Learning Humility from an Astronaut

In “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth,” Col. Chris Hadfield says that in new situations, people are generally viewed in one of three ways. Based on their attitude and actions, they may be seen as a minus one, someone who is actively harmful and creates problems. Or, they may be viewed as a zero, which means their impact is neutral. Third, they may be viewed as a plus one because they actively add value to the situation.

Hadfield believes the best approach for success in any situation involves “aiming for zero” because it’s an attainable goal and often a good way to get to a plus one.

What Hadfield is really getting at is the value of humility, and he gives examples in the book of why it’s a worthwhile approach not just in new situations but also in situations where you’re the most experienced person in the room (or spaceship). In fact, Hadfield says “aiming for zero” contributed greatly to his success.

“Two decades into my career as an astronaut, I felt as close to being a plus one as I ever had. And I knew that my best bet of getting the crew to see me that way was to keep on doing what has always worked for me: aiming to be a zero.”

Whether knowingly or not, Hadfield lived out the principle of humility extolled in Scripture.

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind, regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)


Aiming for Zero

Hadfield gives examples of where he purposefully worked to make others successful instead of seeking recognition for himself. He also gives advice on how to stay humble or “aim for zero” whether you are the newest or most experienced person in space or on earth.

  1. Enter a situation without causing a ripple.
  2. Observe and learn from others.
  3. Try to learn rather than seek to impress.
  4. Be teachable. Don’t assume you know everything.
  5. Try to be ready for anything.

The value of humility comes down to realizing that every act, no matter how small, holds tremendous value when it contributes to the mission. Having a humble mindset where you “aim for zero” not only allows you to contribute to the mission more effectively, but it allows others to do so also.

Hadfield sums up his “aim for zero” approach to humility this way:

“But if you’re confident in your abilities and sense of self, it’s not nearly as important to you whether you’re steering the ship or pulling an oar. Your ego isn’t threatened because you’ve been asked to clean out a closet or unpack someone else’s socks. In fact, you might actually enjoy doing it if you believe that everything you’re doing contributes to the mission in some way.”

In space, the specific mission varies. As Christians, though we carry out our part of the mission uniquely based on our God-given talents, abilities and opportunities, the mission itself never changes.

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Just as each astronaut plays a specific role as well as fulfills general duties on any given space mission, so to do Christians have general and specific roles in God’s mission on earth. As we each aim to complete them with an attitude of humility even though our performance may be a plus one, we avoid becoming a minus one and negatively impacting the mission.

DISCUSSION: What are your thoughts about Hadfield’s approach to “aim for zero” as a path to a successful mission?

16 thoughts on “Learning Humility from an Astronaut

  1. I really like the quote which begins "But if your confident…" It is so hard for many to realize service comes from becoming nothing. My folks used to use the phrase "You better get down off your high horse or I'll take you down a peg or two." Too many are on their high horse and unwilling to serve. Good words Kari.
    My recent post Observations

    • You parents had a great philosophy, and it's one seriously lacking in parenting today. Our culture doesn't help either. I'm fighting that with my two teen boys right now. Servant leadership. Jesus taught it. It's what's best for us.

  2. I love it!
    Being humble is something God has been teaching me for a few years now, I'm a slow learner, especially since I didn't realize I had pride issues. Having the blinders taken off has been painful and yet liberating. It's amazing how freeing and joyous it is to simply serve others and live like Christ.

    thanks for sharing this. Sounds like a great book.
    My recent post He Knows My Name!!!

  3. This is wonderful, and I love his connection between humility and confidence. So many people link humility to being unsure of yourself or confidence to arrogance. As he states, you can do whatever task you're given because you're confident of your abilities and contributing to the greater good. Awesome! Thanks Kari. 🙂
    My recent post Still Choosing to Love

  4. Hi Kari! I'm coming over from TC's blog.
    When I first read, "Aiming for zero", I thought…well, no one does that, right? Don't we all aim to be the smartest, brightest person in the room? Even when we're not?
    I'm reading a book on the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and their attitude was much the same as this astronaut. They were experts on the spiritual life, but never pushed it. As a matter of fact, they knew they could learn from everyone. What a beautiful spirituality that is.
    And it's shared by Col. Hadfield. Now, I need to share in that too.
    Thank you!

    • I thought the same thing when I first read "aim for zero" in Hadfield's book. He references it several times throughout the book, though and I grew to understand and appreciate it as he went along. When viewed in light of humility and teamwork, it begins to make sense. Sounds like the book you're reading is interesting! Great connection. Thanks so much, Ceil.

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