Perpetual dissatisfaction with who we are
And other lessons from an astronaut
I saw Col. Chris Hatfield give a talk last week at the Dublin Tech Summit, and it was easily the best talk I’ve ever seen; he got a standing ovation, something I’ve never seen at a conference. Full of insight, humour and just amazing stories, he also gave some advice that I thought I’d share here, along with my take on how you can actually act on it.
Perpetual dissatisfaction with who we are
I wrote a blog post last year, How to become more than a coder:
How to become more than a coder
This post is about how to become more than a ‘coder’ — how to make more of your potential, to stretch yourself, to do…
which was all about encouraging programmers to do more than write code, if they wanted to. If all you want to do is write code, that’s awesome too, but my post was about pointing out that we can achieve more if we want to. I was half afraid colleagues or other engineers would think it was too preachy or smug, but reaction was positive and many reached out to say that they agreed.
At the Tech Summit, Col. Hatfield talked about how he became an astronaut — mainly a
Perpetual dissatisfaction about who he was and a perpetual dissatisfaction with his own competence.
He didn’t mean that he hated who he was, he meant that he always wanted to improve who he was. Improve his skills, learn new languages, do whatever would help him achieve more. He learned Russian for 20 years, which helped him understand a cosmonaut on the space station when he was talking quickly in Russian about something going wrong.
This perpetual dissatisfaction was essential to his journey from a small boy who watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon to becoming a fighter pilot, to becoming a test pilot, to earning several college degrees, to flying the space shuttle, to commanding the space station.
I can’t say enough how much I agree with his advice and its sentiment. It’s not about not being happy, it’s about achieving more if you want to. Most of us have the intelligence and ability to better ourselves, to learn more and do more. Some of us have privileges that others don’t, and some have hindrances that others don’t, but mostly, we can do more if we put the effort in.
I used to have this poster showing on one of the big TVs in my office in a previous job:
as a not too subtle reminder for my team and I about the importance of perspective; about anything and everything. I love my job in a great company, but I also have perspective that I’m only going to get one shot at life on this planet so I need to think about whether I’m achieving everything I can be achieving, not just for myself, but also the family who depends on me.
Visualisation of both Success and Failure
Col. Hatfield also spoke of the need to visualise both success and failure. Things will go wrong but planning for failures will help when they do — it’s an obvious lesson and sounds like common sense, but how many of us actually do it?
A few weeks ago I was part of team at a work hackathon in Liberty Mutual, Boston, where we got to the final, where I crashed and burned as our live demo wouldn’t show on the big screen, then stopped working altogether. We had a backup video to show, but I didn’t handle the situation well and didn’t show off our work like it deserved. We thankfully won a prize, the David Beyer prize for best workplace safety related project, but afterwards I knew I could have done better.
I also should have known better — as a year or two ago I saw a video of the same Chris Hatfield giving an interview where he discussed a spacewalk that went bad — but it was ok as he had trained for it, and he and and the other astronaut on the spacewalk handled it:
After my demo failure I thought of that video and realised that although we has practiced our demo, and sailed through the first round of judging, we didn’t practice what to do if everything went pear shaped.
When I saw Hatfield speak in person last week, he spoke about another near disaster on the International Space Station ; a leaking coolant module. If it wasn’t fixed they would have had to evacuate the station. NASA however had a spare module on the station, just in case, and two of the astronauts carried out a spacewalk to replace it. They hasn’t changed the module before but the culture of preparing for failure and training to deal with bad situations meant they were able to do it successfully.
I know hackathon demos aren’t necessarily as important as spacewalks but the lessons for work and life are just as meaningful.
How can this relate to your life and career?
I don’t want to come off as another online motivator, but taking inspiration from Chris Hatfield, and from my own experience, there are a couple pieces of advice I can give.
Visualise what you want to achieve
Have goals — proper achievable goals. I set up a company last year so I can make mobile games as a side initiative to my main job. Progress has been slow, mainly due to the arrival of my fourth, and amazing, kid, but I still have concrete goals that I am working towards — namely to release at least one high quality game in 2019.
They should also be achievable. When I was asked by my one of the trainers in my last gym what my goal was, I said that if I ever go on holidays to Greece, I wanted the locals to think that one of the Old Gods had returned from Mount Olympus to walk among them! He suggested I work up to running 5k first — we should aim as high as we can, but set realistic targets to get there!
If you want to be a writer, maybe plan on writing a short story first, by the end of the month. Something with a definitive end date that you can then look at and improve for the next goal or iteration.
Plan when you’re going to actually work on your goals
I will leave you with what is probably the most important advice I can give —
Plan when you can actually work on your goals.
Whether it’s learning a new language, creating an app or website, writing a book — you need to plan beforehand when you will actually sit down and do it. Time is relentless — it will move onwards no matter what we do (unless you can travel really really fast of course) and hoping to find some time to work on your goals isn’t a long term solution.
When I had more time (i.e. less kids) on my hands, it was much easier to find time randomly. Now however, I need to plan in advance e.g. I’ll decide which days I’m going to set outside hours in the evening. I knew that I’d be writing this blog post on Sunday evening, which let me not worry about it during the week, safe in the knowledge that it would get done if I stick to the plan.