Review of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Chris Hadfield is something of a surprise celebrity, but when you look at the sum of his career it is no mystery how he came to be so successful.

The biggest question I had when I started reading An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Amazon affiliate link) was whether Hadfield’s celebrity would translate into success as a writer. I listened to the audiobook (narrated by Hadfield), and I have to say that I was quite impressed.

I’d say that An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth is 50% memoir, 50% useful advice, and 100% interesting. Of course, as someone who grew up with sci-fi and fantasy of all sorts as their main reading staple and a lot of nerdy interests, space holds an immediate appeal to me, but it’s actually the strength of the personal stories that helped it.

I think that this is where it is elevated above self-help. A lot of self-help books have to distance themselves from the question of their author, because the author always sounds like they’re being arrogant and bragging. I think that An Astronaut’s Guide is in line with something like Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People (full disclosure: I started reading the latter and then misplaced my copy very early on, so I’ve only read a little of it) because both are incredibly intimate and written by someone who can claim astronomical success (ha!).

An Astronaut’s Guide is great because it includes examples. There’s a hybridization of stoic philosophy and kaizen, the art of continual improvement, that is brought together without any use of technical language or pretense.

Tied so closely as it is to personal narratives, I find Hadfield’s advice easy to emulate. It’s already helped me to refocus my efforts on writing and getting into shape (my usual morning walk became a walk-run this morning in part because Hadfield reinforced in me the importance of striving toward goals incessantly, and I was pleasantly surprised by the enjoyment it brought me).

The greatest idea here is that there’s a resolution between the great unknown of potential (both limitations and boosts) and the need for personal effort that Hadfield communicates so subtly that one could assume he’s not even trying. He literally makes it look easy.

One example of this is his -1/0/+1 philosophy. It’s probably the largest example of him using numbers to describe success, but it’s also incredibly simple: you need to ask whether you’re adding to or taking away from a team. When you start, it’s a good idea to just aim for being a 0, because you might think you’re improving things when you’re really just causing problems for everyone else. Learn to fit in, then learn to excel.

It’s mesmerizing and hard to put down, and An Astronaut’s Life ate up a lot of my time as I was going through it. Hadfield is genuinely funny, too, which leads to lots of fun laughs throughout.

I could ramble on with more praise, but suffice it to say that it’s probably my top self-improvement book this year so far, and by such a large margin that I find it unlikely to be displaced (with apologies to previous books, whose recommendations I must now rescind).

To quickly talk about the audiobook, it’s narrated by Hadfield. As a Canadian, he has the particular Canadian vowel sounds (e.g. in “again”) that always sort of rattle US listeners (or me, at least), but he’s got such a fluid performance and presentation that you’ll get used to it quickly and it really does benefit from him doing the reading. Not having the text to compare to, I’d still say that the audiobook is a safe bet.

So, basically, is this a drop everything and read it book? Perhaps. It certainly helps with setting and meeting goals, though it’s not going to teach complex systems. If, like me, you enjoy simplicity in your search for self improvement plus a yarn that’s worth paying attention to, it’s a good option for you.

Reflections on Aphorisms #37

I made significant progress toward getting into a master’s degree program today, so I didn’t have much time to write (outside the requirements of that; I spent several hours on the phone and more working on what will hopefully be some finalities), but at least it was a productive day instead of an unproductive one.

I like Taleb’s aphorisms, so I’m going to use another today, in part because it happens to be a reflection of my own life.

For the classics, philosophical insight was the product of a life of leisure; for us, a life of leisure can be the product of philosophical insight.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes
Image by morhamedufmg from Pixabay.

Interpretation

I guess I can kind of call myself a philosopher now, since I’ve been writing about stuff and I read a lot of philosophy. I’m kind of a piddly one, and I haven’t contributed much, if anything, to the field at large, but there’s something about experiences that eventually means that you have to accept or reject a label as part of your being.

An earlier me would have raged against that as an offense to individualism, but now I see it as a path to individuation, and one needs to know who one is in terms that one can understand before they can fully become themselves.

To get to Taleb’s point, I’ve been happier in the past year than I’ve been ever before, despite being under at least as much stress in many ways. I figured out how to crack the code, and it’s pretty simple:

It turns out the philosophers might know what they’re talking about.

I’m a fan of the Stoics, and I’ve learned a lot from some of their very simple doctrines:

  1. Mentally walk through the worst scenario, then steel yourself for that loss.
  2. Remember that having virtue is better than having a single success; virtue sets you up for all future successes.
  3. Don’t sweat adiaphora and other little decisions.
  4. Avoid the expedient unless it is actually the correct path (and don’t be taken in by it).
  5. Accept the things which are outside your control.

These things go quite a way to making life better.

Another thing I’ve learned is to know myself as a person, but always strive to improve.

This is a tight-rope act, but I think I’ve finally hit a point in my life where I will consider myself successful if I break even, and even if circumstances outside my control cause me harm I would be happy with less than I have now.

Part of this is that I’ve learned to exert influence over myself. It’s not perfect, and I still have a lot of things to work on, but I’ve changed more and in better ways than I have in almost any other year of my life. I’m exercising regularly, back on a diet, writing more, and doing some freelance writing.

What I’ve found is that even when I work now, it rarely feels like work, and I think that’s Taleb’s point. When you align yourself with your goals, and you truly and honestly aim for them, you find great satisfaction and value in that. I’m about half-way through Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Amazon affiliate link), and it’s basically déjà vu for me to hear him echo thoughts that are similar to my own.

It occurs to me that almost every experience I considered odiously strenuous in my life has been met by a reward at the end that would have been commensurate with the actual effort, had I not made the task ahead worse than it had to be.

Reflections

Do not make things worse, either in perception or substance, than they already are.

The heroic struggle usually bears fruit worth the cost.

If in doubt, ask whether something is virtuous or expedient. Choose the virtuous option.

Reflections on Aphorisms #35

Yesterday’s reflections blew up, but today I didn’t feel like returning to my usual sources of aphorisms. Instead, I began reading the Meditations, and it is from them that I will draw today’s focus.

Aphorism 58

Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Photographic reproduction of a Roman coin. Left: Antonius Pius. Right: Marcus Aurelius, his adopted son. Image is in public domain.

Interpretation

I’ve heard this statement by Marcus Aurelius before, but I’d never seen it in the context of the work.

At first, this could look even to be a cynical statement, since there’s a definite negative tone to it.

However, it comes at the start of the second chapter of Meditations, and in context it takes on a different light:

The first chapter of Meditations is focused on thanksgiving and praise of others (as well as tracing the emperor’s personal development).

In this sense, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Marcus Aurelius is complaining here, he’s preparing himself.

I have to do a similar thing before going to the gym, especially if I’ve let myself get out of the habit. I’m not much for physical activity (I fight hard battles with inertia), and when I lost a lot of weight I had to do it by dieting and just not letting myself have access to things I shouldn’t have.

The power of a statement like this is that it’s a memento mori, a reminder of mortality. There will never be a perfect day, but nobody has ever had a perfect day. There will be a limitation or an obstacle or an inconvenience, or maybe even an actual threat or danger or serious loss.

That doesn’t mean that one forgets everything else.

The Stoics, of whom Marcus Aurelius is a leading figure, were philosophical thinkers who believed heavily in the role of contemplation and preparation.

By making oneself confront suffering and loss before it happens, one is able to bear it better when it occurs.

The positive element here is that one looks over everything that will occur, and in the end comes to the following conclusion:

Life will be full of pain. My goals may be impossible. My dreams may crumble. Those I love may be taken from me. But I can remain myself, and I can carry myself well under the weight. It is better to suffer nobly and live in reality than it is to flee to fantasy and escape.

Resolution

Do not overlook the importance of confronting suffering.

Remember that the goal is to be the best me, not someone impossibly great.

Make efforts to be grateful for that which rises above the dross.

Reflections on Aphorisms #1

A while back I picked up Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Bed of Procrustes (affiliate link), which is a collection of “political and practical aphorisms” that I intend to work through slowly.

I’ve been listening to the other books in the Incerto series in audiobook format, but I’ve opted to go for a more traditional Kindle read of the book, because aphorisms tend to be dense in information and I want to digest them slowly, not listen to them rapid-fire.

There’s also something to be said for this being a conversation. I’m not the only source of wisdom here, so if you have something to add feel free to leave a comment and I’ll check it out. Part of Taleb’s whole point is humility, and humility begins for me with accepting that I might miss or be in error during central parts of my interpretation.

Also, I’m not so naive and self-involved as to think that this is tremendously important, but it might be interesting. I’m treating this kind of like Marcus Aurelius’ reflections, though I am not necessarily a Marcus Aurelius myself. I merely publish them because part of living unafraid is leaving nothing of yourself secret.

I’m going to start with just a single aphorism today, but I’m going to establish a sort of simple formula for these: the aphorism itself, my own take on what it means, how I think it has or hasn’t been applying in my life, and an action to take.

So, without further ado, the first aphorism of the series:

Success is becoming in middle adulthood what you dreamed to be in late childhood. “The rest comes from loss of control.”

Interpretation

I think that one of the interesting things here is how it’s somewhat vague. We all seem to have a sense on what being “middle aged” is, but middle adulthood could mean other things. Likewise, late childhood reflects a sort of ambiguous state: if we consider people young adults once they’ve started steps toward their vocation, this could actually have quite an age range (14-26, or maybe even older), but I think here that Taleb’s sort of referring to the age in which one is not yet responsible for themselves but is beginning to be capable of looking out for themselves, the independent age when most people start to get jobs or take up serious hobbies and academic studies beyond what their parents or society require.

Middle adulthood is also an interesting concept, and I think that there’s a good definition of this as the age at which you’ve “settled down” and acquired responsibility. This could probably take the form of settling down with a family for most people. I’m sure that one could add additional criteria ad infinitum if they wanted to, so I won’t. I don’t think that this is necessarily a numerical age so much as a particular stage of life, and is therefore dependent on all sorts of things.

My Life

I’m honestly not sure where to put this in my life.

I’m a game-designer, but I’m not doing it with my all. I’m also writing books, which I should maybe eventually finish (Bad Kyle, bad! Get back to work!) but which are bringing me joy.

When I was a kid in 8th grade, I wanted to be a game designer. I think I even dressed up as Richard Garriott on career day, even though I don’t know that I’ve ever played any of his games seriously. I remember this because in the sort of thing that teachers write to their students, my teacher wrote that she couldn’t wait for her kids to play a game that I made.

Throughout high-school, I definitely wanted to become either a game designer or a writer (I remember sketching out designs for a game that became Orchestra that became Street Rats on the back of a senior-year math test), and although I was originally planning to go into pharmacy it was more of a financial decision than a life-goal decision.

Now, in practice, I think I’m decently successful as a game designer in the sense that I’ve been growing and pushing myself, but I haven’t made a living at it yet. I’m definitely not at a point where that’s financially feasible.

But there’s an interesting thing here with the final sentence: “The rest comes from lack of control.”

I think that there’s maybe some of that in my life. I’m something of a lay Stoic. I assume, based on my limited success which seems to exceed that of other amateur writers/game designers, that I have some ability and affinity for the practice, but I definitely can be held back by my wasting of time and my current difficulties with sticking to my projects.

Resolution

Spend more time, more consistently, moving toward my goals.

Consider what elements of my life are disordered and lack control: figure out if it is possible to bring them under control or if the chaos is something that can be excised entirely.

Engage in behavior that is in alignment with me making my goals something more feasible. If I cannot make a living as a game designer and writer, I need to figure out a profession that interferes with that as minimally as possible, or which offers me the same satisfaction of being able to create and bring to life.

The Writer as Stoic

Stoicism is an important philosophy in the founding tenets of the Western world; it is frequently tied into Christianity owing to the religion’s nature as part of a Roman tradition (albeit one that grew to outstrip the political entity that eventually adopted it).

Stoicism involves the pursuit of morality and virtue above all else (which certainly helps explain its appeal to Christian scholars who saw a link between it and the teachings of their faith, leading it to be preserved for centuries with a great deal of fervor as a sort of secular proof of the rightness of a moral life).

Continue reading “The Writer as Stoic”