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An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth summary

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth book cover

The book is divided into 3 self-explanatory sections:

  1. Pre-launch - the hard work, preparation and attitude it takes to be an astronaut / a winner
  2. Liftoff - how to make the most of an experience and make the best impact / impression
  3. Coming down to Earth - reflections on how to live life

What I loved about this book was that it wasn't just about one man's documented journey on becoming as astronauts. While there was quite a bit on that (which I personally found super interesting), it's really more of a broader, philosophical cum personal development book on how to achieve dreams and win at life. Most of my highlights are thus general takeaway points that can apply to any job or industry.

Pre-launch

  • As I have discovered again and again, things are never as bad (or as good) as they seem at the time.
  • Launch is overwhelming on a sensory level: all that speed and all that power, then abruptly, the violence of momentum gives way to the gentle dreaminess of floating on an invisible cushion of air.
  • Space flight participants, commonly known as space tourists, pay between $20 and $40 million each to leave Earth for 10 days or so and go to the International Space Station (ISS) via Soyuz, the compact Russian rocket that is now the only way for humans to get to the ISS. It’s not as simple as getting on a plane; they have to complete about six months of basic safety training.
  • An astronaut is someone who’s able to make good decisions quickly, with incomplete information, when the consequences really matter.
  • Just turning a wrench to loosen a bolt can be like trying to change a tire while wearing ice skates and goalie mitts [in space].
  • ...good reminder of how important it is to retain a strong sense of purpose and optimism even when a goal seems impossible to achieve.
  • Astronauts are taught that the best way to reduce stress is to sweat the small stuff.
  • 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. It encompasses ingenuity, determination and being prepared for anything.
  • It sounds strange, probably, but having a pessimistic view of my own prospects helped me love my job.
  • Ultimately, I don’t determine whether I arrive at the desired professional destination. Too many variables are out of my control. There’s really just one thing I can control: my attitude during the journey, which is what keeps me feeling steady and stable, and what keeps me headed in the right direction. So I consciously monitor and correct, if necessary, because losing attitude would be far worse than not achieving my goal.
  • That’s how I approach just about everything. I spend my life getting ready to play “Rocket Man.” I picture the most demanding challenge; I visualize what I would need to know how to do to meet it; then I practice until I reach a level of competence where I’m comfortable that I’ll be able to perform.
  • ...fear comes from not knowing what to expect and not feeling you have any control over what’s about to happen.
  • Feeling ready to do something doesn’t mean feeling certain you’ll succeed, though of course that’s what you’re hoping to do. Truly being ready means understanding what could go wrong—and having a plan to deal with it.
  • Preparation is not only about managing external risks, but about limiting the likelihood that you’ll unwittingly add to them.
  • Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive. Likewise, coming up with a plan of action isn’t a waste of time if it gives you peace of mind.
  • But if you’re striving for excellence—whether it’s in playing the guitar or flying a jet—there’s no such thing as over-preparation. It’s your best chance of improving your odds.
  • 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.
  • Good leadership means leading the way, not hectoring other people to do things your way. Bullying, bickering and competing for dominance are, even in a low-risk situation, excellent ways to destroy morale and diminish productivity.
  • The trick to working well with him was to understand that the problems were his, not mine, and they all seemed to stem from his insecurity [on a bully of a boss].
  • 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. The more each astronaut knows how to do, and the better he or she can do it, the better off I am, too.
  • ...focus on the journey, not on arriving at a certain destination. Keep looking to the future, not mourning the past.

Liftoff

  • These days, the purpose of quarantine is as much psychological as it is medical: an enforced time-out ensures we pause, consider what we are about to do and deliberately begin to transition to a new kind of existence. Emotionally and physically, quarantine is a halfway house en route to life in space.
  • ...going into a high-pressure situation feeling calm and fully prepared has another benefit, too: I’m able to live more fully in the moment, absorbed and engaged in it, and better able to appreciate it as it unfolds rather than in retrospect.
  • Weightlessness is like a new toy you get to unwrap every day, again and again—and it’s a great reminder, too, that you need to savor the small stuff, not just sweat it.
  • You can choose to focus on the surprises and pleasures, or the frustrations. And you can choose to appreciate the smallest scraps of experience, the everyday moments, or to value only the grandest, most stirring ones. Ultimately, the real question is whether you want to be happy.
  • It wasn’t the test I would have chosen, maybe, but it was a test of my fitness to command the ISS. 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, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others’ success, and then standing back and letting them shine.

Coming back to Earth

  • The whole process of becoming an astronaut helped me understand that what really matters is not the value someone else assigns to a task but how I personally feel while performing it.

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