How Conventional Wisdom can Get in the Way of Achievement

Early success is a terrible teacher

We should practice visualizing failure rather that success. Marvin Minski, the pioneer in Artificial Intelligence (AI), also said there is tremendous value in negative knowledge. For example, looking to never make mistakes.

In space, “there is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse, says Colonel Chris Hadfield. For over five months or about 4,000 hours, the Canadian Astronaut sent out daily greetings on Twitter from aboard the International Space Station (ISS)—“Good morning, Earth.” 

Preparation is crucial for space missions, but also in life. There's a lot we can learn from astronauts about problem solving. And it's not just being able to anticipate external events and react to unexpected glitches in real time, but also avoiding personal error.

Thinking in terms of what could go wrong helps us adopt the mindset that we can and should learn all the time, and the value of sweating the small stuff. In An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth Hadfield describes what going to space taught him about ingenuity, determination, and being prepared for anything.

Other astronauts have said that seeing the earth from space creates a new kind of self awareness. It encourages a different perspective, yet it doesn't create detachment, quite the opposite. Hadfield felt a very deep sense of kinship and fondness for the millions of people on earth.

About attitude he says that's what helps us with direction on a space flight as well as in life:

In space flight, “attitude” refers to orientation: which direction your vehicle is pointing relative to the Sun, Earth and other spacecraft. If you lose control of your attitude, two things happen: the vehicle starts to tumble and spin, disorienting everyone on board, and it also strays from its course, which, if you’re short on time or fuel, could mean the difference between life and death. In the Soyuz, for example, we use every cue from every available source—periscope, multiple sensors, the horizon—to monitor our attitude constantly and adjust if necessary. We never want to lose attitude, since maintaining attitude is fundamental to success.

In my experience, something similar is true on Earth. 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.

When we're directionless, we flail and use up a lot of energy just to get through the day. If we knew our orientation, we could use that energy to prepare and become better to face what comes our way. Along the same lines, we should first assess a new environment or situation with humility and a desire to learn.

In any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn't tip the balance one way or the other. Or you'll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value. Everyone wants to be a plus one, of course. But proclaiming your plus-oneness at the outset almost guarantees you'll be perceived as a minus one, regardless of the skills you bring to the table or how you actually perform.

Being neutral helps us be less wrong, make fewer mistakes as we learn to anticipate consequences. It's not by jumping in head first that we prove our worth, but by demonstrating our competence. A perfect dive barely upsets the surface, so we should plan to cause no ripples or bad wakes as we wade in.

When you have some skills but don't fully understand your environment, there is no way you can be plus one. At best, you can be a zero. But a zero isn't a bad thing to be. You're competent enough not to create problems or make more work for everyone else. And you have to be competent, and prove to others that you are, before you can be extraordinary. There are no short-cuts, unfortunately.


The ideal entry is not to sail in and make your presence known immediately. It’s to ingress without causing a ripple. The best way to contribute to a brand-new environment is not by trying to prove what a wonderful addition you are. It’s by trying to have a neutral impact, to observe and learn from those who are already there, and to pitch in with the grunt work wherever possible.

Seek to understand and prepare first, so the contribution can be most valuable.

when you do understand the environment and can make an outstanding contribution, there’s considerable wisdom in practicing humility. If you really are a plus one, people will notice—and they’re even more likely to give you credit for it if you’re not trying to rub their noses in your greatness.

Hadfield also talks about leadership and how it literally means leading the way rather than “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.” We want to use the appropriate terminology, call a leader only someone who espouses those qualities, who can lay the groundwork for the success of others.

He says, “There are no wishy-washy astronauts. You don't get up there by being uncaring and blasé. And whatever gave you the sense of tenacity and purpose to get that far in life is absolutely reaffirmed and deepened by the experience itself.” When we are capable of letting an experience form us and learn what matters in tough situations. Something to keep in mind to stay grounded on earth.

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth is filled with life lessons but also detailed information about NASA and the importance of the space program.