Why More Workers Should Be Astronauts (Figuratively Speaking)

Why More Workers Should Be Astronauts (Figuratively Speaking)

The man in the clip is Robert Zubrin, a staunch advocate for the exploration of Mars. I don’t remember when I saw this video, or how exactly I stumbled upon it; all I remember is how I responded with admiration and sympathy. Here we see a man who grew up with a vision, one that was snatched away, which drove the driven man into becoming an angry man. Carrying a torch whose flame was ignited by betrayal and is sustained by discontent, he fights to regain what he sees humanity has lost: the thirst for exploration. The spirit of wonder.

And the spirit of exploration has not just been lost in the context of space exploration. We see it every day. We see it in the way we choose fast food, the easy, convenient, and readily available foodstuff, rather than discover the joys of cooking (the only way you can every truly “have it your way”, despite what a certain burger brand says). We see it in the way certain fashion brands dominate the local Philippine market, despite their pieces being obviously made for much more temperate climates.

And we see it in the way people choose jobs.

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A lot of us employees have lost that hunger, that almost reckless pursuit of something that we love and can be great at. “Career” has become nothing more than a buzzword, splashed onto resumes, parroted in interviews, all in the hopes of getting a job. The focus is on pay, not promise. Perhaps we are forced to compromise to survive circumstances beyond our control. But sometimes, the circumstances we currently face are not something we actually have to.

Consider the movie Interstellar. In the film’s establishing sequence, we see that humanity is in danger. The earth, its mother for so long, is starting to cross the line from “life-supporting” to “uninhabitable”. Dust storms sweep the land on a regular basis. The staple crops of mankind–wheat, potatoes, rice, and corn–all start to die in succession due to blight. The educational system is pressuring more people to become farmers rather than engineers (not to say that farming is an unimportant career choice, as the movie itself stresses). The dream of space exploration is dismissed as nothing more than a fever dream.

The story moves forward from there, leading the viewers down a path of coincidence and deduction, which concludes with the discovery that the dream is still alive. NASA is not defunct; it’s just gone underground, toiling away, in the background, as quixotic an institution as any you can imagine. On earth, humanity wages a war against extinction; while that war is fought, NASA is engineering a fallback.

And so it is with your job.

Sometimes, you just need to jump ship. Maybe the company is folding, and you can’t be around for the end. Maybe you’re not getting a high enough salary, or maybe the prospects for career growth are weak.

Or maybe it’s just not a good fit for you: you find that you have to contort yourself the cog-shape needed to make the corporate machinery run, and it’s deforming you day by day; you can’t breathe normally; you can’t stretch; you can’t stand; and you can’t stand it.

This is not to say that the automatic reaction should be to escape. Of course, there are still reasons for you to stay and persevere. You still have to fulfill your duties to the company; you cannot simply leave your co-workers hanging; and there may be clients who are counting on you to come through for them. The point is, you should be able to come to a point where you can deliberately launch yourself towards a new stage in your career, and a new opportunity for growth and exploration.

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Of course, not all endeavors end up successful. Not everything is in our control. Sometimes the journey doesn’t end well, and you, the explorer, are stuck in a less-than-ideal situation.

In The Martian, an astronaut is left marooned on Mars. The Red Planet is uninhabitable: no food grows there, the atmosphere cannot support life from Earth, and it seems all circumstances and conditions are conspiring to ensure that he does not survive. However,  through ingenuity and determination, he improvises, conceiving and implementing a survival strategy (growing food) and an exit strategy (reaching out to his fellow astronauts so they can rescue him). I can’t say much more about the film, since I haven’t watched it as of this writing, but that’s the gist.

So that’s what employee-astronauts should do when we end up in a company not suitable for them, but cannot leave it immediately. When they find themselves in that situation, unable to set off on a new leg of their career (whether due to a training bond, financial pressures, or something else), they must rely on our existing skills and talents. If they started their career path right, their skills and talents will be adaptable in most, if not all, of the companies they end up in.  So while you’re in a poor-fit company, make the most of it. Do a bit of terraforming where you can. Survive (and thrive, if possible).

At the same time, keep your options open. Maintain communications with fellow employee-astronauts. Eventually, when the opportunity to leave comes, one may just get a useful referral from one of them and end up in a more habitable place. Of course, as professionals, employee-astronauts should also be prepared to suggest opportunities for others. It’s all about paying it forward.

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One definition of career is “a job or profession that you have been trained for, and which you do for a long period of your life”. A lot of us remember that definition, and we let it shoehorn us into staying in a particular company, or a particular occupation, longer than we really should.

Another definition is “To move forward at high speed, often with minimal control”.

Which sounds more exciting?

The Four Faces of “What If” as Shown in Films

For the past few weeks, I’ve taken to listening to motivational speech montages. It’s easy to find them; just go to YouTube and type “motivation”, and you’ll find any number of content creators who took audio clips from motivational speakers (usually angry black men), set them to epic music (probably by Hans Zimmer, or whoever the composer for the music in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies is), spliced them onto montages of inspiring images (mostly of people working out), and posted them for people to see. A couple of my favorite creators are MotivationGrid and Younes Marxieu, though I’m sure there are others that are as good, if not better.

Anyway, one of the speakers featured is Greg Plitt, who was apparently a fitness model, actor, former army ranger, and reality show contestant on top of being a motivational speaker (he unfortunately died earlier this year trying to outrun a train, a fact that a friend of mine finds deliciously funny). The quote of his that stuck to me was this:

“I failed” is ten times more of a man than “what if”, because “what if” never went to the arena.

The first time I heard it, it sounded so powerful, as real and rousing as a bucket of ice water in the face. But when I shared it with my friend, he dismissed it outright. “Just because you say ‘what if’ doesn’t mean you’re afraid”, he said.

Thinking about it, I realize he’s right. “What if” is a phrase that is purely speculative by itself. Depending on how you fill the blanks after that, it can mean different things.

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“What if” can show a forward-facing or an over-the-shoulder perspective, and it can be a buoying or burdensome question.

You may not believe me, that friend of mine, or the awesome table above that I took the trouble to create. Fine, don’t take my word for it… but you might consider listening to Hollywood.

Some people say “what if” in the context of fear of failure, rejection, or pessimism.

“What if” can be a preface to bleak possibilities. This is the perspective that sees the future as a minefield, a constant stream of threats to be avoided and risks to be minimized. When I think about this aspect, I think about George McFly from Back to the Future:

Some people say “what if” in the context of innovation, brainstorming, and a spirit of adventure.

This one tumbles out of the lips of inventors, scientists, artists, explorers, and imaginative children. This is basically the “what if” that pushes the envelope, a conviction with such substance and weight behind it that it has the potential to change others’ perceptions–and possibly reality itself. This is the bravest incarnation of “what if”, and it reminds me of Ellie from Up:

Some people say “what if” in the context of regret or agonizing over a missed chance.

There is a Filipino word, sayang, that doesn’t have a perfect English counterpart. People have dreams, desires that they want to fulfill, and sometimes they do not act on them because of fear. When they decide not to act, and after the time to act passes, regret sets in. Sayang.

(Note: Sayang can be used in other contexts, like a near-miss or something that didn’t work out in the end.)

This face of “what if” is reminiscent of a character from Heart and Souls, a film from the 90’s starring Robert Downey Jr. I couldn’t find a clip of it online, but basically, it’s about a man, Thomas Reilly (played by RDJ), who helps four souls correct mistakes that they made in life. One of them, Harrison, regrets not having sung onstage, and the group decides to make this right by having him sing the US National Anthem in front of a crowd. When Harrison tries to back out out of fear, RDJ confronts him:

Harrison Winslow: Who came up with this ridiculous concept anyway? Resolve your entire life in one bold stroke? What if I fail? And I will. I’ll fail. I’m telling you. I always fail. Then my whole life will be a complete failure.

Thomas Reilly: No offense, Harrison. But you died a failure because you never tried.

If you get the chance, watch this movie. If it doesn’t make you smile or cry at any point, I have to conclude that you are a robot or some kind of soulless yet animated husk.

Some people say “what if” in the context of relief, of realizing how lucky they are. 

Every decision has a cost and a benefit. For everything you gain from every choice you make, you also stand to lose something because you gave up doing something else. That’s called opportunity cost, and while Mr. Plitt saw the backward-facing “what if” as an expression of regret, it could actually be a way to appreciate your good fortune because for all you know, you might have gotten off lucky. A wonderful example can be found in 500 Days of Summer:

Depending on how you look at your life, whether you look at the past or the future, whether you lean towards hope or despair, you’ll have a different take. But remember, all those perspectives are just based on speculation. If you want to avoid all the heartache and headache associated with “what if”, perhaps the best thing to do is to just act on things, not necessarily without fear, but certainly with the acceptance that while things might go wrong, they just might go right.