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Chris Hadfield gives an in-depth look into the learning and knowledge required for a successful space mission. Hadfield was, among other roles with NASA, the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station. He doesn’t call out mental models specifically, but the thinking he describes demonstrates a ton of them, from circle of competence to margin of safety. His lessons are both counter-intuitive and useful far beyond space missions. Here are some of them:

  • “An astronaut is someone who’s able to make good decisions quickly, with incomplete information, when the consequences really matter. I didn’t miraculously become one either, after just eight days in space. But I did get in touch with the fact that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.” (circle of competence)
  • “Over time, I learned how to anticipate problems in order to prevent them, and how to respond effectively in critical situations.” (second order thinking)
  • “Success is feeling good about the work you do throughout the long, unheralded journey that may or may not wind up at the launch pad. You can’t view training solely as a stepping stone to something loftier. It’s got to be an end in itself.” (velocity)
  • “A lot of our training is like this: we learn how to do things that contribute in a very small way to a much larger mission but do absolutely nothing for our own career prospects.” (cooperation)
  • “If you’re not sure what to be alarmed about, everything is alarming.” (probabilistic thinking)
  • “Truly being ready means understanding what could go wrong – and having a plan to deal with it.” (margin of safety)
  • “A sim [simulation] is an opportunity to practice but frequently it’s also a wake-up call: we really don’t know exactly what we’re doing and we’d better figure it out before we’re facing this situation in space.” (back-up systems)
  • “In any field, it’s a plus if you view criticism as potentially helpful advice rather than as a personal attack.” (inversion)
  • “At NASA, we’re not just expected to respond positively to criticism, but to go one step further and draw attention to our own missteps and miscalculations. It’s not easy for hyper-competitive people to talk openly about screw-ups that make them look foolish or incompetent. Management has to create a climate where owning up to mistakes is permissible and colleagues have to agree, collectively, to cut each other some slack.” (friction and viscosity)
  • “If you’re only thinking about yourself, you can’t see the whole picture.” (relativity)
  • “Over the years I’ve learned that investing in other people’s success doesn’t just make them more likely to enjoy working with me. It also improves my own chances of survival and success.” (reciprocity)
  • “It’s obvious that you have to plan for a major life event like a launch. You can’t just wing it. What’s less obvious, perhaps, is that it makes sense to come up with an equally detailed plan for how to adapt afterward.” (adaptation and the red queen effect)
  • “Our expertise is the result of the training provided by thousands of experts around the world, and the support provided by thousands of technicians in five different space agencies.” (scale)
  • “The best way to contribute to a brand-new environment is not by trying to prove what a wonderful addition you are. It’s by trying to have a neutral impact, to observe and learn from those who are already there, and to pitch in with grunt work wherever possible.” (ecosystem)
  • “When you’re the least experienced person in the room, it’s not the time to show off. You don’t yet know what you don’t know – and regardless of your abilities, your experience and your level of authority, there will definitely be something you don’t know.” (circle of competence)
  • “Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it.” (hierarchical instincts)
  • “If you start thinking that only your biggest and shiniest moments count, you’re setting yourself up to feel like a failure most of the time.” (map is not the territory)

There is so much to learn from this book. Thinking in terms of mental models can help you see the underlying logic and structure in books on a wide range of topics. It can also help you pick up lessons to apply to your life from unexpected places. The analogy between a space walk and a business negotiation you’re going into tomorrow might not be obvious. But by using mental models you can see the fundamental wisdom underlying both.