Book Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

To be honest, I’m generally not a huge fan of the “book of someone’s advice” genre. What usually happens is that someone writes about their life story while coming up with some “supporting evidence” entirely post-hoc, before selling it to you, having lacked the decency to at least make it a paperback so it can fit easily in the trash once you’re done with it. However convincing their anecdotes are, what I usually look for is not just how they succeeded, but also what happened to everyone else who followed their advice. Put differently, If I also had to read the books of all the people who have taken so-and-so’s advice to “think big” or “follow your dreams” and didn’t end up rich or famous, how would I feel about that advice?

I think “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” is different for three reasons: (a) the stakes are on a different level, (b) Chris Hadfield is the right kind of person to take random advice from, and (c) the advice itself is boringly plausible.

It’s really easy to come up with principles when all you’re risking is the potential to lose a lot of money and fall from the lofty heights of being a billionaire to only having hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s another thing altogether when you’re about to crawl into a space ship that just might crash and burn, scattering your ashes across the earth. And you’d definitely have to believe in your principles when you’ve watched other space ships do just that, as was the case with the Challenger and Columbia disasters. “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” is different from other “self-help” books because astronauts like Hadfield are trying to stay alive, and not to “help you get rich” (for $9.99 a month, usually).

I’ve listened to Chris Hadfield share the pride he has in the dock he built with his neighbor, tuned in as he gave impromptu commentary about a NASA launch from a hotel room, and watched him answering student questions in a tiny classroom in Greenland. It seems that very little of his time is spent seeking attention or approval. Rather, he seems to live a purposeful life based on doing things that he finds satisfying, which is a rare gift. With most people who write “books of advice”, I find myself questioning whether I’d want their life. After all, that’s the advice they’re giving – how to be like them. The list of people whose lives I’d like to emulate is very short, but Chris Hadfield is on that list.

Finally, the reason I put stock in the wisdom found in “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” is because very little of it is radical. Hadfield offers no “hacks”. Instead, through his anecdotes and recollections, he describes a rational process of how to set goals, overcome adversity and ultimately, find some measure of success. Although his experiences are surreal, the thoughts and actions that guide him throughout his journey are almost mundane: There are no temper tantrums, very little yelling, lots of discipline and plenty of sacrifice. They’re precisely the type of things that most of us don’t want to hear: That it’s just that hard.

Ultimately, I’m most inspired by the assiduousness shown in his account. While many of the memoirs I’ve read feel almost trans-human (“Here’s all the extraordinary things I did to succeed”), “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” made me think: “Oh, I guess that’s just what happens when you work really hard for something, and get a little lucky, too.” The book feels intellectually honest, because it tells a story that is necessarily true: Even though not all of us can be astronauts because not all of us will be lucky enough to be born with the right bodies, or in the right countries, and so on all of us can live a life worth living. Coming back to my original analogy: I would want to read the books of all the people who took Chris Hadfield’s advice but didn’t end up rich and famous, because I think they’d be just as interesting.