Astronaut Chris Hadfield on “Sweating the Small Stuff”

Adam interviewed retired astronaut Colonel Chris Hadfield last Friday for the Bay Area Science Festival. They talked about Hadfield's new book, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield's non-linear career path, the work-life balance for an astronaut, among many other topics.

Adam interviewed retired astronaut Colonel Chris Hadfield last Friday for the Bay Area Science Festival. The conversation took place at NASA Ames’ visitors center, in front of a packed crowd of almost four hundred people. They talked about Hadfield’s new book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield’s non-linear career path, the work-life balance for an astronaut, among many other topics. We weren’t able to shoot video of the talk, but I recorded audio and am in the process of transcribing the most interesting segments. And while there was a slight chance that Hadfield would be able to answer one of your questions for a video here, his schedule was just too packed–the man stayed for two hours after the talk to sign books for fans! Many of the questions you guys sent were addressed in chat, though.

Here’s what Chris Hadfield had to say about the importance of “sweating the small stuff”:

“An astronaut who doesn’t sweat the small stuff is a dead astronaut. Really. Part of it is ‘how do you deal with fear?’ I didn’t set out to be an author. I set out to be an astronaut, and to be as good a one as I could. Along the way–about two days a month–NASA would say ‘we want you to go out and talk to people. Go visit schools, go visit businesses, go talk to congressmen.’ But what do you talk to people about? You go out on the road, you take your pictures with you, and you talk about what it’s like to fly out in space. Which is interesting, but you’re just telling stories. What really matters is how that applies to people. How does doing something in space matter to people on Earth?

So, in all of those talks, I told lots of stories, of course. Like the time I had a live snake in an airplane with me, or when I was blinded during a space walk–some of the odd things that happened during my career. But if that’s the only thing that you’re talking about, there’s no meaning to it. What matters is how can it be helpful back on Earth. So the book is just a coalescence of all of those talks I gave for 21 years.

How do you let people remember? [There’s a chapter called] Do sweat the small stuff. But more importantly, visualize failure. And it sounds odd. But in the astronaut business, when we go to space for five or six months, half of the risk is in the first nine minutes. Half of the known risk is in nine minutes. You know that riding a rocket ship is inherently hazardous. So how do you get on there and not be paralyzed by fear? How can you not be frightened about something? And this is something that everyone deals with. How do you not be frightened by things in life? If you allow fear to dominate you, you’ll never get on board the rocket ship. Or maybe you’ll never do something in your life that you’ve wanted to try, because you let fear keep you from doing it.

So how do you get on board a rocket ship? You look at it at excruciating detail. It’s not getting on the rocket that’s scary. And it’s not the rocket engine failing that’s scary. It’s somehow [the rocket] causing you to die. And then you think ‘exactly how will this thing kill me?’ [You figure out] all the things specifically that’s going to kill me. And so let’s learn everything there is to know about that part of it. And then figure out everything I can do to not make that happen. And once you’ve got that figured out, you practice it. And have a whole team of people that make weird things happen constantly, over and over again, so that if it does happen, you not only recognize the symptoms, you’re actually kind of comfortable. You go ‘hm, I’ve seen this a thousand times already, I push this button, turn this knob, shut this thing off, and we’re going to be OK. Next.’

And that applies to everything in life.”

I’ll be posting more bits from Adam’s conversation with Chris Hadfield throughout the rest of the week.

Comments (4)

4 thoughts on “Astronaut Chris Hadfield on “Sweating the Small Stuff”

  1. I like the saying, but it’s all about context. I find that for myself, “Perfection is the enemy of good enough” is usually a more apt cliche when approaching engineering challenges. Paying attention to details is indeed a cornerstone of any engineering task.

  2. ‘Kind of comfortable’ in a crisis speaks to me and my philosophy; when it comes to riding a bike or driving a car, I have a large store of experience of regularly putting myself at greater risk than necessary (particularly on a bike) to draw on, so that whenever something unexpected happens, I can usually deal with it almost automatically, without batting an eyelid. The motivation here I guess was mostly just chasing fun, but it stems from an inherent stance that I believe I’m validly rationalising here. Familiarity with this kind of risk lowers it; if you’ve never been stupid in a car and lost control as an unforced error, you’ll be far less prepared when you lose grip trying to avoid an accident. If you ask me, timid drivers are among the most dangerous.

    The same philosophy has also paid big dividends in the realm of fixing stuff; as a kid I was incorrigible about pulling things apart just to see how they worked… naturally the initial casualty rate meant it was a fairly sacrificial process at first, but I’d say the break-even point was reached by the time I was 10 or 12 or so. So it went from a situation like DaVinci’s medieval anatomy studies to one where We Have The Technology, something that simply never would have occurred if I hadn’t been allowed to butcher corpses, so to speak.

    The point is, risk aversion as a default position is pretty much guaranteed to be incredibly costly in the long run, and familiarity with risk enables it to be deftly skirted, enabling even greater familiarity with it. Risk is pretty much synonymous with low-hanging fruit in my mind.

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