Chris Hadfield

Astronaut Chris Hadfield On How Failing Can Motivate

Words: Florian Obkircher 

Chris Hadfield is the best-known astronaut since Neil Armstrong. Here, he explains the power of negative thinking. 

During his 21 years as an astronaut, Chris Hadfield spent almost 4,000 hours in space and orbited Earth more than 2,000 times. He became a star three years ago when, on his final mission, he took his guitar and performed an acoustic cover version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” from the International Space Station. The video, filmed 249 miles above Earth, became a YouTube sensation with more than 27 million views.

In his bestselling book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield writes about everyday life in space. Here, he explains what we can take from the experience and apply to life on our planet. 

THE RED BULLETIN: You faced life-threatening risks as an astronaut. Even at liftoff, all you could do was hope the rocket didn’t go up in flames. How do you cope with fears like that?

CHRIS HADFIELD: The problem and the answer are in your question. As soon as you’re hoping, you’ve already lost, because hoping means you’ve lost control. If you’re relying on luck, you’re no better than a Chihuahua, a quivering, helpless little dog. An astronaut isn’t helpless before his fate—he checks exactly what could go wrong during a rocket launch. In my book, I call that the power of negative thinking.

Chris Hadfield recorded his version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity on board the International Space Station. Composition: “SPACE ODDITY”
Written by David Bowie
Published by Onward Music Limited

© YouTube / Chris Hadfield

What do you mean?

Self-help gurus are always advising us to think positively and envisage success, but it’s about as helpful as thinking about cupcakes. Just thinking about them isn’t going to help. It’s more important to think what could go wrong with a mission. Visualize failings, not success. That’s what’s essential to survival as an astronaut. I was an astronaut for 21 years, but I only spent six months in space. The rest of the time, I was looking into every detail that might have gone wrong during a mission. Once you’ve understood all the potential risks and you’re forewarned against them, fear no longer plays a part in your thought process. 

Even though you’re aware that being an astronaut is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world?

I never experienced any fear when I got into a spacecraft— not because I was brave, but because I’d practiced solving every problem, thousands of times. Being well prepared makes all the difference. It minimizes any fear and gives you confidence.

Doesn’t negative thinking make you depressed in the long term, though?

Hang on a minute! I’m not saying you should give up all hope. The main thing is to visualize failings, not defeat.


Can you give an example?

You’re giving a talk—what might happen? You might forget your lines! OK, so if you forget your lines, you can crack a joke about the weather and try to get back to where you should be that way. What else might go wrong? Your microphone might malfunction, or you might get thirsty. Work out strategies to deal with the five things most likely to go wrong, so that you can remain in control whatever happens. In that sense, giving a talk isn’t any different from a rocket launch. There’s just a slightly different level of preparation.

But what about risks that are beyond your control, even with the best preparation?

A better question to ask would be: How does one correctly assess risk? We’ve all got to die some time. The sooner you come to terms with that, the better. You have to take risks if you want to live your life to the fullest. But you should still prepare yourself for the risks as well as you possibly can.

It sounds so easy when you put it like that …

Let’s say someone puts you behind the wheel of a racing car hurtling along at 150 mph. If you haven’t got a driver’s license, it’s not going to turn out well. But if you’re a racing driver, we can assume you’ll be able to control the car. It’s the same situation, but you’re the one who makes
the difference. In other words, don’t let your fears be an excuse for you to hide under the blankets all your life.
Get rid of the fears and make your dreams come true. 

Read more
02 2016 The Red Bulletin

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