With Mars in the headlines, I recently re-read Commander Chris Hadfield’s book, “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.” It offers a rare glimpse into an industry premised on iteration and built on decades of astonishing successes and spectacular failures; a program that attracts extraordinarily high-performing, risk-taking individuals powered forward through a lifetime of struggle to attain a near-impossible goal motivated by a desire to seek massive profits in the form of knowledge for all people.
Spaceflight may be the ultimate startup.
This book is a must-read for any entrepreneur chasing down a dream; it’s for all of you who are hurtling towards your own radical goals in the face of Earth-bound odds, a figurative rocket ride that Elon Musk has famously likened to “eating glass and staring into the abyss of death.”
Though Canadian by birth, Commander Hadfield transcends any one nation and is a hero for the human race. Here are the lessons that resonated the most with me that are consistent with the guiding principles of GrowthX, and why, including insights from leading entrepreneurial minds here on Earth.
“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.”
Entrepreneurs are naturally — and beneficially — competitive, tenacious, and decisive. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for a startup to be a hotbed of hard-driving egos looking to prove themselves and their ideas. This ends up being a tax on productivity, an especially high one in the context of a startup where juggling multiple and competing tasks and making numerous and difficult decisions is merely the table stakes.
As Tomasz Tunguz from Redpoint Ventures rightly emphasized in his blog, “the best expeditionary force keeps open minds about the way forward. They learn from each other and the market. The first step to learning is accepting we don’t know everything.”
Regardless of your talent, IQ or subject-matter expertise, the journey begins, at best, as a zero. But, as Commander Hadfield learned with hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer’s hard-earned money at risk — not to mention the life-or-death circumstances — “…zero isn’t a bad thing to be. You’re competent enough not to create problems or make more work for everyone else.”
“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.”
When you’re barreling through space at 2,284 miles per hour, attitude is non-negotiable. The pace of a startup can often feel like Mach 3.
That’s why Michael Skok, a VC at North Bridge Venture Partners, advises that, “Pursuing breakout opportunities requires the right Attitude toward things like problem solving, persistence, and participation in a team.” His entire Startup Secrets series, co-created with Harvard’s i-Lab, is a massive resource packed with hind-sight insights for entrepreneurs.
I’ve been fortunate enough to befriend, advise and work alongside of successful entrepreneurs for over 20 years across North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The one trait shared among every one of them is neither technical skills, book smarts, nor profound intelligence. It’s a strong orientation to stay calm and carry on.
Sh*t happens. Attitude fortifies.
“See, a funny thing happened on the way to space: I learned how to live better and more happily here on Earth….I learned how to neutralize fear, how to stay focused and how to succeed.”
If you’re building a startup — especially if you’re seeking funding — focus may be a word you’re tired of hearing. True, it’s a word often spoken at entrepreneurs. But, like many clichés, there’s a strong foundational basis for it, even if it has been overused, stretched or lost over time.
Michael Lazerow has started four companies and has invested in 25+ others, and he lists the lack of focus as the #1 mistake that entrepreneurs make.
Brian Balfour penned an awesome essay a while back on Why Focus Wins. Brian unpacks the real meaning of focus, why it pays off, and illustrates how to avoid the illusion of focus. The entire piece is worth a close read and careful consideration.
Brian detailed four elements of focus and five reasons focus wins:
- Identifying one longer term meaningful goal (not multiple goals/paths in parallel).
- Distilling the most important thing you need to be doing right now to make progress towards that goal.
- Doing that one thing for a long enough period to get information/data.
- Editing the longer term goal based on the information you receive.
I would add one additional element of focus, what Commander Hadfield refers to as, “the real true tenets of what’s good and what gives [you] strength.”
That wisdom settled onto him as the bottomless black universe was on his left and the World was “pouring by in technicolor” on his right while holding onto a spaceship with one hand orbiting at 17,500 miles an hour.
Find your North Star and stick to it to stay focused as an entrepreneur living life at what feels like warp speed.
Thinking Like an Astronaut
Commander Hadfield personifies humility, attitude and focus. In his words, it’s because as an astronaut he was “taught to view the world—and ourselves—differently.” His shorthand version for it is “thinking like an astronaut.”
While living aboard the International Space Station (and orbiting Earth 16 times a day), Commander Hadfield took time to host a Reddit AMA. When asked for his advice for a young person interested in pursuing a career as an astronaut, he shared some deeply poignant wisdom that I endeavor to remain mindful of every day, especially while working with two of my current early-stage “start-ups” – my 15- and 12-year-old daughters:
“Decide in your heart of hearts what really excites and challenges you, and start moving your life in that direction. Every decision you make, from what you eat to what you do with your time tonight, turns you into who you are tomorrow, and the day after that. Look at who you want to be, and start sculpting yourself into that person. You may not get exactly where you thought you’d be, but you will be doing things that suit you in a profession you believe in. Don’t let life randomly kick you into the adult you don’t want to become.”
Spoken like a person who struggled while smiling every day and who accomplished a seemingly impossible dream that started when he was nine years old and included being strapped to a 4.5-megaton bomb loaded with explosive fuel in the name of science and the furtherance of the human race.
But, we don’t have to go to Mars to learn the lessons, right?
NOTE ABOUT THE TITLE: Flight Rules are the hard-earned body of knowledge learned from and used by astronauts which NASA has compiled and updated over the past 50 years of space programs.