Brain Pickings

Astronaut Chris Hadfield on Success and the Meaning of Life

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“If you view crossing the finish line as the measure of your life, you’re setting yourself up for a personal disaster.”

Shortly after the release of his fantastic book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything (public library), Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield sat down with celebrated British-Canadian broadcaster Peter Mansbridge on CBC’s The National to discuss his experience aboard the International Space Station. From his sage advice to Olympic athletes, the essence of which extends more broadly to our culture’s flawed relationship with striving and success, to his simple, profound contemplation of the meaning of life, Hadfield proves himself to be not only a fierce explorer of the universe, but also a deeply thoughtful explorer of the human condition, capable of articulating those most universal of inquiries in simple yet profound language. Highlights below.

On the trouble with goal-oriented striving, echoing Thoreau’s definition of success and seconding Cheryl Strayed’s memorable assertion that “the useless days will add up to something [for] these things are your becoming”:

If you view crossing the finish line as the measure of your life, you’re setting yourself up for a personal disaster. … Commanding a spaceship or doing a spacewalk is a very rare, singular moment-in-time event in the continuum of life. You need to honor the highs and the peaks in the moments — you need to prepare your life for them — but recognize the fact that the preparation for those moments is your life and, in fact, that’s the richness of your life. … The challenge that we set for each other, and the way that we shape ourselves to rise to that challenge, is life.

On the meaning of life, adding to the famous contemplations of cultural icons:

I’ve had a tremendous privilege of perspective that almost nobody has had. When you talk about the meaning of life, we tend to think about it as life on Earth. To be away from the planet for a long time and to be able to see it constantly out the window allows you a reflection on it that is really hard to get just in regular day-to-day. So I think if there is any sort of meaning of life, it’s got to be very personal. How does the life that you lead affect your own conclusions about what’s important to you?

The book itself is absolutely spectacular. Hadfield paints a backdrop in the introduction:

The windows of a spaceship casually frame miracles. Every 92 minutes, another sunrise: a layer cake that starts with orange, then a thick wedge of blue, then the richest, darkest icing decorated with stars. The secret patterns of our planet are revealed: mountains bump up rudely from orderly plains, forests are green gashes edged with snow, rivers glint in the sunlight, twisting and turning like silvery worms. Continents splay themselves out whole, surrounded by islands sprinkled across the sea like delicate shards of shattered eggshells.

Floating in the airlock before my first spacewalk, I knew I was on the verge of even rarer beauty. To drift outside, fully immersed in the spectacle of the universe while holding onto a spaceship orbiting Earth at 17,500 miles per hour — it was a moment I’d been dreaming of and working toward most of my life.

In An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield goes on to explore not only how he attained that exulted moment against remarkable odds, but also how he filled the seemingly mundane moments, those in-between pockets of living, with pure life.

Thanks, Craig

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