Be a Zero


Canadian Astronaut, Chris Hadfield’s book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth is well worth the read.   It’s a wonderful combination of entertaining and useful. Commander Hadfield has had a heck of a ride. His is a story that took hold at an early age. He was mesmerized on a warm, Canadian summer’s night watching Neil Armstrong step onto the moon. Watching from a small TV in Cottage country of Ontario, this nine year old Canadian’s direction in life was set. Few of us have ever felt this kind of clarity in direction. Even at that tender young age, Hadfield was realistic enough to recognize that the path for a Canadian to become an astronaut was virtually impossible. It had not yet happened. He knew there were things he couldn’t control, but there were things he could. And his part, he would do. Hadfield writes, “I recognized even as a 9 year old that I had a lot of choices and my decisions mattered. What I did each day would determine the kind of person I’d become.”

Practical wisdom is offered throughout the book. For example, “if you’re striving for excellence–whether it’s in playing the guitar or flying a jet—there’s no such thing as over-preparation.”  Chapter 9 in Hadfield’s book is worth the price of admission alone. It offers great advice to help us advance in life. It’s an approach Hadfield learned in order to help him fit in and contribute to groups. It’s an example where conformity is most helpful. We can better our team by blending in instead of trying to show off and stick out. Forget about being a hero. Follow Hadfield’s advice and aim to be a zero.

“Over the years, I’ve realized that in any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero, your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value. Everyone wants to be a plus one, of course. But proclaiming your plus-one-ness at the outset almost guarantees you’ll be perceived as a minus one, regardless of the skills you bring to the table or how you actually perform. This might be self-evident, but it can’t be, because so many people do it.”

When entering a new environment or group, either our competitive instincts or desire to contribute can show itself to others as a know it all.  We run the risk of being interpreted as a minus one. Hadfield writes, “If you enter a new environment intent on exploding out of the gate, you risk wreaking havoc instead.”  We should work to realize we don’t know what we don’t know. We think we’re skilled and capable of stepping in and making things happen, but we don’t know how little we know about the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Our job is not to shine and show off, but to learn the lay of the land and quietly fit in.

“No astronaut, no matter how brilliant or brave, is a solo act. Our expertise is the result of the training provided by thousands of experts around the world, and the support provided by thousands of technicians in five different space agencies. Our safety depends on many tens of thousands of people we’ll never meet, like the welders in Russia who assemble the Soyuz, the North American textile workers who fabricate our spacesuits. And our employment depends entirely on millions of other people believing in the importance of space exploration and being willing to underwrite it with their tax dollars. We work on behalf of everyone in our country, not just a select few, so we should behave the same way whether we’re meeting with a head of state or a seventh-grade science class.” What a wonderful, humbling perspective to have. If there are people dripping with accomplishment, practically oozing competence, it’s astronauts like Hadfield. Yet, he consciously worked to recognize that his position was less due to his own expertise and effort and more so the reflection of others sacrifice.

Hadfield encourages us to aim for a neutral impact first. Sort of like practicing the Hippocratic oath of above all doing no harm. Don’t worry about scoring a touchdown, just figure out where your place is on the field. “When you have some skills but don’t fully understand your environment, there is no way you can be a plus one.” At best, you can be a zero. But a zero isn’t a bad thing to be. You’re competent enough not to create problems or make more work for everyone else. And you have to be competent, and prove to others that you are, before you can be extraordinary. There are no shortcuts, unfortunately.”

“Even later, when you do understand the environment and can make an outstanding contribution, there’s considerable wisdom in practicing humility. If you really are a plus one, people will notice—and they’re even more likely to give you credit for it if you’re not trying to rub their noses in your greatness.”  Hadfield goes on to pose a question, “So how do you get to be a plus one, someone who adds value?”

His answer, “I watched Jerry Ross, the most experienced astronaut on our crew, to see how he did things. After a while, I noticed that he was regularly coming into the office an hour early and quietly plowing through our commander’s inbox, taking care of all the administrative details himself so the commander could focus on the important matters. I’m sure Jerry wasn’t asked to do this, and he never mentioned it, let alone expected any recognition for it. He was voluntarily pushing the elevator buttons for someone else, so to speak, without fanfare or resentment. It was classic expeditionary behavior, putting the needs of the group first.”

“It was also a big part of what made him a plus one on our crew. Not only did he bring a wealth of experience and knowledge, but he conducted himself as though no task was beneath him. He acted as though he considered himself a zero: reasonably competent but no better than anyone else.” This made a lasting impression on Hadfield. It evidenced a posture he tried to copy each time he entered a new group/team. Hadfield consciously aims to be a zero and tries to contribute in small ways without creating disruptions. Hadfield had his attention antenna on. He watched, observed, and emulated those he admired. He saw the path to being an essential member of a team lay in making the lives of others easier. Working to clear the path acting as an Anteambulo to his fellow crew members was the surest, safest, guaranteed way to add value.

Do you know any Emmy Oscars that spend more time practicing their acceptance speeches than they do learning their lines for the community theatre play? The superstars of sport that appropriate dance moves from an animated video game are examples of those that are not aiming to be zeros. The NFL player that heads straight for where he knows cameras will be post scoring to showcase his touchdown two-step is trying to be a hero and not a zero. His actions tell us one thing. It’s not the team’s score he’s celebrating, it’s himself. Sure, the typical celebratory spike makes good TV, plays well in commercials, and boosts a player’s “capital” for contract negotiations. None of those benefits serve the team or the game. Contrast those with former NFL running back great, Barry Sanders.  He’s amongst the greatest of all time to play his position.  Try to find a highlight reel of his touchdown celebrations. He just didn’t do it. He scored like it happened all the time and will happen again. It was a non-event. It was simply execution of his job. He returned to his teammates as fast as he could to thank them, particularly, his offensive line. He recognized that his success was the result of other’s efforts. No one shines on their own.

Rex Murphy wrote a nice article in the National Post over Labor Day weekend which was an attempt to celebrate the exact kinds of people we’re talking about.  This article celebrates the point of a Japanese Proverb, “The silent person is often worth listening to.”  Returning to Hadfield, “The ideal entry is not to sail in and make your presence known immediately. It’s to ingress without causing a ripple. The best way to contribute to a brand new environment is not by trying to prove what a wonderful addition you are. It’s by trying to have a neutral impact, to observe and learn from those who are already there, and to pitch in with the grunt work wherever possible.”

“One benefit of aiming to be a zero: it’s an attainable goal. Plus, it’s often a good way to get to plus one. If you’re really observing and trying to learn rather than seeking to impress, you may actually get the chance to do something useful.”

“When you’re a rookie, aiming to be a zero is a good game plan.” Modest goals can equate to major outcomes. Aiming to simply fulfill your responsibilities as best you can coupled with not causing trouble, headache, inconvenience for others in your group is the way to go. A focusing question Hadfield learned to apply constantly (if in doubt as to what to do, ask): “What’s the most useful thing we could be doing right now?” Look for ways to clear the path for others.

Hadfield observes, “If you are confident in your abilities and sense of self, It’s not nearly as important to you whether you’re steering the ship or pulling on an oar.”  He considers his approach as one of the more beneficial things he did for his career, “My smartest strategy was simply to try not to mess anything up or make things worse.” He worked to minimize his impact on those around him. He wasn’t trying to seek attention or impose his will and wisdom on his team. He wasn’t clamoring for attention nor jumping up and down waving his arms and yelling, “Don’t forget about me today.” He worked to dial things down and do his part.

Those aiming to be a zero are more likely to be those that are appreciated. They may be considered those captured in the first part of Oscar Wilde’s quote: “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” Those that are aiming to be plus ones may be the latter.  At the heart of being a plus one is if you’re missed when you’re gone.  Are there staff you’ve worked with that are no longer at your company that you miss? Miss from the perspective of they were key pieces of your organization’s puzzle, not I miss having a coffee with Johnny. How about house guests you may have had? Are there some you wish would stay longer? Are there others you can’t wait to see leave? Do you sigh with relief when they’re gone? What is it about the ones you want to stay? Is it their great jokes and banter? Or is it how they make their impact minimal? Do they help clean up after themselves? Do they help out in the kitchen and with you in the home? Do they make your life easier? Do we appreciate those around us that can sense our needs and reduce the burdens in our life more than those that demand things from us?

Being a zero can be considered as reflecting each of the 3Cs of Character. However, it’s absolute evidence of commitment. We’re demonstrating that the job is bigger than we are.

“High beings of deep universal virtue work unassertively. They help all people, yet people are barely aware of their existence. Lao Tzu”