MAKERS 2014: Astronaut Cady Coleman Talks How to Overcome Challenges and Be More Present

When you spend six months in space, you're bound to see a lot — the universe, for instance — and learn even more. That's the story for Cady Coleman, NASA astronaut and chemist, who spent 159 days in 2011 researching aboard the shuttle Columbia. (She also advised Sandra Bullock for her role in Gravity !) Coleman spoke alongside Mae Jemison at the 2014 Makers Conference about her experiences up in space and the future of STEM for women (hint: we’ve got to keep pushing to get ourselves into the conversation — and the labs).

Coleman shared how flying above the earth has shifted her views, and what that experience can mean for those of us trying to get ahead — or even just be a little more present — here on Earth.

BUSTLE: What is passion, defined in your words? I’d imagine you’re a rather passionate person to do what you do.

CADY COLEMAN: Passion — it’s just what has to be done. You can’t not do it. Exploring is like that. I’m just happy to be one of the ones who is doing it, who will be doing it, because someone will be doing it. It’s a human imperative, and I love doing it.

Has your definition changed at all since going up into space and looking down, literally?

I don’t know if my definition of passion has changed, but I would say once you’ve seen the big world, you can’t think in a smaller way. Looking down and just seeing the whole world and no lines between the countries, and none of their names spelled out... I’m very proud to be an American. At the same time, I find that to be very small in terms of how I feel about being a citizen of the planet.

How does that perspective shift translate once you put your feet back down on the ground?

Despite the world being huge and despite how many people and places and how many diverse problems face people on the planet , it still just comes right back to family. There’s still nothing that replaces the way I feel when my husband or my son — especially my son — gives me a big hug. I was so happy to be home.

At the same time, I would have stayed another six months in a minute, absolutely. It’s a magical place. It takes a long time to get ready, but once you’re up there, you’re doing this work that’s it’s so clear is important, and there are never enough minutes in the day. So to then keep going — it takes a while to be good at things up there and get things done.

When you say it takes a while to be good at things, what do you mean?

To work in a new environment, to not lose things—losing an important part of an experiment so it can never be performed … Learning how to not lose things, how to put things away, which for me, who personally can lose the TV remote several times in an evening, [was challenging]. Does that mean I can’t be part of the team? No, it means I need to ask for some help, and I need to see the gaps that I create, and I make sure that I am responsible for closing those gaps.

What’s the most important skill that someone can develop for getting better at something that she finds challenging at first?

Go easy on yourself and continue to the finish even if you think you’ve been completely unsuccessful. As a silly example, I was never someone who was ever very good with hair and makeup, and in my time in the Air Force I would French braid my hair every day. It was just the easiest way to get it up in the right place. I’m not someone somebody would ever think would be able to know how to French braid, let alone their own hair. I’d just make myself finish — I’d be sure it was a mess and it would never do, and then you finish and you realize it’s fine.

Sometimes I’ll be discouraged about something being so hard, or that I can’t make it work — even today, I have so many things to do … and I want to be present here, and I want to do all these things, and I’m worried that I’m not doing all of them exactly well enough. And then I’ll find out later, that was really hard because that was really hard. That was a lot of things, and actually is everyone still healthy in your family and did your team accomplish their goals? And did you manage to be at least a certain amount of present at the conference that meant so much to you? The answer’s probably yes.

How do you make yourself present in a moment? I think a lot of women have a hard time with that because ambition tells you you need to project yourself into a role in the future.

I look at it as a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces spread out on the table and you just think, How am I ever going to make this happen? But as soon as you put one into place, you feel better. You think, I did that. So now we’ll look for greens. What I find when feel fairly overwhelmed is I try to go up about two levels and think, What are the important things here? What is making me most crazy? What can I do to make me feel better along the way? And as soon as I put one piece in that puzzle — any piece, just accomplish something on that to do list — I feel like, That’s one thing, and I can do another. If I put one puzzle piece in, I feel more in control.

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