A couple of years ago I read a fascinating book by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. Not my usual reading fare, but I heard him interviewed on ABC radio and was captivated by his account of life in the International Space Station. I then had the great privilege to see him live in Sydney last year, including his rendition of Space Oddity, which has had over 30 million views on YouTube and is well worth a listen.

His book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth gave me all the insight I had ever wanted into the life of an astronaut – particularly the years of planning that goes into just a few days or weeks in space. And his account of life on a space station was funny and compelling, though his detailed account of the months (yes months) of nausea and disorientation suffered on return from the space station was enough to kill any residual desire I might have had to pop in for a visit.

However, it was his stories about how he manages the inevitable fear and uncertainties of life in space that had immediate relevance to my (happily earth-bound) life. As you can imagine, the stakes are pretty high on a spacecraft – press the wrong button, forget a step in a critical procedure, and maybe it’s all over.

What Hadfield (like all astronauts) does is constantly imagine every small thing that might go wrong, then spend hours and hours (if not weeks and weeks) over-preparing, over-learning and simulating every scenario NASA can come up with. Then they debrief, and start it all over again. And they learn how to do the most complex procedures, just in case two other systems fail, and they suddenly need to know how to replace a particular valve, or remove someone’s infected tooth, or rebuild the station’s toilet. They call it ‘What’s the next thing that could kill me…’. He reckons that it is precisely this utterly rigorous obsession with averting potential disaster that allows him to relax as he hurtles into space.

Popular psychology would have us believe that we should stop ‘sweating the small stuff’, but I wonder if in fact it is more reassuring to over-prepare when the stakes are high, then proceed in the knowledge that whatever happens, you have a prepared response.

Hadfield’s story reminded me of the first really big presentation I gave, when I spent days developing the content and the slides, then rehearsed the entire 45 minutes at least 15 times. (I know that it’s not life and death 330 kilometres above the earth, but it meant a lot to me…) That kind of preparation might seem like overkill, and it would be if I still did it today, but it allowed me to give a reasonably polished performance rather than fleeing the scene to hide in the bathroom. it was worth every minute.

Of course, it’s not useful to obsess about trivia, but in a work context it is often the small details, the final proofread, the extra 30 minutes of preparation, that make all the difference between success and failure.

So, maybe we should sweat the small stuff sometimes. What do you think?

Joanna Maxwell


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