How an astronaut’s career path is reflected in a guidance counsellor’s framework

CareerLifePlanningI had the opportunity to hear Colonel Chris Hadfield speak and—as you might expect—the experience was out of this world!

He was the keynote speaker at the 50th annual Ontario School Counsellors’ Association (OSCA) Conference and I found it remarkable how much his message aligned with Ontario’s guiding education and career/life planning document Creating Pathways to Success. This document outlines a framework of four questions to help people get, and stay, on the pathway to success:

1. Who am I?
2. What are my opportunities?
3. Who do I want to become?
4. What is my plan for achieving my goals?

As I listened to Chris outline the story of his life to teachers at the conference, I was struck by how this guiding framework shone through. It’s even more present in his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. (I highly recommend picking up this book–it’s terrific! And I don’t typically read non-fiction!)

Chris’ journey from being a child watching the first man land on the moon on television in 1969 to being the first Canadian to walk in space, operate the Canadarm in orbit and command the International Space Station, is a fascinating one that speaks to perseverance and resilience. How many 9-year-olds decide on the spot what they want to be and then begin to live their life for that vocation—especially when the career they’ve chosen doesn’t quite exist yet?

Seeing and hearing Chris in person, I was tremendously moved by his message. I was also moved by subtleties in his behaviour, such as the attention he gave the two Air Cadets who were selling poppies in our conference room. Chris himself joined the Air Cadets when he was 13 and he spoke about how influential an opportunity that was on who he would ultimately become. He is quick to point out that, while his career path looks quite linear on paper—engineer, fighter pilot, test pilot, astronaut—it was not that straightforward. Curves and dead ends also played a role. That is such an important reminder for our students.

Some other messages from his talk that really struck me were:

  • Be prepared for anything. In space, astronauts talk in terms of “What is the next thing that could kill me?” Can you imagine living like that?
  • Let yourself be successful every day. A man who has been to space three times can feel that he is having an awesome day because he used his favourite soap in the shower and was able to enjoy Cheerios for breakfast. What amazing perspective for all those of us on earth!
  • If you’re not working to better yourself every day, what are you doing? Embrace opportunities to take courses, read, research, learn a language, etc. Go all out in pursuit of your goal.
  • Nothing is as important as what you are doing right now. I found this to be a particularly poignant reminder, given how many distractions arise in a high school guidance office. The student sitting in front of you is the most important thing in that moment and we have the power to make them feel that way. (It can also serve as a reminder for students in a world of incessant use of digital and social media—focus can remain on the task at hand and that new text can wait… really, it can!)

During Chris’ talk, a conference participant asked him what it was like to play guitar in space. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. But at the end of his talk, after treating us to a musical performance of the song I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing), which he co-wrote, Chris made a point of giving his guitar pick to the teacher who had asked that question. It was pretty cool. And the fact that Chris remembered the name and story of the recent Canadian Career College graduate who spoke about his experience prior to Chris taking the stage was also very telling.

He might be a Canadian hero who has done more to rekindle curiosity about science and space than we’ve seen since humans first landed on the moon, but he’s also a genuinely nice guy. And isn’t that combination—success and citizenship—what we want most for the students in our schools today?

I cannot overstate how much I enjoyed hearing Chris describe how he decided who he wanted to become and put a plan in place to get there—exceeding even his own expectations in the process. It’s now even more clear to me how the Pathways framework can be used for developing programs and enhancing student learning.