The Overview Effect: 5 Lessons From an Astronaut in Space

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth" by Chris Hadfield. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the overview effect? What are the most important life lessons Chris Hadfield learned from the overview effect?

In An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, retired astronaut Chris Hadfield explores five lessons he learned about life on Earth from his vantage point of space. This may be a result of what psychologists call “the overview effect,” which is a tendency for astronauts to experience awe and feelings of connection to humanity.

Read more about the overview effect and how it impacted Chris Hadfield in space.

Life Lessons Hadfield Learned as an Astronaut

Hadfield claims that the lessons he learned in space improved his life on Earth—and can improve yours as well. Here, we’ll explore five of the lessons he learned from what is possibly the overview effect.

(Shortform note: The overview effect is the tendency for astronauts to experience awe, feelings of connection to humanity, and a shift in their perspective after viewing Earth from space. Astronauts have described that the “overview effect” is often bittersweet: In viewing the Earth from afar, they’re been overwhelmed by its beauty, its fragility, and the heartbreaking reality that many of its creatures suffer due to environmental degradation and social inequality. Perhaps this bittersweet, powerful feeling contributed to Hadfield’s desire to share the lessons he learned in space.)

Lesson 1: When You’re a Novice, Aim to Have a Neutral Influence (be neutral)

Hadfield’s early experiences as a new astronaut provided him with insights on how best to approach a team endeavor when you’re a novice. According to Hadfield, when people are new to a team endeavor, it’s often their goal to prove their skills and show everything they can do. However, he claims that when you’re a novice, you should instead aspire to have a neutral influence on the project. You should aim to neither wreck nor greatly improve the project. Hadfield describes two benefits of this “be neutral” approach and explains why it’s better than a “prove your skills” approach.

  • Benefit 1: You’ll learn more. When you’re less focused on proving yourself, you can instead focus on observing and learning from experienced teammates.
  • Benefit 2: You won’t sabotage the endeavor. When you’re new to something, you’re more likely to make mistakes. By aiming to have a neutral influence instead of a positive one, you’re reducing the risk that your lack of experience will jeopardize the endeavor.

Hadfield says he learned this lesson during his first space flight, when he and his crewmates on Atlantis were guests in the Russian Space Station, Mir. Because Mir was small and the Russian cosmonauts already had their way of doing things there, Hadfield realized that the best thing he could do as a new astronaut was to stay out of the way and complete his duties carefully, without drawing attention.

Lesson 2: Plan for the Worst Possible Outcomes

Even when you’re no longer new to an endeavor, you still encounter new experiences all the time. Hadfield argues that any time you’re beginning a new experience, you should anticipate the worst possible outcomes and plan how you’ll handle them. He learned this lesson from undergoing hours of on-Earth astronaut preparation in which trainers ran him and his colleagues through life-threatening simulations, such as how to handle a system failure on the space station. 

Lesson 3: Proactively Show Others You Care About Them

When we’re busy, such as when we have a large work project, it can be hard to give those we love our full attention. Hadfield claims that when you’re away from loved ones, it’s not enough to tell them you care about them—you have to show you care. 

Hadfield learned this lesson when he was away from home for long periods to complete his astronaut duties. He noticed that his time away took a toll on his family: He couldn’t be present for all of his children’s birthdays, his family often rearranged their schedules and traveled long distances to attend his launches, and his wife took on more parenting responsibilities. In such instances, Hadfield still found ways to show his family he cared deeply about them.

When he was with his family, he prioritized time with them and honored their needs. For instance, he took his kids on trips with him so his wife could enjoy some time to herself at home. When Hadfield was away, he planned ways to surprise them with unique displays of affection. For example, when he was scheduled to launch on his son’s 16th birthday, he made a birthday sign for him and requested that the media spotlight the sign during their coverage of the launch. His son seemed to enjoy this public celebration of his birthday.

Lesson 4: Find Joy in Everyday Life

Next, Hadfield argues that you’ll live a more satisfying life if you find joy in everyday moments, rather than relying on large milestones and achievements for fulfillment. He explores two reasons Hadfield believes it’s important to find joy in everyday life:

  1. Large milestones are infrequent
  2. You may never reach large milestones

Lesson 5: Find Fulfillment in Supporting Others’ Success

Finally, Hadfield says you’ll be happier if you find fulfillment in supporting other people’s success. He offers three reasons why:

Reason 1: You’ll build closer relationships. When you’re a team player rather than someone who fixates on advancing your own agenda, people will want to be around you and get to know you.

Reason 2: You’ll be more successful. Most efforts in life and work are team efforts, and you and your team will thrive if you’re collaborating rather than competing. 

Reason 3: You can’t always be in the spotlight. You won’t always be the one assigned to lead important endeavors. It’s best to support others who are in the spotlight rather than attempt to steal the spotlight when it’s not your turn.

The Overview Effect: 5 Lessons From an Astronaut in Space

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Chris Hadfield's "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth summary:

  • Chris Hadfield's experience of becoming an astronaut
  • The five life lessons Hadfield learned in his role as an astronaut
  • Why you should find joy in everyday life rather than looking forward to milestones

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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