“Square Astronaut, Round Hole”: Chris Hadfield on Risk, Competence, and Leadership

Categories: Leadership, Management & Communication Skills, Private Wealth Management
An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

Astronauts have always held a certain fascination for me. After all, who hasn’t looked up at the night sky and wondered: What would it be like to be up there?

By chance, I recently tuned into NPR’s Fresh Air just in time to hear Chris Hadfield, Canada’s first commander of the International Space Station, describe life in space, from awe-inspiring beauty to life-threatening risks.

Hadfield just published his first book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, but was an internet sensation long before it hit the stands: his version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” filmed while floating weightless in outer space, went viral earlier this year. At last count, it had more than 18,000,000 views. His twitter handle — @Cmdr_Hadfield — has nearly a million followers.

During the NPR interview, Terry Gross asked Hadfield about his training process, including answering the question — What’s the next thing that could kill me? — and working methodically through the list.

“I’ve found it to be so helpful in my regular life. . . . As an astronaut, especially during the launch, half of the risk of a six-month flight is in the first nine minutes,” he said. “So as a crew, how do you stay focused? And how do you not get paralyzed by the fear of it? And the way to do it is to break down what are the risks.”

You may be wondering: What has this got to do with investing? Or being a financial adviser?

It struck me that some of Hadfield’s observations about assessing risk, staying focused, and working in a team, carry over to everyday life, from investing to working with clients and building a career.

Here, then, are some quotes from the book that I found valuable.


Competence and Lifelong Learning

“An astronaut is someone who’s able to make good decisions quickly, with incomplete information, when the consequences really matter.”

“Spacewalking is like rock climbing, weightlifting, repairing a small engine and performing an intricate pas de deux — simultaneously, while encased in a bulky suit that’s scraping your knuckles, fingertips and collarbone raw.”

“The upshot of all this is that we have to become competent, which is the most important quality to have if you’re an astronaut — or frankly, anyone, anywhere, who is striving to succeed at anything at all. Competency means keeping your head in a crisis, sticking with a task even when it seems hopeless, and improvising good solutions to tough problems when every second counts. It encompasses ingenuity, determination and being prepared for anything.”

“You don’t have to go to space to learn to” think like an astronaut. “It’s mostly a matter of changing your perspective.”

“No matter how competent or how seasoned, every astronaut is essentially a perpetual student, forever cramming for the next test.”

Take-away: Competence is a trait that applies to investing, whether it’s your money or your client’s, and to managing client relationships. (Think back to the panic of 2007–2008; “competency means keeping your head in a crisis.”) Being “a perpetual student” is a way to get an edge. As my colleague Jason Voss, CFA, pointed out in his post “Advice on How to Become a Research Analyst,” one of the steps is to “stock your mental toolkit.” In other words, “read, read, read, read.” In another post, he noted that investing “demands that you be a polymath — knowing a lot about many things (including nonfinancial topics) and how those things interconnect into an organic whole.”


Preparation and the Power of Negative Thinking

Hadfield recounted a time when he fantasized that Elton John would find out he played guitar and invite him up on stage “to strum a few bars with him.” His  next thought was: “Say that did happen — what song would he ask me to play?” There was only one possible answer: “Rocket Man.”

So Hadfield learned to play the song to the point where he was confident he wouldn’t be booed off stage. And while he ended up going to an Elton John concert, he never got anywhere near the stage.

“That’s how I approach everything. I spend my life getting ready to play ‘Rocket Man’. I picture the most demanding challenge; I visualize what I would need to know how to do to meet it; then I practice until I reach a level of competence where I’m comfortable that I’ll be able to perform.”

One of the questions Hadfield said he is asked most often is: How do you deal with your fear?

“People tend to think astronauts have the courage of a superhero — or maybe the emotional range of a robot. But in order to stay calm in a high-stress, high-stakes situation, all you really need is knowledge. Sure, you might still feel a little nervous or stressed or hyper alert. But what you won’t feel is terrified.”

“No matter how bad a situation is, you can always make it worse. . . . Preparation is not about managing external risks, but about limiting the likelihood that you’ll unwittingly add to them.”

“It’s puzzling to me that so many self-help gurus urge people to visualize victory, and stop there. . . . Why make yourself miserable worrying? . . . Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive. Likewise, coming up with a plan of action isn’t a waste of time if it gives you peace of mind. While it’s true that you may wind up being ready for something that never happens, if the stakes are at all high, it’s worth it.”

“Like most astronauts, I’m pretty sure that I can deal with what life throws at me because I’ve thought about what to do if things go wrong, as well as right. That’s the power of negative thinking.”

It was 1983, the year Canada selected its first astronauts, and Hadfield’s dream of becoming one was starting to look slightly less impossible — but only if he flew fighter jets. While training, he made “a hash” on one of his instrument exam flights. “I flew clumsily and didn’t prepare to transition from one phase of instrument flight to the next.”

“Even at the time, the moral of the story was unmistakable: I couldn’t afford to be unprepared in any situation where I was going to be evaluated, formally or not. I had to be ready, always.”

Take-away: At the risk of stating the obvious, if you are working with clients, it’s imperative that you are prepared so that you can anticipate and respond to questions about changing market circumstances and/or client needs. Preparation underpins confidence. As Arthur Ashe reportedly said: “One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation.”


Team Dynamics and Leadership

“For me, the takeaway from all my survival training is that the key question to ask when you’re part of a team, whether on Earth or in space, is, ‘How can I help us get where we need to go?’ You don’t need to be a superhero. Empathy and a sense of humor are often more important.”

“Over the years I’ve learned that investing in other people’s success doesn’t just make them more likely to enjoy working with me. It also improves my own chances of survival and success. The more each astronaut knows how to do, and the better he or she can do it, the better off I am, too. . . . It’s not enough to shelve your own competitive streak. You have to try, consciously, to help others succeed. Some people feel that is like shooting themselves in the foot — why aid someone else in creating a competitive advantage? I don’t look at it that way. Helping someone else look good doesn’t make me look worse. In fact, it often improves my own performance, particularly in stressful situations.”

“It’s counterintuitive, but I think it’s true: promoting your colleagues’ interests helps you stay competitive, even in a field where everyone is top-notch. And it’s easy to do once you realize you have a vested interest in your co-workers’ success. In a crisis, you want them to help you survive and succeed, too.”

Take-away: Team dynamics matter, whether you’re at a small RIA or a big wirehouse, and whether you’re part of a two-person team or a larger one.


Last But Not Least

Perhaps the most important observation that Hadfield made was on the opening page of his book, where he talked about floating in the airlock before his first spacewalk. Poised “on the edge of the sublime,” Hadfield confronts a dilemma: How best to get out? “The hatch was small and circular, but with all my tools strapped to my chest and a huge pack of oxygen tanks and electronics strapped onto my back, I was square. Square astronaut, round hole. . . . It’s the story of my life really: trying to figure out how to get where I want to go when just getting out the door seems impossible. . . . I wasn’t destined to be an astronaut. I had to turn myself into one.”

The reward for his determination includes two unforgettable space walks that placed him “in between what is just a pouring glory of the world roaring by silently next to you” on the right side, and “the whole bottomless black of the universe . . . like a huge, yawning endlessness just on your left side and you’re in between those two things and trying to rationalize it to yourself and trying to get some work done.” It doesn’t get better than that.


Please note that the content of this site should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute.

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2 comments on ““Square Astronaut, Round Hole”: Chris Hadfield on Risk, Competence, and Leadership

  1. Pingback: Saturday links: margins of safety | Abnormal Returns
  2. Navin Soni said:

    Very Aptly and intelligently put on –
    How does a Square Astronaut get out of a Round Hole?

    Advance Preparation and constant Knowledge of the Risks lurking ahead of you – won’t make the Risk go away but will Definitely give you Confidence and Odds to work in your Favour.

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