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Think like Tim Peake, look to the future

June 20, 2016

UK astronaut Tim Peake is back on Earth after an historic six-month stay on the International Space Station. A Soyuz capsule carrying Peake and two other crew members touched down in Kazakhstan at 10.15am Saturday. He called the journey back the best ride I’ve been on – ever.

Screaming towards Earth at 25 times the speed of sound, friction on the spacecraft’s heat shield slowed its speed from 17,398 mph to 514 mph and raised the outside temperature to 1,600C. The rapid deceleration pushed the crew back into their seats with a force of around 5G – described as like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, but the barrel is on fire.

That was landing, what was the launch experience? Like an unfriendly gorilla jumping up and down on your chest, and then throwing you off a cliff. The gorilla part is apparently that is what it feels like during lift off, which is about nine minutes. That is a long time to have a gorilla jumping on you! The ‘being thrown off a cliff’ is what it feels like when you reach zero gravity, which comes quite abruptly as you leave Earth’s orbit.

Peake is the first person from the UK to fly to space since Helen Sharman in 1991, and made the first spacewalk by a UK astronaut. During the 186-day mission, he made 3,000 orbits of Earth, covering a distance of 125m km.

Peake’s mission was named Principia after Sir Isaac Newton’s landmark work describing the laws of motion and gravity, and its main purpose was to contribute to scientific knowledge by conducting experiments in zero gravity. But Peake did much more than that as he kept in touch with the world on Twitter (814k followers), took part in video-linked Q&A sessions, and engaged in educational activities with schoolchildren – he read a bedtime story about astronauts on CBeebies as the Earth rolled beneath him.

He tweeted about coping with life in orbit, including photos and videos of sights that only a fraction of humanity will ever see with their own eyes. He called his parents, but got the wrong number, and on another occasion, phoned when they were out. When asked how he was doing on a spacewalk, as he clung to the outside of the station, he replied: Fine. Just hanging out.

Space exploration has always resonated with me. I was there, I saw Neil Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind from my parents’ living room perched on my grandfather’s knee. I can still recall the black & white images on the television screen. It’s a clear memory of a unique moment in history, and also a poignant and warm memory about my grandfather, who died later that year. I’ve been fascinated by the photography and science of the moon and space ever since.

I mourned Neil Armstrong’s passing in 2012, he was a modest, intelligent, well-balanced man, not at all moon-struck. Often when I’ve been outside on cold, crisp winter evenings walking the dog, I’ve look up at the moon and marvel at its contours, brightness and mystery. I suppose millions of people all over the world do the same thing. Armstrong was small step for man; a giant leap for moon-kind.

These days Armstrong would barely have landed on Earth before being inundated with offers from reality TV shows…I’m an astronaut, get me out of here. He hadn’t signed an autograph since 1994, having become dismayed at being treated as a celebrity. The announcement of his death felt like a coda to a chapter of my life. It was ironic that Armstrong died just as the US was celebrating the spectacular success of a new space venture with the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Armstrong did not like to be called a hero, his standard riposte to such accusations was to point out that it required the efforts of hundreds of thousands of backroom engineers, mathematicians and technicians to make space flight possible. He was right, at the height of its efforts, NASA was spending 4.4% of the American government’s entire budget, employing 400,000 workers.

Half a century after the event, with the deaths of many of its participants, the Apollo project is beginning to fade from living memory and pass into the history books. It was one of the mightiest achievements of the potent combination of big government and big science. Even now, all these years later, it’s still amazing what those people did when you think about the scale of achievement. Put a man on the moon.

Just as Peake is the first person from the UK to spacewalk, being first to achieve something makes you unique, a groundbreaker, it’s all about your passion and desire to leave your mark – quite literally a footprint – a legacy to inspire others. The edge is not in a gifted birth, a high IQ, or in talent, but rather the winner’s edge is all in the attitude. And if attitude is the criterion for success, the first quality needed is audacity and daring to dream.

Unsurprisingly, entrepreneurs can learn profound lessons from astronauts like Peake, with their tremendous courage, ability to perform while living on the edge, and knack for succeeding in doing things which truly sets them apart. Successful entrepreneurs possess many of these same character traits.

Launching new experiments in space and startup endeavours require skill to guide them into an unknown realm. Closer examination of space exploration provides strategies to help launch a new business into its first orbit. Here are a few thoughts.

Be willing to break the mould, take risks and learn Before he went into space, Peake didn’t know what the physical and psychological impact of living in a small, isolated, zero gravity environment would be. He embraced his mission, despite the uncertainty of how he would cope with spending six months more than 200 miles above the Earth. Throughout his 186 days in space, he participated in hundreds of studies and he will continue to be studied as his body readjusts to Earth.

As an entrepreneur, it is critical to be bold and have a willingness to take risks, do something that maybe no one has tried before, and demonstrate continued learning from that process.

Embrace working with a diverse team Upon his return, Peake acknowledged American Tim Kopra and Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Malenchenko, who shared his entire journey, as well as others from various countries who worked on the project. He emphasised the importance of teamwork, saying It’s incredibly important that we all work together to make what is seemingly impossible, possible.

It’s easy to default to working in isolation, particularly when navigating potential exciting new projects for personal achievement, forging ahead, but entrepreneurial leaders need to break down silos and collaborate to truly move the needle. 

Take a step back to help reveal the broader picture While Peake’s mission was primarily a stepping-stone for sending astronauts to Mars, he gained a new personal perspective on the Earth. From his view, Peake was able to see the Earth’s geography and climate in a new light, observing weather systems and topography in a way he could never experience from Earth.

Intentionally stepping out of the typical day-to-day can help you see situations from a new and often unexpected perspective. Entrepreneurs recognise and enjoy the learning that stems from these new perspectives. They are open to experiencing the bigger picture, so they can identify new barriers, challenges and opportunities relevant to their own context.

Communicate and share, regularly In advance of his journey, Peake committed to staying connected and sharing his experience, and he kept his promise. Even in a highly controlled environment, he consistently posted on Twitter, so others could share and learn from his experience.

Effective entrepreneurs intentionally and regularly communicate, sharing their vision and passion, and do so in ways that resonate with their audience. Today, email is insufficient, most of us receive so many emails every day it can become static noise. With the wide spread use of social media, it is critical to embrace new ways of sharing so key messages can rise above this noise.

Plan for failure and work backwards In some ways launching a new business parallels a space mission. There’s so much to think about and so much that can go wrong, and there’s always the chance of catastrophic failure. Peake had trained extensively, not just for the mission going right, but also for all the ways the mission could go wrong. He wasn’t out there alone, and he and his spacewalk partner had practiced, so he knew whatever happened, they could deal with it.

And of course, it did, on 15 January this year, when Tim Kopra got water in his helmet out on a spacewalk. Going blind on his spacewalk could have led any normal person into a panic, but Peake was able to maintain composure, and respond to the crisis. He had planned for so many years for things that could potentially go awry in space that he didn’t allow this to throw him.

As Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield said It’s not like astronauts are braver than other people; we’re just meticulously prepared. For entrepreneurs, balancing the options, good and bad, is an essential mindset. Adopting the lean startup thinking of ‘a startup is an experiment’, each outcome, including those unplanned, is valuable learning for continuous improvement.

Scale your business slowly: the real thrill doesn’t come from speed Peake described the experience of flying back from the moon like riding a meteor. He re-entered the atmosphere at breakneck speed. Some might think that the sheer speed of flight would be exhilarating, but Peake expressed that his thrill came from watching the beauty outside along the way and the delight in reaching a different perspective of the world.

Successful entrepreneurs aren’t solely focused on the speed at which they launch their business. They recognise that success comes with patience and hard work, and timing. Enjoy the process of building something great and delivering on a vision, don’t rush your business’s growth so that you risk compromising the quality of your offering, or the learning experience.

Critical traits for success: persistence and tenacity Peake’s story of sheer persistence, tenacity and of taking pleasure in the journey speaks to anyone who goes into a business for the sake of purpose. Tim’s description of the preparation for the launch, the excitement around the possibility of being in space and then his awe in being weightless is a great metaphor for building a business and realising a dream.

The second half of his journey, returning to earth, was equally exhilarating for him, as now he had experienced things that could inspire others to dare to dream. He could now teach others about confronting their fears, taking risks that culminate in the joy of doing things that are new and challenging.

Peake’s tenacity and persistence is reminiscent of many iconic entrepreneurs – Jobs, Bezos, Musk – are well-known for zeroing in on what’s important. Their combination of vision, conviction, and stubborn tenacity make them unstoppable visionaries.

Peake dared to dream and took risks. Life is queer with its twists and turns. Success is failure turned inside out, the silver tint of the clouds of doubt, and you never can tell how close you are. He is living his life as an exclamation rather than an explanation, dedicated to training and preparation, absorbing the set backs as gaining experience for handling the future challenges he knew he would have to overcome tomorrow.

Tomorrow…are you preparing yourself for tomorrow, or do you only want to follow in the footsteps of others, and never want to experience the greatness of personal victory? Think like Tim Peake, look to the future.

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