#111 Chris Hadfield

Chris Hadfield (@cmdr_Hadfield) joined James Altucher to talk about going to space, living on earth, and what anyone can do if they fail to reach the stars. Hadfield is the author of two books; An Astronaut’s Guide To Live on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything and You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes: Photographs from the International Space Station. James says that An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth is, “a great book, I highly recommend it.”

If you recognize Hadfield, it’s probably because of this:

What’s interesting about that video, which has been viewed over 25M times, is that the confluence of things that made it popular. Hadfield says, “I didn’t change. The space station didn’t change. Why does covering a Bowie tune suddenly get people interested?”

James suggests that it’s because how relatable that, and Hadfield’s other videos are, but there’s a deeper answer there too. Sure, it’s cool to see food float around and the views out the windows are amazing. Mix in our fascination with space and you get a certain level of neatness. But that doesn’t account for 25M views.

Hadfield tells James that the deeper answer is that he knew what people wanted to see. His experience speaking to thousands of schools, groups, and businesses told him what people wanted to know.  Like an author who gets the same questions while promoting her book, Hadfield gets the same set of questions about space. Going to space then, he knew what people wanted to know about. Add in an internet connection, and that’s how you get 25M views.

And the crazy thing is, being in space isn’t all that different from many places on earth. Hadfield says there are labs all across America and the world doing research and the space station is just another lab. But people care most about the one in space.

Hadfield’s journey to space began when he saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. “It was hugely permission giving,” Hadfield tells James, “to see that impossible things can happen.” As a kid in Canada, who lived on a family farm and whose father flew planes for Air Canada, it didn’t seem like Hadfield had much of a chance to ever get to space – but there was still a chance. Hadfield is like the polar Lloyd Christmas: 

Tim Ferriss (episode #109) told James much the same thing, saying that impossibles are often negotiable. The next step in thinking from Hadfield and Ferriss’s advice is not to think in terms of perfection. When we look at something from the outside (going to space, lifestyle entrepreneur, best-selling author) we don’t see all the details that go into it. Mark Ford (episode #102) told James that when you start a business you begin to see “the warts and all.” When we see something big, we need to remember to start small. Hadfield had to crawl before he could walk, and then fly.

At thirteen he got his glider’s license. To which James said he would never let his thirteen year old do because it sounds too risky. But that’s not the only risk.

“The other risk is that you will not reach the potential that you’re capable of, which to me is the ultimate loss.” – Chris Hadfield

But It’s not about doing crazy things for the sake of crazy things. It’s about taking measured risk that lead to real rewards. A current example is the family in Maryland who is under investigation for letting their kids walk to the park.

The conversation turns from Hadfield’s history to his marriage and he credits his wife Helene. In his book he speaks more about her and echoes the words of Brian Koppelman (episode #98), who said that the best decision he made was marrying the right person.

Having the right people in his life helped, when Hadfield didn’t get an advancement as he hoped. He was ready to quit the path to becoming an astronaut and instead become a pilot. It wouldn’t be a bad thing, just not his dream thing. It was his wife who asked why rush to change? “We don’t need to change anything right away” Hadfield recalls her saying.

Sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing. Brad Feld (episode #91) learned this when his body broke down. Feld was rushing around to startups, putting out fires, and figuring out problems when his “inner introvert threw a shit fit.” Feld started traveling less and discovered that things actually worked better than way. Things took a bit longer to figure out, but the tradeoff was worth it. Time brought data and clarity, two things that helped him make better decisions.

Helene told Chris that they had enough money, they had a job. Why rush off the path they were on. Give it time.

The overnight success, says Austin Kleon (episode #19), “is a really good marketing myth.” That overnight success myth is present in a lot of places, but we might see it best in Hollywood.

Seinfeld was a very successful show, to say the least. It was appointment television in the last years of appointment television and launched the careers of many actors, including the one who played Tim Whatley. Whatley was the the dentist who pretended to be Jewish so he could tell Jewish jokes. The actor who played that character was in 5 episodes of Seinfeld from 1994-1997. But also had 35 other roles during that same period. Those other shows included the television movie Extreme Blue and the show Teknoman.

Not exactly appointment viewing.

But that actor kept working. He was working so much, that one day when one of the writers on Seinfeld asked about what he had auditioned for, he told her he forgot because there had been so many.

Three years after his last appearance on Seinfeld that actor was cast as a lead on a network show and his other roles became more selective, working on bigger shows like The King of Queens and Family Guy.  But not until 2008 did Bryan Cranston reach the upper echelons of his field and win an Emmy Award for playing Walter White on Breaking Bad.

But often we don’t see this progression. We forget the years of work an actor might put in. Adam Carolla (episode #25)says that “I don’t think people can intellectually understand that there was  time when Jimmy Kimmel wasn’t Jimmy Kimmel.”

Carolla tells the story about meeting Kimmel for the first time, who was just a morning show sports radio guy. The two paired up and began working together. Then, when Carolla was offered a contract for a show he said the guy should hire Kimmel too. “There was never someone off to the side saying you’re gonna be big someday” Carolla says, instead it was a lot of work, time, and luck.

There’s also the bad breaks. Hadfield thought he had wrapped up a great position, being a test pilot in France. He was moving from Quebec to France. From white snow to blue waters. It was a great move for his carer. Except he wasn’t. Due to some bureaucratic maneuvering, his spot was given up to someone else.

James asks if this was hard, and Hadfield says that it was, for a week or so, but he moved on. “Everything is a gamble in life” Hadfield says, “but there’s almost always another hand coming.” And that hand would pay big for Hadfield, who was accepted into the American Test Pilot School. This outcome, America instead of France, may have been the ultimate tipping point that got him to space years later.

A third crossroads that James and Hadfield discuss is when he needed an ultrasound to see if an old injury had healed correctly. If it didn’t, he was going to lose his spot. And it wouldn’t be a hard decision. In the book Hadfield outlines the completeness of a backup crew. This shadow crew is was ready to step in if anything went wrong, and something might very well be wrong for Hadfield.

James asks what do you think about and talk about with your spouse when your future hinges on a short procedure and a doctor’s opinion? It’s easy, Hadfield tells James. Don’t think about what you’re going to do do if things go the way you want, that’s easy to figure out. Instead, think about what you’ll do if things don’t go the way you want.

During that car ride, Chris and Helene talked about what would happen if the test was negative and he couldn’t go so space. And they figured out a nice set of options. He could teach. He could write. He could speak. He would see more of his family.

Hadfield didn’t have a nebulous fear of failure, an expression that Tim Ferriss coined and provided a framework for.FearresettingFerriss

Remember, Hadfield says, “Things always break, but how you act is up to you.” This is a very stoic idea, a philosophy that Ryan Holiday (episode #18) talked about in his interview.

Marcus Aurelius wrote about this idea two thousand years ago, and suggests that if someone tells you, “It’s unfortunate that this has happened” you tell them no, not so.

“No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it – not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it.”

And even in the hardest moments you can act the right way. Aurelius asks:

“Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all the other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.”

Besides dealing with misfortunate, Hadfield has a great mindset about how to be “a zero.” In the book Hadfield writes about his history as a fighter pilot, and he comes off as a fighter pilot.

But this isn’t how you want to act, especially in new situations. Hadfield says that “even when you are confident in your abilities, when you come into a new environment there are all these subtleties that you miss.” He saw this in his dad, who would come home from a ten day cycle of flying and start to tell people what to do. Rather, we can all remember that the people in a situation have been doing things that way for a reason. That’s not to say it’s the best way, just that you need to figure out why it is before you change what it is.

The ultimate goal an astronaut, Hadfield tells James, is to be competent. The only problem is that you have to be competent at so many things. Hadfield worked at a hospital to prepare for his mission to the International Space Station. He had to get this experience because he was flying up in the Russian Soyuz, a ship that only carries three people. Trips using the Space Shuttle could carry more people and allowed a broader spread of skills. Now though, one of those three people had to know basic surgery, and that person was Hadfield.

But you and I don’t need to know about surgery, we just need the mindset to look for those types of things in our own lives. Hadfield puts it this way:

“If you’re not studying something at all times to improve your ability to do things, then why not? What’s the other thing you’re doing that’s more important than getting better at life?

But remember, these things you do, they never happen fast. You need to think of projects in terms of years, not days or weeks. People ask Hadfield if he picked up the guitar while in space. Ha, he’d been playing since he was nine. He’s being studying Russian for what seems like nearly as long. He’s been flying things since his early teens. Things take time, and this mindset helps. When you get a setback, and you will get setback, don’t worry.

“The day to day stuff is variable when you have a long-term goal” Hadfield says. And make that day to day stuff, stuff you enjoy doing. “If you’re waiting to win the lottery in order to feel like anything worthwhile in life, then you’re setting yourself up for misery.” The advice he writes about getting to space is the same, “it’s probably not going to happen but I should do things that keep me moving in the right direction, just in case – and I should be sure those things interest me, so that whatever happens, I’m happy.”

The interview ends with James asking about intelligent life and Hadfield says that it’s probable. Using a Tony Robbins (episode #62) technique, let’s figure out some big numbers. Hadfield says there are a septillion stars. Okay, sounds big, but how big? Let’s use time to get some perspective:

  • One thousand seconds is 16 minutes.
  • One million seconds is 11 days.
  • One billion seconds is 31 years.
  • One trillions seconds is 31,688 years.
  • One septillion seconds is 1,004,129,344 years.

If you were to count a star a second, that’s how long it would take.

Thanks for reading. I’m @MikeDariano if you want to connect. I also thought this book was excellent. I didn’t read it at first because I wasn’t interested in space. This book is about space only in the setting. It’s a book about life, solving problems, and seeing the stars.

24 thoughts on “#111 Chris Hadfield”

  1. […] Chris Hadfield wrote about this in his book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Hadfield pined to be an astronaut, but had a long road to get there. For starters, he was a Canadian and Canada didn’t have a space program. Then there was all the education, politics, training, travel, and other requirements. Hadfield considered these obstacles between him and space, and writes this: […]


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