photo courtesy of chrishadfield.ca
My son and I held hands with an astronaut. Ok, really we placed our hands over bronze casts of Colonel Chris Hadfield’s hands. But it was still cool!
Hadfield has been on my mind again recently. Not only will he be speaking in Toronto in November, he’s also launching a new children’s book this fall, The Darkest Dark. I am giddy with excitement about sharing my love of books and Hadfield’s engaging yet straightforward brand of storytelling with my son. The idea that he can actually see and maybe even talk to a genuine fighter pilot and astronaut (two of the best jobs ever, according to my seven-year-old) produces squeals of pure joy.
And while I’ll happily read Hadfield’s children’s book to Ewan as soon as I can get my hands on it, I do hope that one day he will be as inspired as I was by Hadfield’s adult book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. I’ve thought about, and even spoken about, some of the book’s messages in my professional life. While PR isn’t exactly space exploration, there are still many lessons that can cross-pollinate. Here are a few key learnings that I continue to revisit when I find myself in challenging environments.
1. Be a zero
Hadfield writes,“…in any new situation…you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. As a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or another. Or as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.”
With clients and co-workers, it’s understandable to want to be a plus one. You’ve worked hard to earn the know-how and experience that ensures you are ready to lead a project or contribute specialized skills. But, as Hadfield explains, proclaiming your “plus-one-ness” will almost always guarantee that you’re seen as a minus one. It’s the fact that you’re trying too hard to be recognized that’s most problematic. The negative implications of pushing your “plus-one-ness” could be detrimental to your cause.
Instead, in his experience, Hadfield says, “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.” In time, your skills and commitment to doing a job well will show that you add value, that you are a plus-one.
I remind myself of this perspective from time-to-time. I am human after all and it’s nice to be recognized and thought of as that person who always has the great ideas and can write the headlines that generate thousands of media hits. But often just being a quiet force is more powerful than looking to stand out or be the very best. It totally makes sense to me.
2. Have an attitude
This advice may sound like the complete opposite of what you just read. But, trust me, Hadfield and I are not leading you astray. First, it helps to know that, “In space flight, ‘attitude’ refers to orientation: which direction your vehicle is pointing relative to the Sun, Earth, and other spacecraft.” And, as Hadfield explains, “we never want to lose attitude, since maintaining attitude is fundamental to success.”
For PR, the variables are different but the principle is the same. A successful product launch, for example, is achieved by maintaining the project’s goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics. Lose your way in one of these areas and the project goes sideways, or worse, you crash and burn. Thankfully that crash is figurative when it comes to PR, but success still depends on maintaining attitude, a clear direction of where you’re going and where you need to land. Have an attitude (a positive one will help too!).
3. Focus on solutions
Have you ever had a client who wanted to tweak every idea you provided? Or a co-worker that got on your last nerve? We’ve all been there. These situations can make it difficult to get the job done. When faced with such situations, take some advice from Hadfield, “you can’t change the bricks, and together, you still have to build a wall.”
I pulled this one out when I found myself chairing a meeting of an irate and outspoken group. We all understood the task (our wall) and constraints (the bricks). But the group was focused on complaining about what we couldn’t change and the poor state of the situation (zero focus on building here). Hearing this simple phrase helped us all gain perspective, and focused us on finding solutions to move forward. You can’t always hand-pick your co-workers or clients, but you can find a way to work with what you’ve got and make something great. Stay focused on the goals, build cohesion by finding common ground instead of shared grievances, and you’ll get that wall up.
While an astronaut may seem to be an unlikely source of professional inspiration—sometimes the most unlikely sources are the best places to look. I’m sure Hadfield’s new children’s book will be full of inspiration as well, just for a slightly different audience. Whatever he has to say, I plan on listening. There’s a lot that we on Earth can learn from those who have braved the world beyond.