You Need To Think Like An Astronaut To Crush It At Work

Your Technical Qualifications Aren’t Good Enough Anymore

If you’re the kind of person who’s got a bazillion certifications and just isn’t climbing the corporate ladder fast enough, or if you’re the kind of person who thinks that they NEED a bazillion certifications to climb the corporate ladder fast, then you need to keep reading.

Because you could be right.

Or not.

The Old-School Path To Success

The image above shows the path that many students have in mind when they go to College or University. They follow it and think:

If I study hard and get lots of degrees and certifications and letters after my name, I will be successful and everyone will want to hire me and I’ll get promoted quickly and make lots of money.

And maybe this was true.

A long time ago.

The fact is, today it takes a lot more than letters after your name to ensure that you get recognition and climb the corporate ladder as quickly as you’d like.

It’s no longer enough to flash your MBA, your PMP certification, or your Six Sigma blackbelt.

No, if you want to be successful these days, you need to spend as much time learning to master your people skills as you do your technical skills.

An Example Out Of This World

In 2013 Chris Hadfield literally rocketed to fame by singing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” from the International Space Station.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield Sings “Space Oddity” From the International Space Station

Never mind his stellar 30+ year career as a pilot in the Canadian Armed Forces and United States Air Force, or his Master’s Degree in Aviation Systems, or his two prior space missions and space walks.

No, he became famous by chronicling life on board the International Space Station, taking pictures, answering questions from fans, dominating social media, and playing the guitar in zero gravity.

Since that time Commander Hadfield has officially retired, but unofficially continues to talk about space and science and to promote the astronaut program. He wrote a book called “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on earth: What Going to Space Taught Me about Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything,” and hosted a BBC show called “Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?” to explain and highlight all the different skills required to be accepted into space programs in Europe and America.

One of the things about which Commander Hadfield is passionate is the need to be more than a scientist or a pilot in order to be a successful astronaut.

I can hear you thinking “What? Don’t you just have to know physics and math and push buttons and be able to sleep while floating?”

As it turns out, no.

Of critical importance is the ability to be positive, to problem solve, to get along with others (think about the close quarters on the space station), and to be an ambassador for what’s important to the mission.

In fact, in a Fast Company article last year, author Lydia Dishman wrote that NASA values emotional intelligence as highly as technical skills, and that

“successful candidates need to be able to show cultural competency (recognizing that everyone’s contribution has value, no matter how unfamiliar), good self-care and team-care, and excellent communication skills in variety of situations.”

In 2017 the Canadian Space Agency published a list of criteria for being accepted into their space program.

All the usual medical and psychological skills were there, but the last thing the candidates had to be able to do was prove that they could be good spokespeople for the program.

They had to be great presenters, interesting to listen to, and able to speak in “plain language” (for people that didn’t get a degree in astrophysics).

Not really what you’d expect as a criterion for being an astronaut.

At least not in the “old days.”

So What Does This Have To Do With You?

Perhaps you have your CFA, or your PMP certification, or you’re a Six Sigma Master Black Belt, or you are thinking about going back to school for a Master Degree.

Or, perhaps you’re thinking about a new job, or how you can advance in the job that you have.

I mean, you have all the technical skills, right?

Of course that’s amazing — well done.

But it’s kind of like the “minimum requirements” that NASA looks for in their space programs.

The truth is, there are thousands of people with the same technical skills as you.

Your challenge is to make yourself stand out, like those two candidates in Canada who were selected from the almost 3,800 applicants for the space program. They had a 0.0005% chance of being selected, and yet they did it.


Soft skills. People skills. Character skills.

Whatever you want to call them.

They had to prove that they could lead and inspire people to get jobs done in challenging circumstances.

They had to show that they valued different perspectives, and that they could talk to ANYONE about ANYTHING without boring them.

They had to be inspirational, resourceful, resilient, and interesting.

Oh, and they also had to be able to do the job from a technical perspective.

Self-Improvement 101

I bet you can think of people you’ve seen in positions where their credentials were their only assets.

Without leadership, communication, and people skills it’s likely they appeared rigid and demanding, were unable to explain complex issues, didn’t engage with people well, and were, to be honest, boring.

Maybe that person got the job done, but NO ONE liked working with them.

Don’t be that person.

You need to look at the next job you want and determine what non-technical skills are critical to that job.

Talk to people.

Ask questions.

Watch what is done today and think about what could be done better (from a people-skills perspective) or what’s done really well already, and take notes.

Now comes the hard part.

You have to do a gap assessment on yourself.

That’s right — you have to take a good look at yourself in the mirror and think about what you already have from your list of non-technical skills, and what’s missing (or could be better).

Chances are you’re going to have to ask someone for their opinions to help you get a really objective list of things to focus on. (And no, you can’t ask your best friend — you have to ask someone who will be honest and hopefully kind!)

After that?

Well, once you have that gap assessment done, you will need to embark on a self-improvement plan.

Get a coach or a mentor.

Read books.

Job shadow.

Ask for help.

And always, always watch for opportunities to volunteer your time and help others. This is the fastest way to be noticed, and is a selfless way to show your non-technical skills at their best.

Remember, it takes more than credentials to make it in the world of work, just like it takes more than a pilot’s license and a physics degree to make it as an astronaut.

Good luck!!

Ruth Henderson is a Six Sigma blackbelt and is co-founder of Whiteboard Consulting Group Inc., a boutique management consulting company in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

She is also editor of the Medium publication “At The Whiteboard” which you can follow HERE for tips and tricks on how to “Crush It” at work.

Writer, baker, cat and dog mom, traveller, sister, friend, Canadian, politics junkie, and efficiency nerd. she/her

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