This Top Astronaut Explains What Separates Winners From Losers

U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly is famous for spending a year on the International Space Station in 2015–16.

Kelly captured the attention of people around the world by uploading videos to YouTube explaining how to live, work and even grow zinnias at zero-g.

Spending a year in space was the culmination of a lifelong dream for Kelly, but how did he achieve it?

He Embraced Lifelong Learning

While attending State University of New York Maritime College, Kelly was an indifferent student, at least at first.

In his autobiography, Endurance, Kelly recounts when a big calculus exam loomed over a particular Labor Day weekend, as did an alluring frat house nearby.

Kelly phoned his twin brother Mark (who also became an astronaut) to tell him about the party.

Mark was horrified.

“You’re in school. You need to absolutely ace this exam, and everything else, if you want to get caught up. You need to spend this entire weekend at your desk, doing every problem in every chapter this exam is going to cover.”

So, Scott spent his weekend studying instead of partying. When he took the exam the following week, he understood all the questions and received his first 100 out of 100.

Throughout his book, Kelly describes the many exams he had to take to become a navy pilot and astronaut. He cultivated a mindset of lifelong learning to acquire the skills he needed to win.

He said,”I knew how to work hard and enjoyed seeing it pay off. It almost became a game I played with myself: Let’s see how well I can do at this.”

He Learned How To Manage His Mistakes

Mistakes are a normal part of work, but they hold more consequences for pilots of navy planes or space shuttles.

(In his book, Kelly writes about his grief when friends were killed in plane crashes.)

One of Kelly’s biggest and earliest mistakes occurred while learning to fly the T-34 during navy pilot training. His flight went relatively well until time to land the propeller-driven plane.

A navy pilot must remember to lower landing gear below a certain speed to avoid damaging the plane, but Kelly lowered his too fast and too soon. Luckily, the landing gear was undamaged, and he was able to land safely.

Kelly reflected on this mistake:

“There is a saying in the navy about mistakes: There are those who have and those who will…Bearing this in mind can guard against the kind of cockiness that gets pilots killed, and in retrospect my error overspeeding the landing gear was a good early lesson.”

He Did Many Difficult Things

Throughout his long career, Kelly’s goal of becoming first a navy pilot and astronaut drove his efforts.

He was remarkably focused on this goal for years, and he credited doing many hard things with helping him work toward it.

Kelly took many exams and completed advanced flight training programs around the world with the US Navy before joining NASA in 1996.

He said,”The goal that had driven me to become an astronaut was to fly more and more challenging aircraft until I got to the hardest thing there was to fly: the space shuttle.”

Even then, his job demanded he perform difficult tasks outside of a typical pilot’s skill set.

He explained space station astronauts spend a large part of their work day on science experiments.

“Dissecting a mouse is a far cry from landing a space shuttle — but then again, so is unpacking cargo, repairing an air conditioner, or learning to speak Russian…I’ve come to appreciate that this job has challenged me to do not just one hard thing but many hard things.”

A commitment to lifelong learning helped Kelly focus on his goals and win over the long term.

Although Kelly made mistakes during his career, he overcame those setbacks and focused on doing many hard things to achieve his goal of becoming an astronaut and spending a year in space.