Being a zero: and how you become a plus-one

Astronaut Chris A. Hadfield Mission Specialist...

Astronaut Chris A. Hadfield Mission Specialist Canadian Space Agency (CSA) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Over the years, I’ve realized that in any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.”

Partway through the book Chris tells a story about a fellow astronaut, Jerry Ross. Trying to learn how to strike a balance between confident and overly ambitious, Chris watched Jerry to “see how he did things”. He noticed that Jerry was regularly going into the office early to answer emails and take care of all the administrative details so that the mission commander could focus on more important matters. He wasn’t asked to do this, and other than Chris, no one else probably knew what he was doing; he wasn’t doing it for recognition. In Chris’ words, “it was classic expeditionary behavior, putting the needs of the group first”. He acted like he considered himself a zero, but everyone on the team knew that he was a plus-one.

A zero is someone who believes they are reasonably competent, but ultimately no better than anyone else.  As seen with Chris and Jerry, there appears to be little difference between a zero and a plus one: they both believe they’re reasonably competent, but ultimately no better than anyone else. The only difference is, they actively add value to the group. In order to be a plus one, it seems you must also consider yourself a zero. A plus one isn’t constantly doing glorifying things. Being a plus one, subjectively, is the same as being a zero; often sitting back, listening, doing your best and contributing whenever and wherever you can. A plus one doesn’t treat or view herself differently, others do. Being a plus one is having most people agree that you’re doing a whole lot more than they are. People make you a plus one, because it takes sincerity, and respect and admiration; something that comes out of acting like a zero, not drilling into people’s minds the idea that you’re greater.

I think this is an important distinction to make. Too often I try to value myself in terms of how other people see me, and too often I confuse adding value with gaining glory. As a result, I end up taking something away from the group, rather than add something to it – the definition of a plus-one. I take away attention (a valuable resource), and as it’s reasonable to expect that because most people think along similar lines, and want to be ‘plus-ones’, constantly seeking affirmation that I’m ‘better’ and ‘more valuable’ takes away something else from people: it takes away self-confidence. Actively making sure people know that you’re better than they are doesn’t inspire them to be like you, it quite often just makes them view themselves in a more negative light – and you along with them.

The way we view ourselves has a profound impact on the way we interact with, and treat others. If your motive for doing good things, for trying to help (whether that’s in school, at home or at work), is to solidify a ‘plus-one’ beside your name, you’re always going to miss your mark.

Unlike Chris and Jerry, I’m not anything so prestigious as an astronaut. Most of us aren’t.  The stakes in my choices aren’t anywhere near as high as theirs, but that doesn’t make my actions any less valuable to me. Most people aren’t ever going to know the pressure of being an astronaut, but most of us know what it takes to be a good brother, or sister, or mother. The minutiae of everyday relationships (work, social, family) lend themselves to the idea that ‘slip-ups’ don’t matter (we’re not planning an outer-space voyage, so being a bit of a dick, or a slightly selfish, doesn’t really matter all that much). We all want better lives, but the only way to get the best out of the lives we have is by believing that our actions and decisions are as valuable to us, as going into work early to answer emails was for Jerry. Thinking you’re better or greater isn’t just self-defeating, it’s impractical. People have a knack for picking up insincerity. If you want a good relationship, or a happy life, be a zero – because trying to be a plus one won’t ever get you there. You get there by believing your competent, but no more competent than everyone else, and delivering your best effort with as least friction as possible.

Chris talks about being in a simulation with a few senior astronauts (one a commander). He knew they were more experienced, so went into ‘student mode’. He was paying such close attention that when the commander went to reach for a button, Chris stopped him and said it was the wrong one. The commander readjusted, and nothing was spoken about it afterwards. A few months later at a debrief with that same commander and the head of JSC, the commander began ‘extolling his powers of observation’. Shortly after, he was assigned to his first mission. “There may not be a connection, but one thing is certain: aiming to be a zero didn’t hurt my chances.”

I think we should all strive to be zeros, not plus-ones. Because I think we can all agree, thinking you’re better than everyone else actually doesn’t make people think you’re better than everyone else.


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