My friend, Doug, is a poet. It’s taken him a long time to come to terms with that word, but it’s part of who he is. He is a weaver of words. He’s also an active civilian astronaut at NASA. We sat down last year at Houston Johnson Space Center for the following conversation. This is only a small excerpt from it.
Doug: I went to grad school at Georgia Tech and was a test pilot. It was there I began to realize becoming an astronaut might actually be a reality. It was one of those dreams you convince yourself “I probably won’t get there but I’ll have a career I can be passionate about.” If you look at the number of people who have reached the top of their game in whatever profession they’re in, there was probably a period of time when they thought “I don’t know if this is realistic but I want it for my life.” I wanted to fly. That was always interesting for me. I had no idea I could be working at NASA at this point in my life. I never shared it with anyone as a kid for fear I might be ridiculed. I think we do that to ourselves.
Melissa: We ask ourselves the question, “who do I think I am?”
Doug: Exactly. “How audacious of you?” Along the way I’ve had people speak into my life. I’m very big on how important the spoken word is in our lives. Words can heal. Words can inspire. Words cast away doubt. Words can slaughter as well. Sometimes we open and engage our language before we think about the consequences of our words. Over the years, I have heard a lot of words which were both healing and cutting.
A handful of years ago I heard this proverb, everything we see around us, people we see achieving…like athletes or even someone walking on the moon…all of these things are part of the human experience. For some reason we put limitations on ourselves and others and we take ourselves out of the human experience. We say, “wow, look at that. That guy is walking on the moon.” But at the same time we can say, “wow, how horrific is that? That guy ended up being a serial killer.” What we don’t realize is all of us are part of it. That whole spectrum is the human experience. It’s only grace and whatever the words you allow to be spoken to you and you speak which put you somewhere on that spectrum. All of it is accessible to us as humans. We can walk on the moon or we may end up in jail because we are a criminal.
I didn’t realize this because I tended to live my life two dimensionally, because my dream doesn’t really fit into anything I see there. We can make our own path. We don’t have to fit a cookie-cutter idea. Sometimes we think, “Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, so I should probably go to school where he went to school and do what he did.”
We end up taking ourselves out of our passion area because we try to put on someone else’s cloak.
This was the most important thing I learned from West Point, though I learned many things academically, and I didn’t realize it till many years later when I was on a battlefield with soldiers. It is so dangerous to put someone else’s cloak on; to try and make yourself into someone else who was successful. “Well, General Patton was successful. He was a tyrant, so I must need to be like General Patton.” But, also, Joshua Chamberlain at the Battle of Gettysburg was a poet and an English instructor at a small college in Maine, yet he was awarded the Medal of Honor for leading his troops at the Battle of Gettysburg. He led by caring for his soldiers, while Patton led by “he’s crazy…I’m going to follow that guy.” What I didn’t realize until years later was I developed my own leadership style. If I don’t settle in my passion area, I’m not going to be a good leader. I’m going to try and put someone else’s mantle on. Sometimes it takes us years to learn that.
I had a teacher my senior year of high school. She was encouraging us to pursue the life we wanted. “Whatever you choose do,” she said, “Do it with such passion that people cannot take their eyes off of you.”
When I first was selected, I had a chance to meet some of the pioneers who had come through these halls. The first time I met Neil Armstrong one on one I didn’t know what to say, so I just sort of generically asked him, “On the way to the moon did you have just a few seconds to reflect back on the enormity of the situation?” He said, “Yeah, I thought about what an ordinary kid I was. I had ordinary thoughts. I did well in school but I never dreamed I could be there, getting ready to walk on the moon. I couldn’t get my mind around it. So, because we can’t get our mind around it we go off and stay busy.”
I thought, “he’s like me. He’s on this spectrum too.”
He’s participating in the human experience. He’s writing his story and he’s reciting his verse.
I can do the same thing. It’s not going to be the same experience. It won’t be the same verse, but I can do something that will change the world too. Or at least change the world around me or change a life. It was then I began to realize we’re all in this together. Maybe there are more important things than money or power. Maybe there is power in influence and impact. It’s been a process for me, coming to this point.
Melissa: Did you always know you were going to change the world?
Doug: I think I’m still emerging. I think I still have doubts. I want to do so much but I still place limitations on myself. We box ourselves in. We put limitations on ourselves, on our kids. As a society, we live very two dimensional lives.
I think back to my flight training and my flight instructor would continually ask me, “When the engine quits, where you going to land?” He would ask every five minutes. After awhile, I began to look around. It started to become part of my psyche. A few weeks into training, he cut the engine and asked the question. I had mentally prepared, so I could put it down safely. Afterward, I couldn’t recall exactly what I had done mechanically because he had drilled it into me.
Just a few years ago, we saw Captain Sullenberger land in the Hudson River. I listen back now on the transmission after he had lost both engines and the controllers are trying to find a place for him to land. He had been trained, “When the engine quits, where you going to land?” So, when the engine quit, he knew where he was going to land. On one side were tall buildings and millions of people, on the other a nice flat area. For people who haven’t been trained in flying, it blows the mind, but you can do it if you are prepared. It goes back to something I learned a long time ago in pilot training.
Chance favors the prepared mind.
When I saw him put it down, I was amazed like everyone else. He had great training and was passionate about his work, so now, we can’t take our eyes off of that guy. That whole situation is because someone was so passionate about their work. Did he want to stay alive? Yes. Of course. But in the moment he was called on to save the day, he was there. Present. In the moment, prepared. If you prepare, you can do that.