COLUMN: Jessica Iron Joseph — May 30, 2014

Jessica Iron Joseph
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An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth was such an intriguing title for a book that there was no question I had to read it. In it Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield shares his experiences and lessons that not only helped him to be successful as an astronaut, but literally saved his life on many occasions.

Carefully treading the line between memoir and self-help book, he shares advice that people could easily apply to their everyday life, while also weaving in funny anecdotes, heartwarming stories and answers to some of those baffling space questions, like: How do you go to the bathroom in outer space? And … how does an astronaut sleep in zero gravity?

It was all incredibly thought-provoking. But the part that resonated the most with me was chapter nine: Aim to be a Zero. Here, Hadfield classifies people into three groups: Plus Ones, Zeroes and Minus Ones.

Plus Ones are people who benefit others through their knowledge, expertise and skill. These are people you want on your team in any given situation because they enrich your experience. Plus Ones are also quite literally life-savers because their calm attitudes and wisdom can make the difference between life and death in a perilous situation. In short, they are assets.

Minus Ones are the opposite. In worst-case scenarios they endanger the lives of others because they make mistakes that jeopardize their own well-being and/or those of people around them. In not-so-dangerous situations, they are nuisances whose clumsy or thoughtless actions cost a group time or money. In short, they are liabilities.

Zeroes are, predictably, right in the middle of Plus Ones and Minus Ones. They may not seem like obvious leaders, but they certainly aren’t the idiots of the bunch either. Hadfield claims that zeroes are precisely what people should aim to be at all times, particularly when they are working with others.

It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we all aim to be a Plus One?

Hadfield explains that while it is advantageous and wonderful to be a Plus One, a Zero is useful, proactive, and humble enough to do any job, someone who never creates more work for anyone else.

Tragically, believing that you are a Plus One almost certainly assures that you are a Minus One, not even worthy of Zero status. It all has to do with ego. I would like to add in my own distinction, for ease of clarification in this column. I think Plus Ones can be further divided into two categories: Humble Plus Ones and Egotistical Plus Ones. The first group represents Plus Ones without an ego, while the latter group represents Plus Ones chock-full of ego.

Oddly enough, though they technically sit at either end of the spectrum, Minus Ones and Egotistical Plus Ones often exhibit similar traits, which leads to their downfall. Both groups are often careless, lazy, and self-absorbed which leads to reckless behavior and disastrous results. They do not think of the welfare of others and it is this fatal error that puts others at risk. While a Minus One may suffer from any number of errors, like poor timing, incoordination or lack of observation, an Egotistical Plus One’s major flaw is that they are so blinded by their own perceived magnificence that they lose all touch of reality.

To be fair, an Egotistical Plus One is probably a very successful person, someone who is talented and should be admired for their value. Unfortunately, it is their own announcement of these traits that leads to their undoing. Hadfield also mentions how Plus Ones that see themselves as superior to others, often refuse to do things that they believe are beneath them, thereby creating more stress and work for others, which also diminishes their value.

A Humble Plus One is someone who doesn’t need praise or fanfare and doesn’t walk around lecturing others. They do not need to announce their value, but it is quietly felt. They always offer a hand, are willing to do any job, but refrain from correcting or guiding people, unless of course advice is sought from them.

Interestingly, Humble Plus Ones might even consider themselves Zeroes. This is why Hadfield says that people are better off aiming to be a Zero, because then they definitely won’t get lost in the quagmire of their ego. The focus remains on work that needs to be done, and the valuable contributions that everyone makes, and becomes less about ascribing credit or accolades to any one particular individual.

It is a solid chapter, and one that I will definitely re-read, but not something that should be read in isolation. Give the whole book a chance because it is a provocative and fascinating account of topics that most people know very little about. Plus, did I mention that Chris Hadfield is a Canadian astronaut? How awesome is that?


Jessica Iron Joseph is a Prince Albert freelance writer. Her column appears every fourth Friday in rotation with Sharon Thomas, Lori Q. McGavin and Kevin Joseph.

Organizations: Prince Albert

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