I just finished a great book by Astronaut Chris Hadfield An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth and I learned something profound that can apply as much to business as to space flight: thinking negatively is a positive thing.
First, a little background on the very interesting Commander Hadfield: He’s a Canadian Astronaut, an engineer, decorated fighter pilot, musician, husband and proud father of three children, and he is the first Canadian to complete a spacewalk. A social media master, Cmdr. Hadfield has over a million followers on Twitter. While he commanded Expedition 25 for 6 months aboard the International Space Station (another Canadian first), he posted scores of photographs showing the Earth and our galaxy from that unique vantage point. He was a guest on multiple television shows, and gained additional notoriety for playing his guitar in space. He wrote and posted a number of songs from orbit, culminating in a video that he shot of himself singing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” which has almost 20 million YouTube hits. He’s also known for his short (and many times funny) videos on a “day in life of an astronaut” on subjects such as cutting your hair in space.
No Z’s for You Tonight
Whether you’re an astronaut or a businessperson, we’ve all doubtless experienced the random attack of fear in the middle of the night. Perhaps you have a big presentation, a job review or a difficult conversation to have in the near future. Or maybe that deal is going sideways and the whole team is depending on you to fix the issues.
But just imagine your night’s sleep if, instead of a business issue to unravel, you were scheduled to launch into the space the next morning. Business problems won’t literally kill you, but space flight can quickly end those upcoming birthdays. Just to make the dream more exciting, you’re in charge of the ship and all eyes are on you.
In the past decade or so, most successful executives have learned the power of positive thinking and focusing on one’s strengths. We are a very positive business community.
According to a Fuqua School of Business study, when economists surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. CEOs, they found that more than 80% scored as “very optimistic.” In fact, negative thinking has largely been banished to the trash bin of management theory. Are we really a community of business cheerleaders trained to see everything in the light of unremitting positivity?
Reading Hadfield’s book got me thinking about a little balance between the positive and negative.
As Wharton Professor Adam Grant said in a recent post “Ultimately, both styles are deadly at their extremes. Pessimism becomes fatalistic, and optimism becomes toxic. The key is to find the sweet spot, the more moderate ranges that combine the benefits of both approaches.”
An Astronaut’s Guide To Business and A Solid Night’s Sleep
Hadfield says in his book that anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive. In other words, if you face a high stakes problem, a little negativity may help you solve the issue in advance and deal with fear and uncertainty.
Some of Hadfield’s wisdom from his book:
· I’m not afraid…because I’ve trained for 4 years (for a mission). I’ve taken part in so many highly realistic simulations of space flight, that when the engines are finally roaring for real, my main emotion is not fear, its relief.
· Fear comes from not knowing what to expect and not feeling you have any control over what’s about to happen. When you feel helpless, you’re far more afraid than you would be when you know the facts. When you are not sure what to be alarmed about, then everything is alarming.
· Truly being ready means understanding what could go wrong and being prepared to deal with it. In space, things can go wrong in one breath – you have to be prepared to deal with bad news scenarios and train for them over and over again. Being forced to confront the prospect of failure head on; to study it, dissect it, to tease apart all its components and consequences really works. After a few years of doing that pretty much daily, you forge the strongest possible armor to defend against with fear: hard-won competence. Our (astronaut) training pushes us to develop a new set of instincts; we are trained to respond unemotionally by immediately prioritizing threats and methodically seeking to diffuse them.
Sweating the Small Stuff
As difficult business situations present themselves, the astronaut in you knows that the answer is not to simply fake it and tell yourself everything will be OK. Not only is this not realistic, but it could be tough on one’s sleep schedule.
Taking Hadfield’s advice and applying it to business requires us to actually simulate a disaster or negative outcome. Engage the problem fully both intellectually and physically.
Hadfield shares NASA’s refreshingly short three-step procedure to deal with major problems – Warn, Gather, Work.
Warn: Let all who are involved know that there could be a problem. Keep the team informed.
Gather: Pull together both the people and the information necessary to pull the problem apart and work on a solution.
Work: This is the all important action step. In the words of NASA Flight Director (Apollo 13) Gene Kranz: “Let’s work the problem people.” The thing to note is that this is the last step. Also, everyone has ripped apart the issue well in advance, seeking every possible problem and predetermining solutions. If you’ve thought of everything that can go wrong in advance and have a plan, then when stuff hits ths fan, you just execute the plan you rehearsed. And your heart rate is near normal.
To see the Warn-Gather-Work process in action, Hadfield shares an experience from the International Space Station where a fire alarm sounded in the middle of their night. He relates that this is likely the most dangerous problem one can face in space because there is no alternative place to go and no escape. This must be a heart pounding experience of the highest order.
· “I think my response to hearing that alarm would have been to grab an extinguisher and start fighting for my life, but over the past 21 years that instinct has been trained out of me and another set of responses has been trained in, represented by three words: warn, gather, work. “Working the problem” is NASA-speak for descending one decision tree after another, methodically looking for a solution until you run out of oxygen. We practice the “warn, gather, work” protocol for responding to fire alarms so frequently that it doesn’t just become second nature; it actually supplants our natural instincts.
Logic and reason along with experience make is possible to overrule fear. Rehearsing for catastrophe will make you positive that you have problem solving skills to deal with tough situations and come out the other side smiling.
Working through the negative outcomes in advance reduces mental and emotional clutter that unchecked worrying can produce – those random thoughts that will hijack your brain at 3:00 in the morning.
So the next time you are facing a major challenge, don’t hide the issue. Pull the team together and tell them a little story about fire alarms in space.