287: Lessons from outer space and a near death experience

This week’s conversation is with Steve Smith, one of America’s most experienced astronauts and spacewalkers, with 4 spaceflights and 7 spacewalks to repair the Hubble Space Telescope and build the Space Station.

Steve dreamed of being an astronaut at age 7.  Then he made his dream come true through sheer determination and intelligent risk taking.

During the 3-decade pursuit of his dream he became a Stanford electrical engineer and MBA, General Motors Fellow, pilot, elite collegiate athlete, and IBM Product Manager.

At NASA, Steve held multiple senior leadership positions and served as a Diplomat.

He now uses this one-of-a-kind experience base as a board director, venture capital advisor, and keynote speaker.

I was so excited to have this conversation – for all the years we’ve been at it with Finding Mastery, we’ve never had an astronaut as a guest so this was such a treat.

We discuss his experience going to space, how it changed his perspective of life on earth, the risks associated with his job, and strategies for living and working in isolation — something that we all can relate to over these past 18 months.

“It’s so important to lead a simple life, so you can be present when these really amazing things happen.”

In This Episode:

What’s it like being in space?

You can imagine if we could turn the gravity off in the room you’re in now, I mean, you would just float out of the chair. The chair would float. It’s this very magical place. It’s almost like a movie, and moving large objects is easy to do, so the experience inside the cockpit where there’s no gravity is just magical. Then when you look out the window, it’s really this sense of awe. You see this beautiful, beautiful blue planet floating in this vast black empty space, black ocean. For me, it really represented looking at an island in this vast black ocean. We don’t think about that every day because we can only see a mile or two, but we actually do live on an island. It’s absolutely gorgeous. I really view it as this stage to perform on. It’s just this magical experience that we’re allowed to be here and be on the stage. When we see it from space, we realize we have to take care of the island itself, so that’s why we’re really big into taking care of the earth, but also that we’re really one global community. I mean, you look at the earth, there is no border, so we really are one global community. That’s not just a marketing term, but it’s reality, and so because of that, we should be nice to each other too.

How your view on life changes once you’ve gone to space

I think when we view the earth from space, we recognize that, correct, we are this little, teeny tiny object that is on this earth. We also realize that in the scope of time, our time on earth, maybe it’s a hundred years, is also very brief. You do have that feeling. When you come back to earth, I think it’s hard for us sometimes to remember that and practice it all the time, because from your field of study you know we’re interested in ourselves a lot of the time and our own comfort in life and all that. I think we tend to forget that once in a while. But for me, if we could fly every leader in the world in space, it would definitely be a different place here on earth. Some people joke, maybe we should leave some of them there, but I think if we could fly all the leaders in space, it would be a different place here on earth, frankly.

How he changed after returning

 I think when astronauts come back from space, they’re more open-minded people, they’re more tolerant people, certainly not perfect. Sometimes when someone cuts you off and then you’re interested in having road rage and hitting the horn, I actually feel differently now that I can just take a deep breath and not create anger between the two of us by hitting the horn or giving them a signal or something with my hands. In any case, I think we’re more tolerant to other cultures. I think we’re more interested in the team victory rather than self-absorbed victory. In terms of maybe paying a little bit higher taxes so more people have healthcare, maybe be more tolerant to people coming from different countries, things like that. I think that we really in our hearts recognize that it’s an island and if we were to select six or seven people put them on a boat and send them out to a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean, they’d get it right away, “I’m stuck here. I got to take care of this place and I certainly want to be nice to other people.”  I think just on a day-to-day tolerance level and being open-minded, I think I’m quite different than who I was before I saw this incredible place from space.

What was his experience life when the doors shut for the first time

It was a magical moment really for me, because my story is it took me a long time to become an astronaut, about 33 years. It’s something I had dreamed of even as a youth. I drew these pictures when I was a little kid to be an astronaut. For me, it was this magical moment. There was no strong fear at that moment, despite the fact that we knew that this vehicle had a chance of not making it into space. The reason there was no fear, a couple of reasons, one is we were super prepared. I mean, that’s what the life of an astronaut is leading to your flight. You’re in training. It’s like being in college basically for a couple more years. We were meticulously trained and I just felt like we could react to anything. I think there’s also this little bit of self-talk where you say, “It’s not going to happen to me. It’ll happen to somebody else.” As mean as that is to say, it’s just a human emotion I think a lot of us felt on the launch pad. I think in life we feel that way too, right? We fly on airplanes, “Oh, nothing’s going to happen during my flight.”

How does he think about the risk associated with going to space?

If you look back the Space Shuttle program, in the first 102/104 flights, two didn’t come back. That’s basically one out of 50 didn’t come back. For me, that was the realistic number. The way we dealt with that in our family is we realized that it was a noble cause and Peggy, my wife, and I discussed why I was doing it. It was to the benefit of humanity. It was a benefit to our family and to our children and our future grandchildren. I admitted that, well, it’s also selfish to fly into space because of course I really wanted the experience.

I tell people that flying once was selfish, twice was very selfish, three was very, very selfish and forth was just on the border of asking for divorce. In any case, it’s a dangerous business. These are our colleagues that I knew well that didn’t come back from Columbia, for example.

If he could sit with one master, who would it be?

There’re so many fascinating people out there. I think in the last six months, one person I’ve been really fascinated by is the rock climber, Alex Honnold. Just watching Free Solo, and for me, that is in turn … There’s different ways you can master things. This is a skill we’re talking about rather than maybe life balance. In terms of this mastering a skill, I mean, watching Free Solo and watching how he mastered that not over a week or a month, but it was over years and how he really thought it out. I remember the most important sentence actually of the whole movie is he says, “What I hope people don’t remember is the accomplishment of this Free Solo of El Capitan. It’s the preparation that got me to this place.” I mean, in the astronaut world, we prepare meticulously. I mean, we spend hours saying, “What are all the bad things that can happen that we should prepare for?” If you watch that movie, I mean, he picked little places on that wall, “I’m going to put my foot right there the next time I come by here. Then my left hand is going to go here. I’m only going to use two fingers up here.” I mean, it was incredible. Absolutely incredible.

If he had one question to ask Alex Honnold, what would it be?

So I have a team that when we were astronauts, we were overwhelmed with the amount of information we had to deal with. And I think all of us in today’s society are just overwhelmed with noise and information and opportunities. And so I would ask, “Alex, how did you get rid of the noise? How did you know which bright, shiny objects to focus on? And which ones did you just go let it pass? How did you find that balance and simplify your life to do something so amazing?” I mean, there’s so much, there’s so many distractions

How does he manage the signal to noise ratio?

I try and lead a simple as life as possible. And so it’s been actually pretty easy for me to not get too distracted by bright, shiny objects. I think the internet has made it more difficult because it’s right there. It’s so interesting. There’s so much information. There’s so much clickbait out there for example. And so that for me is a big temptation all the time. And so I try not to own too many objects or I try and lead a simple life in terms of that, try not to have too many objects. I think giving things up that have been in your life for a while is also difficult, but it’s necessary. So if you have this priority list of things that are important in your life, and it doesn’t have to be written down, but at least things are kind of ranked. I’m almost certain that there’s things on that list that if you really focused on them, you should let go of them. And so I’m embarrassed to say that one of them for me was a car. At the age of 16, I bought a 1966 Corvette 427 engine, beautiful mass, all blue. And I had that car for 42 years. And at the beginning it was… Almost, in high school, that thing was pretty close to the top. But as the years went by, you get a job, you meet someone, you get married, you have kids, you’ve got this cool job. I mean, it just sunk to the bottom. And for the last 10 years I had it, it was just kind of a hassle. I really miss it, but it just isn’t high enough on the list. So there’s these various things that are trying to get me to complicate my life.

What was it like exiting the spacecraft into space for the first time?

When you see the Earth from inside the spaceship, it’s also incredible as I’ve already said. But you’re looking through on the space shuttle, three panes of glass that are pretty old and somewhat scratched up and the frames are kind of small, so you can’t really get your head up close enough to the window to kind of get rid of the frame. When you’re doing a space walk, you have, what’s usually a pristine visor on your mask. It goes from ear to ear, so you actually can put your head in a position where you don’t see the shuttle, the space station, the Hubble, whatever you’re working on. And so you do get the sense that I’m actually flying. I’m actually flying. This is amazing. I can remember coming up across the Atlantic towards Namibia and seeing the beautiful coast. And for that moment thinking, this is what it really feels like to fly. And so when you open that door, you’re a little nervous because you’re wearing a 300 pound suit, a 150 kilogram suit. And so you’re a little clumsy and you’ve only practiced on Earth in a swimming pool where your motions are damped, so it’s not quite accurate. So they do give you five or 10 minutes just to kind of calibrate yourself out there. But in any case, it was… Even the step up from the amazing view from inside of the spaceship. And I do dream about that by the way. And also, a couple of times per year doing spacewalks and so it’s… Whenever you find something that you’re joyful for, it’s very difficult to not do it anymore. And you’re always trying to find substitutes. And for me, I have to say, it is really nice a couple of times per year to dream about it again.

How does he manage the “come down” of returning from space?

It’s so important to lead a simple life, so you can be present when these really amazing things happen. And so I consider myself a sponge for information and interesting subjects and listening to interesting people. That’s why I love your podcast. And you can only really appreciate if you’re present at that moment and try not to get too distracted. So that’s another reason why we really want to simplify our lives. Coming back from space, it’s like many experiences where you have achieved something you wanted to, or something that, maybe it was a surprise and that you can’t really easily do it again. And so I would be really exaggerating by saying, “Oh, I’m fine with it. It’s no problem.” I mean, I wish I could go into space every single day. And that’s why these dreams are so special. I think people who come from different professions like athletes that you’ve worked with, for example, I mean, when the playing career’s over, sometimes they’re they feel a little bit lost. And I’ll be honest, I think, to this day I still, on a daily basis, think, “Man, I wish I could do that again.” What is it that will bring me joy now? And so for me, I still love the outdoor adventurism, so it’s backpacking, river rafting, things like that, scuba diving. And so for me, those do bring a more readily accessible opportunity to have that thrill and that adventurism with nature. I mean, you can tell from talking to me that a lot of the awe in my life comes from the Earth and seeing beautiful things. I’m going backpacking three times in the next five weeks, so seeing massive granite fixtures or a mountain lake, things like that, and sharing them with someone. And so I’m taking… I’m going with three different sets of people on those trips. And so I think it’s common for all of us, all of us to have these memories of these amazing moments and know that we can’t really replicate them. And we just have to move on and keep fighting, keep looking for those things that will make us happy in the present.

What drives him?

When you have this very clarifying moment with this near-death experience, it makes you realize that I’m only going to be here for a short time. That was a pretty close call. I want to find this balance during that life to not only help the cause and the team, but also to support myself and my family and bring them joy. And so it’s this clarity that was clear for me. And so part of that is that we all need to find that place that makes us happy. What is your skill? What is going to bring you joy? And so, like for example, if you look at this picture that I drew when I was a little kid. I mean, I was lucky enough to know early that I wanted to be an astronaut. But if you look at that picture, I have a giant smile on my face. I mean, it’s this U-shaped smile. And so I was able to discover earlier than most people what would bring me joy. Other people, it takes them into their teens or twenties or thirties or forties, maybe even longer to find what brings them joy. And when you find what brings you joy, you can get through getting kicked in the teeth and getting knocked down because you know that goal that’s going to make me happy, gives me this spirit to keep moving forward.

What’s his experience been like living in isolation

As astronauts, we actually train for isolation and we actually go through isolation before the flight and during the flight. And so before the flight, in order to keep us healthy, we’re not allowed to go stay living at our own house or to go out in the public to the mall or to movies, things like that. So we actually live in a special building where just certain people can come in that are healthy, like instructors or our spouses. And so we actually get used to it at that point. And what I found even in isolation on earth is it’s really important to remember the big picture of why you’re doing it, so it reminds you why you’re doing it, because it’s hard and so it’s good to remember that. It’s good to have a schedule, super important to have a schedule. It’s super important, of course, as part of that schedule to get your sleep and your exercise, eat well. It’s this classic good life advice. It’s also important to recognize that it’s okay if you’re not super comfortable with it. And if you need to talk to someone about it, you should. It’s also important to recognize that other people need their space. And so just because someone else is in that isolated area doesn’t mean they want to talk to you. Maybe they want to take care of something on their own and have their own moment. And of course, when you go into space, it’s even more constrained. And so really important for crews to understand all the things I just mentioned. And we have very strict schedules, and so that just keeps things going, that time just flies, it absolutely flies.

How does he deal with internal doubt

When I have this inner dialogue, I guess the first thing I remember is, I’m not the only one that’s having that. I think it’s very common, it’s very natural. I actually, even at my level of experience, have the imposter syndrome on a daily basis when I’m doing things. Which is incredibly painful to deal with sometimes. It takes self-talk to remind yourself that you’ve got the right qualifications for this situation or you can reach out to other people. But I think it’s really important for people of all ages to recognize, that happens to people. You have this imposter syndrome and it’s okay, it makes you work harder, other people are feeling in the same way. And if you need help getting through that, then you should do that. And that’s what’s wonderful about, I think where we see mental health efforts these days. It’s wonderful now that we are treating mental health just like the other body systems, like our eyes, our heart, our skin. It’s just an incredible advancement, I think in our awareness that we now treat it that way.

Does he see any tension between autonomy and results with remote-work?

For me, I guess I don’t really see it as friction because I think if the leader is clear on what they expect and they have touch points occasionally, they can keep track of the status. And it all comes down to who you hire. And I’ve always viewed myself as a servant leader, so I’m on their side. It’s not going to be this adversarial relationship. And so I’m putting systems in place where I know what’s going on, I don’t need to hear it from them, but I just need to know what’s going on at a certain level. But in the end, your employers or people that you hired for a specific reason, you want to trust them. Give them the opportunity to move forward. I think it’s almost like parenting, you can over-parent kids too. And so for me, I like to make sure that I’ve hired the right people, make sure I have the systems in place so that there’s this communication, and make sure they understand that I’m here to serve them. In the end, will you have some folks that won’t be able to meet your expectations? Absolutely. It’s going to be hard for some people, on both sides, the leadership side and the remote working side. I was the NASA person in Europe for 12 years, and so I had conversations with hundreds of people verbally over the phone for those 12 years. And the system worked fine. And that’s because it was the right people, I knew what they were doing and if they needed help, quite honest, it’s this open communication you’ve got to have too. But I don’t view it too much as a friction-oriented relationship.

What tips does he have for simplifying your life?

I really have three steps. One is to make sure you have their priority list. You got to know when to bring things on, what to take off, what their ranking is. It doesn’t mean your lists have to be short, but if you also get rid of the noise in your life, which means these things that just aren’t really producing a good return on investment, maybe it’s objects that you own, maybe it’s relationships you have, maybe it’s certain events that you’re going to. And so you got to have the list, you’ve got to simplify your life by getting rid of the noise and you have to quit wasting time. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to be boring and just have this focused life. But hey, if you can carve out 10 minutes a day, I mean, that ends up being three full days at the end of the year. And so that’s kind of the three-step method. Have a list, get rid of the noise in your life, and quit wasting time.

How does he excel with balance?

It’s just having a real clarity on the parts that you want to water. And the being able to say no and not worry about FOMO or FOPO, just living what you want to live. I mean, I don’t know if it comes from the near death experience, but it’s actually a lifestyle that is pretty easy for me to execute now.

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