Want to make a difference? Do something really hard

People often ask retired astronaut Scott Kelly about what was best about being in space. Was it seeing the big blue marble? Floating in zero G? Feeling a million pounds of thrust at your back before bolts explode and a rocket launches?

None of the above, Kelly said at the opening General Session at NSBA’s Annual Conference. “The best part is that it’s really, really hard.” If you want to make a difference, he said, don’t be afraid to do things that are hard.

“To see what we can achieve, we have to choose things that we think might be beyond our capability,” he said. “I want to talk to you about things that are hard.”

He opened his presentation with a video montage of his aviation and space career, which included commanding the International Space Station, spending 340 consecutive days in space, traveling 143 million miles, and making more than 5,000 orbits. He conducted countless scientific experiments in space and helped repair the Hubble Space Telescope.

Not bad for a kid who graduated in the bottom half of his high school class and, as a youth, always had trouble paying attention. “If I were in school today, I’d be diagnosed with either ADD or ADHD,” he said.

Kelly said his life changed in college, when he read Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff,” which recounts the beginning of the U.S. space program. “That book was my spark,” he said. From that point forward, he just made a lot of small steps to approach and ultimately achieve his goal, he said.

In any endeavor, seemingly unattainable goals can be reached by breaking them down into tiny steps and pursuing them relentlessly, Kelly said.

He said he and his brother Mark, who also had a career as an astronaut, learned perseverance from their mother, who stood less than five feet but managed to pass a tough physical exam and become a police officer. (Mark is married to former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in 2011.)

A tour of duty on the International Space Station has its downsides, he acknowledged. All the water you drink is recycled from the crew’s urine …. but it tastes better than tap water, he insisted.

Also, you’re always on duty. “When you go to sleep, you’re at work. When you wake up, you’re at work.”

And, of course, you’re cooped up. “I changed positions so many times you would have thought I was running for president,” he said, prompting laughter. When the noise died down, he added: “I almost wish I did.”


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