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The Profile Dossier: Chris Hadfield, the Astronaut Who Conquered Fear
"The best antidote for fear is competence."
Astronaut Chris Hadfield went temporarily blind during a spacewalk while only holding on to the orbiting International Space Station (ISS) with one arm.
Hadfield felt his left eye slam shut in pain, but he couldn’t figure out why. He obviously couldn’t rub it, because he couldn’t reach inside his helmet. The irritant turned out to be a drop of an oil and soap mixture, which the astronauts use to de-fog their visors.
His eye began tearing, but without gravity, the tears just became a big ball of heavy moisture stuck to his eye. “The ball becomes so big that the surface tension takes it across the bridge of your nose like a tiny little waterfall and goes ‘goosh’ into your other eye,” Hadfield says about the experience. “And now I was completely blind outside the spaceship.”
Rather than panic, Hadfield’s rational mind took over and gave him options — he could call Houston, he could get his fellow astronaut Scott Parazynski to do an incapacitated crew rescue, or he could cry for a while to let the tears dilute out the gunk in his eye.
He eventually opened a vent on the side of his helmet to let some oxygen out to clear and evaporate the mixture from his eyes. And then, he continued working.
This was only possible because of one lesson he learned in astronaut training: Prepare for the worst. “While play-acting grim scenarios day in and day out may sound like a good recipe for clinical depression, it’s actually weirdly uplifting,” Hadfield says.
Thanks to his elaborate contingency plans and problem-solving skills, Hadfield has had a colorful career. He has successfully broken into a Space Station with a Swiss army knife, disposed of a live snake while piloting a plane, and figured out how to fix an ammonia leak on the ISS.
"It takes a boldness of execution and an ability to overcome fear,” Hadfield says. “Fear is just a symptom of lack of preparation. The best antidote for fear is competence."
As we watched the historic SpaceX launch, we wondered: “What does it take to become an astronaut and voluntarily shoot yourself into space?” Take a look below.
(Photo Credit: Mark Sowa / NASA)
On the life lessons he learned in space: In his autobiography, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield shares with readers all the practical lessons he’s learned after spending 4,000 hours in space. He explains how to stay calm in times of chaos, why you shouldn’t trust conventional wisdom, and why it’s important to always sweat the small stuff. You can check out an excerpt here.
On finding a larger purpose: Hadfield has conducted two spacewalks, which lasted a total of about 15 hours (or 10 times around the world). The expansiveness and depth of the universe “takes up your whole mind.” He describes it as “a huge, yawning endlessness.” While on board the ISS, the astronauts often talk about religion. Faith is what gives you a purpose in life, and that faith is only deepened by going to space.
On the vastness of the universe: In this wide-ranging Joe Rogan episode, Hadfield discusses his first space walk, the effects space has on the body, and the feeling of returning to Earth. “There’s this immense sense of pride and accomplishment when you get back to Earth,” Hadfield says. Oh, and he also talks about whether he thinks alien life exists.
On taming your “caveman reaction:” Hadfield opens his TED talk with a question for the audience: “What is the scariest, most dangerous thing you’ve ever done, and why did you do it?” He believes you can re-program your primal fears by taming your “caveman reaction.” Understanding the difference between perceived danger and actual danger can help you avoid your instinct to panic. He once went temporarily blind while out on a spacewalk, but he managed to keep his cool. Remember, he says, “the danger is entirely different than the fear.”
On “thinking like an astronaut:” This is a fascinating conversation that centers around self-motivation and staying the course in a field where very few people actually fulfill their dream of becoming astronauts. “Having a purpose to your decision-making in pursuit of the things that are important to you is a fundamental necessity in thinking like an astronaut,” he says.
On debunking space myths: In this fun WIRED, Hadfield answers all of our burning questions about space — while debunking some of the most widespread myths. For example, “Is it true that you have to work out constantly in space or you will pass out or die?” Myth. “Does space smell like burnt steak or some kind of barbecue?” True. These are fascinating.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Understand before you believe: Most fear originates from a lack of knowledge. “It's always easier to believe something than it is to understand it,” Hadfield says. Most of us think of astronauts as having the courage of a superhero because they remain cool in times when the average person would typically freak out. “In order to stay calm in a high-stress, high-stakes situation, all you really need is knowledge,” Hadfield says.
Competence is the antidote to fear: When you first learned how to ride a bike, you were fearful because you could crash and hurt yourself. Then, as you got better and more confident in your skills, it became silly to be afraid of a bike. Yet the bike itself didn’t change — it remained just as dangerous as it always was. “Things aren’t scary,” Hadfield says. “People get scared.” Hadfield says the ultimate antidote to fear of anything is changing your level of competence. “Competence means keeping your head in a crisis, sticking with a task even when it seems hopeless, and improvising good solutions to tough problems when every second counts,” he says.
Lower your bar for victory: If you make happiness conditional, you’ll always remain miserable. Hadfield was an astronaut for 21 years, but he only spent 6 months in space. You have to find a way to maintain a sense of purpose for a long period of time. How? “I don’t wait until the end to feel successful,” he says. “I don’t say, ‘The only time I’m going to be happy is when I walk on the moon. If you wait until you walk on the moon, it still won’t be fun because it won’t turn out the way you envisioned.” The key is to “appreciate the smallest scraps of experience, the everyday moments, or to value only the grandest, most stirring ones,” he says. “Ultimately, the real question is whether you want to be happy.” Don’t wait.
Prepare for things to go wrong: As an astronaut, if you’re not prepared for failure, failure can be lethal. Negative thinking can be powerful against useless rumination and anxiety. Coming up with a plan of action isn’t a waste of time if it gives you peace of mind. “Rehearsing for catastrophe has made me positive that I have the problem-solving skills to deal with tough situations and come out the other side smiling,” Hadfield says. “For me, this has greatly reduced the mental and emotional clutter that unchecked worrying produces.”
Don’t lose control of your attitude: In space flight, “attitude” refers to orientation: which direction your vehicle is pointing relative to the Sun, Earth and other spacecraft. If you lose control of your attitude, there are two things that happen. First, the vehicle starts to tumble and spin, which disorients everyone on board. Second, it also strays from its course, which could mean the difference between life and death. It’s a helpful metaphor to keep in mind during our existence on Earth. Our attitude keeps us feeling stable, steady, and heading in the right direction. “So I consciously monitor and correct, if necessary, because losing attitude would be far worse than not achieving my goal,” Hadfield says.
Aim to be a zero: In any situation, Hadfield believes you will be seen in one of three ways. 1) As ‘a minus one,” which means you’re actively harmful and someone who creates problems; 2) As ‘a zero,’ meaning your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance; or 3) As a ‘plus one,’ which refers to someone who actively adds value. Of course, everyone wants to be a ‘plus one,’ but when you are in a new situation, sometimes it’s best to start neutral and actively listen before imposing your opinions on the people around you. Hadfield suggests putting the needs of the group first, staying humble, and understanding the nuance, before starting to contribute in a positive way.
Remember that every person you meet is struggling: When asked about the one thing he would tell a 20-year-old version of himself, Hadfield says: “You tend to see other people as completely foreign individuals,” he says. “But it’s important to recognize that everyone you meet — no matter how expensive their suit or how serious their expression — they are looking for significance and they’re fighting a battle in their own life.” In these heavy times, we can all remember to approach each other with a little more empathy. “Treat people a little more kindly as a result,” Hadfield says.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"It's always easier to believe something than it is to understand it."
“Early success is a terrible teacher. You're essentially being rewarded for a lack of preparation, so when you find yourself in a situation where you must prepare, you can't do it. You don't know how.”
“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.”
“As I have discovered again and again, things are never as bad (or as good) as they seem at the time.”
“When you’re the author of your own fate, you don’t want to write a tragedy.”
“Sweat the small stuff — without letting anyone see you sweat.”
“Fear comes from not knowing what to expect and not feeling you have any control over what’s about to happen. When you feel helpless, you’re far more afraid than you would be if you knew the facts.”
“Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive.”
“In any field, it’s a plus if you view criticism as potentially helpful advice rather than as a personal attack.”
“It’s not enough to shelve your own competitive streak. You have to try, consciously, to help others succeed.”
“No one ever accomplished anything great sitting down.”
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