Space. As awe inspiring as it is, space is also a very scary place. It’s dark and totally inhospitable to life. All it would take is a little push to send you drifting off into the dark and inescapable infinity of it. It’s a place that induces fear in many; I can only imagine how brave of a person you would have to be to want to explore it. Now, imagine going blind in space. Floating around in the infinity, surrounded by complete darkness. This is exactly what happened to the Canadian astronaut and mechanical engineer, Chris Hadfield. In a moment like this, it would be hard not to panic. Fear would strike harder than lightning. However, Chris was able to remain calm, override his fear, and overcome the situation. In this essay, I discuss the 4 principles that I believe allowed Chris to conquer fear and anxiety.
01 | Why Chris Hadfield is an Excellent Example of Overcoming Fear
Fear is a primal urge we feel when we are threatened or in danger. The higher the stakes are, the more fear we feel. The more fear we encounter, the better we have to be at dealing with fear. You may be wondering, why did I pick Chris Hadfield as my case study for this topic?
Throughout his life, Chris has been in numerous high-stakes situations. Before he was an astronaut, he was a test pilot and a fighter pilot. All three careers are incredibly dangerous. During his time as a pilot, Chris was flying a jet in formation with some of his comrades. Suddenly, he noticed that a bee was inside of his visor. He realized that a hasty, and panicked move could result in his death or the death of one of his friends. He stayed calm until he could safely break away from his comrades and let the bee out of his visor. In another instance, while he was flying a fighter jet, Chris accidentally unplugged his anti-gravity suit while he was accelerating upwards. As a result, he fell unconscious for 16 seconds before realizing what was going on. In both situations, the average person would feel extreme amounts of fear and panic. I believe it’s Chris’ ability to stay calm and collected in such high-stakes situations that make him a paragon of conquering fear.
Although we may never live out such high-stakes situations, I believe these principles for conquering fear work in any situation. Fear is often an obstacle and a compass. It points in the direction of what we want, but it lies in the way. Hopefully, this essay provides you with some food for thought on how to conquer it.
02 | Calculated Risk-Taking - Happiness in Every Step
This is a quote from Hadfield’s book: “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”. I love this quote because it perfectly encapsulates Chris’ fear of failure. We’re all afraid of failure, but we often allow it to cripple us. On the other hand, Chris set out this big goal: become as astronaut. It was his life’s dream. However, Chris knew that the probability of him becoming an astronaut was astronomically low. He made sure that every step he took on the path to becoming an astronaut was calculated and that it was one he wouldn't regret. He studied mechanical engineering, before becoming a fighter pilot. He became a test pilot, before he became an astronaut. Chris knew that this was a well calculated path to becoming an astronaut but he was 100% satisfied with each step he took. Even if he didn’t become an astronaut, he would have enjoyed working full-time as an engineer, or a pilot. He was able to minimize his fear of failure by minimizing what he had to lose. He was able to minimize what he had to lose by making the risk as calculated as possible and following a path that he fully enjoyed. His happiness was not dependent on his success.
03 | Mental Models - What Will Kill Me Next?
Let’s say you’re in the jungle… looking for fruit. As you turn around, you see a tiger 20 feet away from you. It’s ready to attack. What separates the person who freezes in fear from the one who immediately grabs their rifle and shoots? Mental models.
A mental model is kind of like a filter that you see the world through. When we receive data, we run it through our mental models in order to process the information. Our own mental models are built up through the experiences that we have in life. They can be used to overcome fear by overriding what would otherwise be a natural reaction.
A mental model that Chris commonly used is what I call: “What Will Kill Me Next”. Through practice and life experience, Chris had built up this habit of immediately asking himself, “what’s going to kill [me] next” when faced with a dangerous situation. This is how he was able to survive the situation where he fell unconscious while flying the fighter jet. After 16 unconscious seconds, he awoke and realized that he was flying a jet. His first thoughts? “What’s going to kill me next”? He didn’t think about what he had for dinner, an argument he may have had earlier in the week, or what caused him to pass out. He didn’t unnecessarily worry. He had built up this mental model of putting a laser focus on the most imminent threat. Upon gaining consciousness, he quickly descended to safety.
A common example of a mental model is the 3 second rule. It works like this:
- An individual wants to do an activity.
- The individual counts down from 3 then immediately goes and does whatever it is they were thinking about doing.
This forces them to act before fear or uncertainty can creep in. By adopting this mental model, individuals can build up a habit of overcoming fearful situations. If you’re interested in the idea of mental models, here's a list of them. I believe that mental models become extremely effective when they are second nature and that they can only become second nature through experience or repeated practice.
04 | Visualize the Worst
Just think positive... is a common piece of advice that we hear. I've said it myself quite a few times! Positive thoughts manifest positivity in life, right? Perhaps. However, Chris often does the opposite of this. He visualizes the worst possible scenario and accepts it. In fact, he takes it a step further and prepares for it! Before going up to space, Chris imagined the details of his possible death. What kind of pain would his family feel and what kind of problems they might encounter? This led him to work out all of his financials and prepare his will before he launched into space. Because he thought of the worst scenario and prepared for it, he was able to overcome his fear of death and the fear of what might happen to his family if he unfortunately passed away.
Personally, I’m a big fan of this idea. Instead of being blindly optimistic and hoping for the best, I can expect the worst and prepare for it. I can minimize my fear by accepting the worst and being as ready for it as I possibly can be.
05 | Experience & Simulation
The final principle is to build confidence through experience or simulation. We live in a society that encourages being confident for no reason. For example, let’s say that I have a big presentation coming up that I’m afraid for. Some common advice to me would be “to just be confident”. Fake it, until others believe it. But, this isn’t confidence. This is courage at best and stupidity at worst. Fear is a natural and biological occurrence. It’s okay to feel it. Courage can help you act despite fear but confidence is what can actually help minimize fear. As Chris states in his book, “…the strongest possible armor to defend against fear [is] hard-won competence.” Competence leads to confidence.
Chris built his confidence up through simulations. Space is a scary place, and everyone should be scared to go up there. If something goes wrong, the stakes are high and the margins for error are small. Trying to "just be confident" would be a recipe for disaster. Instead, like other astronauts, Chris trained for years here on Earth before he ever went up into space. He was required to constantly undergo flight simulations in which something (or multiple things) would go terribly wrong. Sometimes he would fail, and sometimes he would succeed. Every failure filled a gap in his knowledge and moved him closer to being a competent astronaut. By the time he had launched into space, he already had a good idea of how to deal with any situation that might arise... including going blind in space. Chris goes over this experience in his Ted Talk.
By exposing ourselves to our fear, or situations similar to our fear, we can gain confidence through competence. We learn how to better navigate the situation, and minimize our fear.
06 | Overcoming Blindness in Space
Chris wasn't afraid when he went blind in space. He had a partner out there with him. He was prepared; they both had undergone training and knew what to do incase a fellow crew mate was incapacitated. On Earth, he had visualized the worst outcomes, and prepared for them. Taking care of these issues before his trip allowed him to have a laser like focus in the moment. Through training and simulations, he had developed several mental models that he could refer to. He started by going through his checklist: "what would kill him next?” At first, he thought there may be a problem with the air purification system which would result in lithium hydroxide leaking into his breathing space. He calmly purged the air he was currently breathing, and allowed fresh air to come in. From experience, he could tell that wasn’t the problem. He continued to blink and shake his head until, finally, his vision returned.
Based on my study of Chris Hadfield, 4 tools for conquering fear are:
- Taking calculated risks
- Creating mental models in your head
- Visualizing the worst
- And building confidence through experience