An Ivy League astronaut shares NASA’s best problem-solving wisdom

An Ivy League astronaut shares NASA’s best problem-solving wisdom

Mike Massimino, a Columbia University professor and former NASA astronaut, has faced many challenges in his career, especially during his two stints in space, which partly inspired the character played by George Clooney in the 2013 Oscar-winning film “Gravity.”

In the face of conflict, Massimino’s colleagues shared key bits of NASA wisdom, rules, and sayings with him. He shares a few of them in his new book, “Moonshot: A NASA Astronaut’s Guide to Achieving the Impossible,” in which he discusses what he learned during his 18 years at NASA from 1996 to 2014 and how he implemented the advice into his career on Earth. As a professor, media personality and leadership consultant to a wide range of companies.

Whether in orbit or on Earth, Massimino uses these three key pieces of NASA wisdom to make sure his problem-solving process runs smoothly.

Give yourself 30 seconds to feel bad

It’s normal to feel guilty when you make a mistake at work. Beating yourself up about it can send you into an unproductive spiral of self-deprecation, but it can be a relief to get your feelings out.

When he makes a particularly frustrating mistake, Massimino tells CNBC Make It that he uses the 30-second rule, a piece of NASA wisdom that he attributes to pilot Rick “CJ” Sturko.

Immediately after he makes a mistake, he takes 30 seconds aside to get angry at himself and write down his remorse for the mistake in his diary. An average 30-second Massimino session sounds like: “I’m stupid! How could I have done that! I should have thought more about our plan. If I walk out of this session, I’ll be more careful in the future not to do that.” This error again.”

But when the 30 seconds are up, he stops fumbling and focuses on what’s next.

It’s essential to make 30 seconds of self-deprecation and screaming impactful and productive so you can move forward relaxed and motivated to solve the problem. To do this, Massimino calls himself names to really let his resentment out, specifically identifies what he regrets to make sure he knows what needs to change instead of blaming everything, and reminds himself to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Before you act, think about how it might get worse, because it can always happen

No matter how bad a mess you make, you can always make it worse, Massimino says. At NASA, this is called Hoot’s Law, named after legendary NASA astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson who shared this advice with his colleagues.

“There are very few things you need to respond to right away,” Massimino says.

When you rush to fix a mistake you made, you often end up making another because you don’t pay enough attention, Massimino says.

“You’ve gone from one problem to two problems, and you have to solve problem B before you can get back to problem A,” he says.

When Massimino makes a mistake, after 30 seconds of frustration, he slows down and takes a step back. In this decline phase, he gets an additional set of attention to the problem, asking for help, advice, or feedback. Most importantly, he thinks about actions he can take at that point that could exacerbate the problem and make a “bad situation worse.” Discovering this helps him act more consciously.

For most life problems, Massimino says, you can take at least a minute or two to think before responding. “Don’t send this email right away. Take your time,” he says, and think about how you might accidentally make the situation worse.

Remind yourself of the things you have in common with your teammates

Massimino says that every conflict in the office is usually a team conflict, because people tend to work in teams. When emotions are high, problem solving may seem impossible if team members don’t see eye to eye. When Massimino faces such a conflict, his next course of action is to consult what he calls his “bank of good ideas.”

“What I’ve found to be the golden rule of leadership and teamwork is to find a way to care and admire everyone on your team,” Massimino says. You may not share the same backgrounds, areas of expertise, or outlook on your work, but it’s a good idea to remember that everyone on your team has been vetted through the same application process that you have gone through.

“You might not connect with them naturally, but they’re there for a reason and you’re there for a reason; everyone has something to add to the team,” Massimino says.

Find something you like about this person or something you have in common by taking the time to get to know them. Then put that in your mental (or written if you wish) bank of good ideas, to come back to when you face conflict and can’t see eye to eye. By remembering what he likes about the person he’s talking to, Massimino says he becomes more open to hearing their thoughts.

Even if you still disagree, he says, making your colleagues feel cared for and admired will in turn make them more open to your opinions.

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(Tags for translation)Michael Massimino

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