Chris Hadfield On How To Overcome Fear


He was about five hours into his mission when it happened.

He was installing Canadarm 2 – the robotic arm that would build the International Space Station (ISS) –when droplets of water began floating around inside his helmet.


A spacewalk is incredibly taxing, physically – but especially when your water bag starts leaking inside your spacesuit.

He tried to ignore the little globs of water floating around in front of his face, when suddenly his eyes began stinging, horrendously.

Holding onto the side of a spaceship that was moving 17,500 miles an hour, Chris Hadfield was blind.

“Houston, we have a problem”.

“We All Feel Fear”

The biggest roadblock that prevents us from realizing our full potential is fear.

If you want to lose weight, become more productive or build a revolutionary company, you must step outside of your comfort zone.

But stretching yourself causes fear.

Fear of disappointment. Fear of failure. Fear of success.

But what’s important to remember is it’s normal to feel fear.

Everyone feels fear – including astronauts.

On fear, Chris Hadfield says:

In my experience, fear comes from not knowing what to expect and not feeling you have any control over what’s about to happen. When you feel helpless, you’re far more afraid than you would be if you knew the facts. If you’re not sure what to be alarmed about, everything is alarming. [1]

If you want to learn how to overcome fear, then, you need to know what could happen and prepare for it.

How Do You Deal With Fear?

“Feeling ready to do something doesn’t mean feeling certain you’ll succeed, though of course that’s what you’re hoping to do”, writes Hadfield in his autobiography, An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth, “Truly being ready means understanding what could go wrong – and having a plan to deal with it.

A plan for making habits stick, might be writing implementation intentions; “if/then” strategies that help you mitigate cognitive biases like moral licensing and restraint bias.

“Each time you [plan] your comfort zone expands a little”, writes Hadfield, “So if you ever face that particular problem in real life, you’re able to think clearly”.

You might want to consider what your “worst case scenario” is and plan how you would deal with it.

For example:

Dieting: If I feel tempted to eat sugary snacks on non-cheat days, then I will redesign my environment using Choice Architecture”.

Entrepreneurship: If my business fails, then I will return to work. I can save 20% of my earnings and invest it in my next business”.

Exercise: If gym bullies laugh at me while I exercise, then I will ignore them and remind myself why I’m doing it”.

Remember: writing a plan isn’t an opportunity to procrastinate; it’s an opportunity to prepare.

“Rehearsing for catastrophe has made me positive that I have the problem-solving skills to deal with tough situations and come out the other side smiling”, says Hadfield.

Granted, we can’t prepare for every eventuality (and nor should we) but how do we overcome an obstacle we hadn’t anticipated?

Simple: we work the problem.

“Working the problem” is NASA-speak for descending one decision tree after another, methodically looking for a solution until you can overcome the obstacle.

“In order to stay calm in a high-stress, high-stakes situation, all you really need is knowledge”, writes Hadfield.

You become knowledgeable by stretching yourself and learning from others.

Step out of your comfort zone regularly. Attend a meetup. Publish a blog post. Do something that scares you. The references become acontextual.

As for learning from others, read. A lot. Read books you wouldn’t usually read. There’s a lot to learn from people who challenge beliefs you have about yourself.

Everything you want is on the other side of fear.

Go get it.

Work The Problem

Hadfield remained calm.

He concerned himself with what he had control over; he was still breathing and in safe company and, had a lot of good people working the problem.

He tried everything he could think of to un-blind himself: he shook his head around to try to brush his eyes against something in the helmet and blinked for all he was worth.

His eyes still killed, but eventually, they started to clear a little. He was marginally less sightless.

He got back to work and completed his mission.

After almost eight nerve-wracking hours, Hadfield finally returned to ISS and identified the problem: dishwashing detergent.

Astronauts polish the visors of their spacesuits with anti-fog so their breath doesn’t fog them up.

The solution is basically dishwashing detergent.

Mix it with a few droplets of loose water and it’s as though you’ve squirted soap directly into your eye.

Turns out Hadfield hadn’t got it all off.

“Next time, I’ll be even more detail-orientated” promised Hadfield.   

Remember: progress, not perfection.

“I’m pretty sure that I can deal with what life throws at me because I’ve thought about what to do if things go wrong, as well as right” writes Hadfield, “That’s the power of negative thinking”.   

Now it’s your turn.

“Work the problem.”


[1] Hadfield, C. (2013) An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything, New York: Random House.