Book review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield

From the title alone, I can assume more than one of you has the question of why I’m reviewing a book about space travel in a personal finance blog. The answer is simple – it is hands down one of the best motivational books I’ve read pretty much ever. (Though I’m a huge fan of space travel as well, so 😉 )

What’s the book about?

Chris Hadfield was a young Canadian boy when he saw the moon landing happen on TV. He decided that he wanted to be an astronaut as well, which was somewhat problematic – Canada didn’t have astronauts, the likelihood of becoming an astronaut was abysmally small and how do you become one anyway?

The book follows his path of becoming an astronaut, how he prepared for the role of becoming an astronaut even though at start there wasn’t even a pathway for becoming one as a Canadian. He also describes his whole career in the space industry, his life as a test pilot and working at NASA and finally spending 6 months on the ISS becoming an online sensation after sharing on youtube and social media his experiences of life in space. He also did a very famous TED talk about how to solve problems in life and death situations in space, that I highly recommend (I show this to all my students!).

Lessons to learn from the book

Other than the book just being a great read (and you’d think that since I knew that everything went well in the end, the book would be less thrilling to read, but I couldn’t put it down!), there are also great lessons to be learned about aiming high and getting to places that are impossible to reach.

The only way to be prepared for everything is to prepare for everything

Imagine that you’re at a birthday, an older relative’s 90th. Suddenly you’re asked to give a speech for the birthday boy/girl. What do you do? Most people who aren’t extremely extroverted shy away from the offer with answers of “oh, I wouldn’t have anything to say”, “oh, no, not poor old me”. How can one be ready for such events? Take a moment to give a speech in front of the mirror to practice – when the moment comes that someone asks you to give a speech you’ll be able to do it well and others will be impressed.

There are millions of scenarios that can happen to us and the only way to be ready is to actually think ahead in terms of what you’d do in those situations. A lot of people have the dream of being financially independent, which is a great dream to have. However, what would you do if you finally achieved this independence? Not many people have spent that much time thinking about it, and it’s an issue since once you reach your goal you might find yourself stumped as to what you want to do.

Want to be famous? You’d better be giving interviews to imaginary reporters while showering. Want to become a philanthropist who will change the world? Take time to think about how and what you’re going to do. Want to reach that next promotion at work or learn another skills? Make a plan and start following it, so you won’t be surprised when the opportunity arises, since it’s sad to have to say no to an opportunity since you’re not ready.

The power of negative thinking

I must say, this is hands down the best book I’ve ever read that’s clearly explained how my thought processes work. A lot of people tell me that I’m very negative in how my thinking works – that when someone offers out an idea, my first reaction after a moment of deliberation is to explain all the things that could possibly go wrong. This doesn’t mean that I don’t like the idea or I wouldn’t work hard on it, it just means that I want to see all the possible outcomes.

Hadfield writes about this conundrum from his point of view as a person who is responsible for life and death situations. When you’re preparing for space flight every single small thing might cause fatal accidents – just one bolt or one wire might mean the difference between a successful landing and a spacecraft disintegrating upon entering the atmosphere. This means to prepare you have to think of literally every single possibility that might go wrong – in a sense thinking “What could kill me next?”.

Once you’ve isolated all the potential issues you simulate how to react to them – a large part of an astronaut’s work is running simulations for thousands of hours to manage all kinds of potential situations. The reason being that once a situation that causes a problem hits you have to be prepared to deal with it and not be afraid. That’s the key issue – if you don’t know what could go wrong then you’re more likely to be scared of the unknown. If you isolate the potential issues you can start preparing yourself and work on avoiding some of the problems altogether.

This can be transferred easily to investing as well, since for a lot of people investing is largely associated with fear. What happens if the market drops? What happens if I lose x% of my money? Thinking through those issues in detail will help you keep rational once those problems appear. What would happen if you lost 10% of your portfolio value? What about 30%? What about 50%? If you already feel your heart hurt at the thought that you might lose 30% value then you’ve already identified a potential problem situation to work on – either sell at 25% loss, either rebalance earlier etc. Now you have a potential solution instead of being blindly afraid of problems.

Who should read this book?

Honestly, I’d recommend this book to everyone just because it covers space travel in a way that’s very different from what we’re used to from Hollywood movies. How much of being an astronaut is work and how much is glamour of being in space – and how many astronauts prepare for decades and never make it to space and how to live with that idea.

In a stricter sense I’d recommend this to anyone who has big dreams to take a moment to think about all the “what if” scenarios. What if everything happens like I want it to and one day I’m xzy? How to get over the fears that things will never go my way and how to prepare for when things do go my way.

*Did you know that the International Space Station is 109m wide? It’s difficult to imagine it just floating around our planet, no?

Book review: Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi

What better time to find another book to read then a rainy Midsummer Day? I’ve finally started to properly dig through my backlog of books to read (and trust me, the list is very long) and Never Eat Alone is considered a classic in the realm of networking.

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Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, one relationship at a time. (First published 2005, new edition 2014.)

This book is considered an all-encompassing guide to networking and creating relationships that will help you advance your career and create opportunities in your life that you’d otherwise not have access to.

Main idea

The book is built on the idea that it is impossible to succeed in modern life without being good at networking. And the problem is that most people aren’t good at networking and find it uncomfortable to forge new relationships. The book breaks networking down into components starting from preparation to benefits and follow-up, peppering the whole text with dozens of examples from the author’s personal experience throughout his career.

Networking as a trainable skill?

I’ve always been fascinated by networking since it’s both been highly necessary for myself and something that’s still challenging. It’s taken me time to get over some fears associated with creating new contacts and that’s markedly improved my ability to make new acquaintances and friends. Without having read the book I’ve been using many strategies that the book describes to successfully meet new people and business partners.

For a lot of people though, just mentioning the term networking causes them to break out in a cold sweat. Many people equate networking to schmoozing or buttering someone up, neither of which have a particularly positive aura about them. This book however focuses on networking from the point of view that to gain benefit from networking you must focus on how you can help others before trying to get benefit for yourself. Nowadays the trick isn’t creating a monopoly of knowledge and connections for yourself but your focus should be linking together people who are in need to pay forward goodwill.

Ideas to pay attention to

Never eat alone – as the title implies, a good business lunch or a coffee meeting is a great way to meet new people and keep in touch with others even when you’re short on time otherwise. I utilise this heavily due to my schedule and tend to meet at least three people every week in connection to various projects and partnerships. Even when I don’t have much time, I can always find time for a lunch meeting.

Dinner parties – the book and I agree on one worry, why are dinner parties dying out? In my group of friends I’ve become the de facto organiser for such events. I’ve actually created kind of traditional events outside of things such as birthdays and people are always excited to come and see both old friends and make new ones. I can see why this is a big responsibility, but please, organise more dinner parties (and invite me 😉 ).

Fringe contacts – the idea is that a lot of information that actually ends up helping you comes from people who aren’t your closest friends but your acquaintances instead. The problem being that people who are your closest friends are generally in very similar information circles, so to gain access to truly new information you have to expand your circle of contacts.

Follow-up is important – this is something I’ve tried to do but it takes effort. I do see the inherent value in this, and I encourage others to do this as well. The idea being that when you meet someone for whatever reason you actually follow-up with an e-mail or a phone call to reiterate deals made or ideas discussed. It makes people feel good because they’re remembered and you get to keep a better log of things you’ve agreed to.

In the end it’s about making friends – while the word of networking has been ruined to an extent then it’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t something that’s about quickly getting some benefit from a person and then never looking back (though sadly for some it is), it’s about creating and maintaining genuine contacts and friendships that enrich your life and that of your contacts.

Who should read this book?

Along with How to Win Friends and Influence People (Dale Carnegie), this book is probably all you really need to know about efficient relationships. While Carnegie’s book (I re-read that every couple of years) is more focused on more intimate relationships and helps you just become better at communicating then this book is more focused on creating an actual plan of how to manage your relationships. While that might sound a bit cold then once your network of people starts getting big it’s an actual necessity.

I recommend this book to anyone who needs other people’s help in their work. Having a large network of people is invaluable when it comes to career advancement (it is who you know that lets you show what you know). The book also lets you actually avoid many mistakes that people tend to make when they try to access new people. For example I get a fair bit of e-mails from people asking for help who could greatly benefit from reading this book (I’ll start recommending it actually!).

Networking in modern times isn’t something that’s optional. Whether or not you’re doing it unawares or in a focused manner you can’t step out of the game, and the more you wish to develop your career the more help you are going to need from your contacts. Read the book and good luck networking!

Book review: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

I’ve restarted reading personal finance, leadership & business books. I’ve decided to write short reviews for those looking for material to read, because I get asked for book recommendations quite often.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (2013)

This book is essentially a follow-up to a TED talk that Sheryl Sandberg ( currently COO of Facebook, previously VP of sales for Google) gave in 2010. The TED talk caused quite a ruckus. Sheryl is considered one of the most powerful women in the world, with a net worth estimate of 1 billion dollars.

Main idea

The book is based on the discussion around whether the following fact can be changed (which she also starts with in her TED talk):

Women are NOT making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world. (Representation of women hovers at 5-15% at higher levels in any field)

This statement in itself always causes people to react strongly. There are generally three ‘objections’ to dismiss the issue:

1) well, it’s still better than before (doing better than the 50’s is not a mark of pride 65 years later!)

2) it’s not about the gender; it’s about personal skill (implying that women don’t and never will have equal skills to men because they’re just bad)

3) change will take time.(it’s 2015, when?)

Estonia as a country is one of the worst examples of gender equality in the Western world & Europe. Currently Estonia has the highest pay gap (30%), representation of women in politics and business is also an issue. So, whatever you feel might be the cause of this issue, it’s at least reasonable to admit that this is an issue that should be discussed. (One I’ve had to discuss so much after creating the Women’s Investment club that I’m reaching incredible levels of being done with highly sexist arguments I have to counter.)

The good and the bad

This is a book that was clearly filling an existing gap, which explains the incredible popularity of it. The popularity was of course greatly helped by having been written by such a famous individual.

The main emotion I got from reading the book was “oh, I’ve had that experience as well”. Sandberg and her co-authors have clearly managed to pen down a lot of the troubles that (ambitious) women encounter both socially and in a work environment. I appreciated that the book didn’t just stick to anecdotal evidence but heavily referenced previous research on the topic, giving more validity to the claims that she was making.

The book has an easy way of discussing topics that are heavily loaded and still somewhat controversial such as:

1) success and likeability tend to be inversely correlated when it comes to women (read into the “Ban Bossy” project)

2) women systematically underestimate themselves and are less likely to own their success

3) the issue of whether or not women are the natural caregivers in the family or of it’s mostly social pressure

4) difficulty of finding mentors and the pressure to be “one of the boys”

5) the myth that having a career and having a family can both be done fully

The book of course has received a lot of criticism because at times its not consistent and the advice it offers is sometimes a bit simplified. However, the issues it brings up are real, even if the solutions may not always work.

Who should read this book?

This book should be obligatory reading to all women who are ever hoping to build a successful career in any area. It helps systematize several things you’re likely to intuitively know or have experienced previously. This should also be obligatory reading to anyone who ever wants a leadership position where they run a mixed gender team to understand the underlying issues that are likely to prevent the teams from working at full capacity. Mixed gender teams are shown to work better, and genuine talent is being missed out on because of stereotyping.

This book is probably not for people who feel that feminism isn’t something that’s needed in the year 2015 or who genuinely feel that the lack of representation in case of women is completely to blame on them not doing enough (and I’ve met some people who think like this in my life!)

Personally, the book gave me quite a lot of food for thought. I’ve experienced several issues mentioned and I’ve always been annoyed by the fact that successful women tend to get a lot of negative criticism for things that men get praised for. I’m also saddened that in the year 2015 we really still need to talk about the issue of gender equality so much, and it’s genuinely not getting better; in some countries it’s even getting worse.