I’m often asked what I miss most about being an astronaut, and my answer is always the same. It’s not being in space, as cool as that is. The thing I miss most is being part of that team. I teach now, at Columbia University in New York City. It’s a wonderful institution, and I work with a lot of amazing people. But nothing I’ve found in the civilian world compares to the esprit de corps at NASA (and I suspect at other places like it)—and that’s unfortunate. Because the world is becoming a more complicated and more interdependent place with every passing day. The technologically sophisticated landscapes we see before us cannot be navigated by one person alone. We can only do it together, on teams that stick together during thick and thin—teams that celebrate together in victory and stand by each other in defeat.
I also am often asked about what NASA is looking for when picking astronauts. You need the right qualifications, but lots of people have those. What is harder to find is the type of person who will fit into the teamwork culture: someone who will put the success of the team and the mission over their own personal ambitions, someone who will never leave a teammate behind when they’re struggling and in need of help, someone who will support their team when someone else makes a mistake, or when the team suffers a defeat. Those attributes, I think, are the most important for an astronaut to have, or anyone in any industry, for that matter.
Joe Namath, my boyhood football hero, once said, “Football taught me that life is a team game.” For me, being an astronaut taught me the same thing. There’s this one scene in The Right Stuff (that movie that rekindled my desire to become an astronaut when I was a senior in college) in which John Glenn is all set to be the first American to orbit the Earth, but his launch is canceled. Meanwhile, Vice President Lyndon Johnson is waiting outside Glenn’s house, demanding to bring in TV crews to talk to Glenn’s wife, Annie, on national television. But Annie has a stuttering problem; she doesn’t want to be on TV. So John gets on the phone with her and basically tells her it’s okay if she wants to tell the vice president of the United States to get lost. The next thing you know, some suit from NASA jumps down Glenn’s throat, telling him he can’t just dismiss the vice president like that. When Glenn didn’t back down, the NASA guy threatens to yank him out of the flight rotation and replace him if he won’t toe the line. Then all the other Mercury astronauts step up and get in that guy’s face. Deke Slayton says, “Oh, yeah? Who you gonna get?” Meaning: “You’ve only got seven astronauts here, and we’ve all got Glenn’s back.” The suit just stands there, stunned, and finally Alan Shepard tells him, “Step aside, pal.”
That moment, to me, just sums it all up. That’s how you treat your teammates. Watching that movie, I didn’t just want to go to space, I wanted to be part of that team, people who would always be there, in good times and in bad. That is truly the mark of a successful team, and I’m grateful to have been part of what I think is the greatest team ever assembled—the NASA Astronaut Team and those who supported us on the ground to make our missions successful. If you want to have something like that in your life, remember:
Stop beating yourself up. America loves to celebrate the successful individual, the brilliant inventor, and the maverick entrepreneur. But the myth of the lone genius is just that, a myth. Very rarely is anything great ever accomplished by one person. It took thousands of men and women working together to make Neil Armstrong the first man on the moon, and Neil always went to great lengths to remind people of that fact. (Notably, the reason the Apollo 11 mission patch is the only patch in NASA history not to have the crew members’ names on it is because Neil and his crew wanted the design to be representative of everyone who had worked toward the success of the mission.) Thomas Edison always depended on ideas and breakthroughs from his laboratory workers for his inventions. Even Shakespeare needed actors to put his plays up onstage. Yet most of the time we sit and we judge our failures next to our accomplishments, not realizing that human greatness is almost always a collaboration. Don’t do it: Don’t beat yourself up.
We all have shortcomings. Find a partner who makes up for yours. If you’re a weak swimmer, find a strong one, and don’t be ashamed to admit you need them. Teams are stronger when we all acknowledge the ways in which we need each other.
Conversely, whatever your strengths are, share them, and don’t be stingy. It’s not unfair that the strong have to help the weak. Because we can all help where we’re strong, and we all need help where we’re weak, so it all evens out in the end.
Always give the credit to the team because you don’t need it anyway. The main reason to do anything is to be of service to a larger purpose. You do it for the satisfaction of the job well done, for the feeling of accomplishment you get from achieving a major life goal, or even just executing a task on your checklist. If you’re doing something just for the accolades, because you want to be famous and recognized for it, then you’re doing it for the wrong reason. Public accolades can be nice, sure, but you can share credit with the team and still have more than enough left over for yourself, which leaves you with just a little bit of glory and a whole lot of friends who’ve got your back. That’s where you want to be.
When you’re good at something, share your talent with those who need it. And when you’re not good at something, don’t be afraid to admit you need help and to accept it from others. Nobody ever wants to admit a weakness, but part of what makes a team is acknowledging the ways in which we need each other; and it’s the success of the team that matters. When the team succeeds, you succeed. With the complex world we all live in, it is impossible to accomplish great things on your own. In both our professional and personal lives, none of us can go through the adventures of life alone. Find your team, gather them around you, and hold them close.