The Importance of Humility

Besides academic success and good health, one of the most important “soft” traits an astronaut can have is humility.

NASA considers this trait so important that they actively eliminate individuals from their astronaut selection process who come off as arrogant, selfish, or who are just a bit too glory-seeking – no matter their accomplishments or whether they got a 4.0 GPA.

Chris Hadfield wrote a bit about this in his memoir, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. In the astronaut office in Houston, one of the astronauts took the trouble to screen the chief astronaut’s emails, every morning before the chief came in. He wasn’t trying to suck up or anything – he was just making the chief’s job easier. But one of Hadfield’s fellow astronaut candidates (AsCans), a highly accomplished fellow in his own right, would complain about having to press the elevator buttons. He didn’t last long.

Hadfield goes on to talk about three categories people often find themselves in any unfamiliar or stressful situation such as being in space:

Minus-Ones: Those who make too many mistakes due to panic, lack of preparation and, yes, bravado. These individuals are a serious danger to any space mission.

Zeros: Those who do everything right but don’t risk much and don’t accomplish anything stellar during the mission. They are dependable but not exceptional, which is fine. Not everyone can be exceptional.

Plus-Ones: Those outstanding individuals who are supremely prepared, to such a degree that they can deal with any unforeseen event with aplomb.

He wrote that arrogance is the fastest way to become a “minus-one”. Arrogance prevents learning and preparation. When one goes on his first mission, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking you can be a “plus-one” right away. That mentality often gets you into “minus-one” territory. However, if you adopt the “zero” mentality during training and before your first mission, it becomes easier to get to “plus-one” later on.

All the astronauts I have met – Pam Melroy, Andrew Feustel, David St. Jacques, Edgar Mitchell, with the possible exception of Buzz Aldrin – were humble and down to earth despite their incredible accomplishments.

No matter who you are, humility is a daily practice. It is like a muscle that can be improved with use… or the occasional foul-up!

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