Tag: Chris Hadfield

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. 


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.

Chris Hadfield on Life, the Universe and What’s Really Out There

A fantastic interview with Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield on life, the universe and what’s really out there.

Here’s an excerpt that really struck me and hits home on one of our key themes: living a meaningful life.

If you view crossing the finish line as the measure of your life, you’re setting yourself up for a personal disaster. There are very very very few people who win gold at the Olympics. And if you say, ‘if I don’t win gold then I’m a failure or I’ve let somebody down or something,’ .. What if you win a silver? What if you win a bronze? What if you come fourth? What if your binding comes apart? … What if all of those millions of things that happen in life happen. … Only a few people that go there are going to win gold. And it’s the same in some degree I think in commanding a spaceship or doing a spacewalk it is a very rare, singular moment-in-time event in the continuum of life. And you need to honour the highs and the peaks in the moments — you need to prepare your life for them — but recognize the fact that the preparation for those moments is your life and, in fact, that’s the richness of your life. … The challenge that we set for each other, and the way that we shape ourselves to rise to that challenge, is life.

We can add this bit of wisdom to the advice of Yvon Chouinard and Viktor Frankl. This also relates to why you should adopt systems over goals.

Still curious? Learn more: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything.

How You Climb A Mountain Is More Important Than Reaching The Top

Two examples from Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s book, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, demonstrating that process is more important than results.

Focus on the movements, not the goal.

I’ve been a student of Zen philosophy for many years. In Zen archery, for example, you forget about the goal — hitting the bull’s-eye — and instead focus on all the individual movements involved in shooting an arrow. You practice instead your stance, reaching back and smoothly pulling an arrow out of the quiver, notching it on the string, controlling your breathing, and letting the arrow release itself. If you’ve perfected all the elements, you can’t help but hit the center of the target. The same philosophy is true for climbing mountains. If you focus on the process of climbing, you’ll end up on the summit. As it turns out, the perfect place I’ve found to apply this Zen philosophy is in the business world.

How you climb a mountain is more important than reaching the top.

Climbing mountains is another process that serves as an example for both business and life. Many people don’t understand that how you climb a mountain is more important than reaching the top. You can solo climb Everest without using oxygen, or you can pay guides and Sherpas to carry your loads, put ladders across crevasses, lay in six thousand feet of fixed ropes, and have one Sherpa pulling and one pushing you. You just dial “10,000 Feet” on your oxygen bottle, and up you go.

Typical high-powered, rich plastic surgeons and CEOs who attempt to climb Everest this way are so fixated on the target, the summit, that they compromise on the process. The goal of climbing big, dangerous mountains should be to attain some sort of spiritual and personal growth, but this won’t happen if you compromise away the entire process.

Chouinard is not the only one who thinks this. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote on success:

Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run—in the long run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.

Robert Pirsig also commented on this. In Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he said:

Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. … To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountains which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow. … But, of course, without the top you can’t have any sides. It’s the top that defines the sides.

In an interview, astronaut Chris Hadfield (author of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth) says:

If you view crossing the finish line as the measure of your life, you’re setting yourself up for a personal disaster. … You need to honor the highs and the peaks in the moments — you need to prepare your life for them — but recognize the fact that the preparation for those moments is your life and, in fact, that’s the richness of your life. … The challenge that we set for each other, and the way that we shape ourselves to rise to that challenge, is life.