Be a Zero

Besides school textbooks, esoteric journal articles, and an occasional article from UCSB’s Daily Nexus, my reading of printed works during the school year is fairly limited. If there’s any point in my day where I really feel like reading, I know that I would benefit most by perusing my textbooks or delving into recent research papers. But this year for Christmas, Kierstin bought me Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. I knew that I would not find time to read it once school started again, so I devoured the book within the last couple days of winter break. If you’ve never heard of Chris Hadfield, he is a distinguished astronaut who served with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency for over twenty years. He performed three missions and became the first Canadian to ever execute a spacewalk. At the behest of his son, he also took on the unofficial role of International Space Station social media expert in an effort to popularize space exploration. This included developing a Twitter following of over 1 million users, answering questions interview-style for internet communities, and the zenith of his internet presence: a rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity  (Click to watch!) with video footage recorded in space (the lyrics were changed so the astronaut did not die at the end of the song).  His book recounts his life leading up to his final flight in space, where he served as commander (also the first for Canada), and explained in detail the experiences of his final mission. It also provided various insights and wisdom about life in general. One of his chapters’ revolved around the theme of “being a zero” and it really stuck with me.

He talked about how in life and especially in workplace environments, your attitude can impact how others perceive your performance. It goes without saying that NASA is a competitive work environment, with no lack of esteemed pilots, engineers, doctors, and PhDs. Hadfield discussed how the intense competition can breed a variety of individuals. There are zealous personalities whose obsession with getting to space turns into negative behavior when their name isn’t chosen. These types have a destructive effect on the entire workplace and appear self-centered. Hadfield deemed these people “minus ones”. There are also highly-esteemed individuals with many well-deserved accolades and accomplishments, but who are obnoxiously immodest about it. Hadfield tells a story of a senior astronaut who barged onto a crowded elevator and apparently hoped some prescient rider would know he needed to get to the sixth floor. He even said, “I didn’t spend all those years in university to wind up pushing buttons in an elevator.” Hadfield noted that these types of people strive to be “plus ones”, but they try so hard to make everyone know it. It backfires, and the effect is toxic.

The best way to make a positive impact is to strive to “be a zero”. Whether you’re an astronaut, housewife, doctor, teacher, CEO, custodian, salesperson, or politician, you’re still a person first and other people may define your performance based on your attitude. You can be a zero, Hadfield discusses, by understanding that millions of people struggle every day. They don’t always complain when things don’t go there way, and they don’t brag when they accomplish what they were expected to do. He talks about the work environment at NASA, where you can go from being the commander of a mission on the ISS one day and the next day relegated to just another employee at a large organization. The ladder of success isn’t necessarily a one-way vertical climb. It’s important to realize that no matter how important you are (like being commander of the ISS), menial tasks like taking out the garbage or replacing the office water jug should not be beneath you (you’re still just like everyone else). Hadfield explained that this attitude – to be useful and do the job right – is how his “zero” behavior actually made him a plus one to his teams, and he never had to tell anyone about how valuable he was.

I consider this philosophy a lot and try to implement these ideals in my daily life. I officiate high school wrestling and I had a dual meet a couple of weeks ago. Any good official should remain unbiased, make sound judgments based on what is observed, and strive to not penalize the athletes with unjust calls. I am constantly aware of these ideas, and while coaches, wrestlers, or spectators sometimes might think otherwise, I have no personal investment in any of the matches I officiate. Unfortunately, some officials might not feel the same way. An official may not want to look stupid and can lead to blatantly incorrect judgments that don’t go unfixed. He may just want everyone to like him, which results in what is referred to as a “make-up call”, where he makes a poor call that is not corrected and attempts to resolve the perceived imbalance by purposely making another poor call in favor of the other team. And of course, he could actually have a bias for or against a team, which we would hope does not actually happen but it does seem plausible.

So, I was officiating my dual meet, and two scrappy wrestlers were battling at the edge of the mat. One kid fakes left, freezing his opponent, and dives towards his opponent’s legs. He has both legs gripped tightly, and as he lifts his opponent high in the air, I begin to anticipate the takedown. I find wrestlers to be very predictable, especially after watching and participating in the sport for such a substantial portion of my life. I know that if I reach for a wrestler’s leg, he’ll kick it backwards and push my head to the mat. If I circle to my right, he will circle to his right. If I try to push him across the mat, he’ll try to push me back. This predictability in wrestling is advantageous for me as an official, since I can anticipate the wrestlers’ behavior and make quick decisions (which is greatly appreciated by coaches and fans). However, the best wrestlers are sometimes defined by their unpredictability (poor wrestlers are extremely unpredictable, too, in a different way that’s not really relevant to this situation). In this instance, the wrestler currently hoisted high in the air had his moment of unpredictability.

The offensive wrestler began to lower his opponent to the mat, and as they both hit the floor, I signaled two points for the takedown, expecting the defender to be completely trapped under his opponent’s control. Instead, the defensive wrestler had maneuvered himself to a defendable position in mid-air, while the coach on the adjacent bench sprang out of his seat in protest of my call. I definitely agreed with him; that I made my decision too quickly. With my eyes on the wrestlers still, I nodded my head and said in his direction, “Yes, coach, you’re right. We’ll get it fixed.” The action stopped as the wrestlers went out-of-bounds, and I made my way to the scorer’s table to fix my error. Sometimes, in this situation, you have to arbitrate an argument between both coaches, but they were cordial and accepted my “no takedown” verdict.

After the dual meet finished, I was packing my bag when the coach, whose wrestler had successfully defended the takedown, approached me. He told me that he really appreciated that I went back to change my call, saying he knew a lot of officials who wouldn’t do that. This goes back to an official’s incentives to exhibit poor judgment: sometimes officials don’t want to look stupid. I just want to be a zero though. By not changing my call, I influence that match and become a minus one. By merely doing my job correctly, I gained recognition of being a plus one. It’s much more gratifying than considering the fear of looking injudicious. Leave a note on what you think or share your relatable experiences below!

Chris Hadfield’s Book


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