It’s OK to Look Back…But Only for a Moment
Sometimes we look at the lives of others and make the dangerous comparison that our life doesn’t measure up to theirs. There’s only one life you should be comparing yours to. When all is said and done, what kind of impact do you want to have had in life, on society, on those around you? There’s still time.
“This is my favorite photograph of the mission,” noted the speaker.
“At this point, the spacecraft has slipped past the planet and pointed its camera backward for one last look. Caught in the glow from our own sun is the planet’s thin atmosphere.
This photo – more than any other photo – says to me, ‘We did it.’”
“It” was the flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015, by a spacecraft named “New Horizon.”
The technical achievements were dizzying.
Engineers had ingeniously designed the spacecraft and its seven instruments to weigh less than one thousand pounds. (Less weight meant the spacecraft could go faster, and more speed meant less flight time to Pluto.)
Since its launch nine years earlier in January 2006, New Horizons had traveled some three billion miles.
At the closet point of the flyby, New Horizons was a mere 7,750 miles above Pluto's surface.
It arrived at its destination 86 seconds early, exactly on its desired trajectory. As the speaker and mission leader, Dr. Alan Stern, noted, “That’s like hitting a golf ball from California to New York and having it drop in the cup.”
Stern was the mission’s mastermind; New Horizons was his “baby.” Over the course of almost thirty years, he had argued relentlessly for a mission to Pluto. He secured NASA’s approval and funding, coordinated the broader mission’s timing and planning, overcame one obstacle after another, managed the design and construction of the spacecraft, and finally, monitored all aspects of the journey once underway.
And he was there in Mission Control when the first incredible images of Pluto started to flicker to life on the floor-to-ceiling monitor.
As the spacecraft sent its data bit-by-bit back to Earth over the following year, it became clear that New Horizons was a scientific and engineering marvel. It was redefining our understanding of that planet and our solar system, and adding a critical piece in our understanding of the cosmos and our position in it.
Thirty years. One project. Huge results.
Don’t go there
It was at this point that I started to slip into my own head and listen to that finger-wagging voice, “Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.”
Like New Horizon, I mentally pointed my camera back to where I had come from – not to one career, one effort, one accomplishment like Stern’s – but to the numerous “missions” I had flown. And like Pluto’s geological landscape, my own past was anything but uniform.
True, there were smooth surfaces, like Pluto’s heart-shaped glacier (at right), to which I could point. I’d been involved in the broad field of “education” for almost four decades – first as a teacher, then in various roles with an educational publisher, and now as a coach. It was the river running through every career track and job I’d ever held.
And while I hoped that I had enriched the thinking and actions of others, sitting in that auditorium at that moment, who knew? I couldn’t point metaphorically to anything approaching my own “New Horizon” spacecraft.
Worse yet, I had littered the landscape of my life with impact craters and fissures large and small. I immediately recognized and regretted some of those less-than-beneficial encounters.
“Sorry! Won’t happen again!”
Others would come to me years later in moments of deep self-reflection and honesty.
“I did that then? In that way? What was I thinking – or not thinking?”
To compare or not compare?
As I watched Stern passionately recount his story, I reminded myself that I routinely caution my clients not to compare themselves to others. There are way too many variables.
Holding yourself up to someone else’s mirror doesn’t serve any purpose other than to
Keep you stuck in a pessimistic purgatory: “Why am I not as good, or as smart, or as productive as (name)?”
Or, turn you into a judgmental Judy: “(Name) just never seems to accomplish anything.”
“Playing either of those tapes,” I have pontificated, “is not music to your ears, and never results in long-term health and happiness.”
And now I was playing at least one of them.
As Dr. Stern went on to explain that NASA had just approved New Horizons for five more glorious years of exploration – “It actually has 20 more years of plutonium fuel remaining.” – my own internal guidance system went haywire. I asked what can be – depending on your internal fortitude – the most devastating personal question, the one with the highest potential to throw any life mission off course:
“Up to this point, how meaningful has my life actually been?”
Including the word “actually” robs you of any pretext of not answering truthfully.
Snapping out of it
As Dr. Stern clicked through his last slides, I clicked off the internal finger-wagging. Life is a like a planetary “flyby,” I concluded: You can’t stop and do it over, and you can’t just orbit endlessly where you are with the hope of figuring things out. Life keeps moving, so all you can do is keep moving with it, and periodically point your camera back to assess where you’ve been.
And in those brief moments, “if you want to make comparisons,” I advise my clients, “make them of yourself.”
“How have I been using my ‘flybys’?”
“Am I leaving fewer craters, and how am I learning from the ones I make?”
“What career am I in – what am I doing – that resupplies my own nuclear fuel?”
"And most important, am I continuing to live a life of meaning and value?”
No, I’m not Dr. Alan Stern, I concluded, stabilizing my own spacecraft.
But then most of us aren’t. We go about our chosen work, trying to do our small part to carry out humanity’s mission. We won’t stand in front of a floor-to-ceiling monitor and watch our life’s work unfold pixel by pixel. But we shouldn’t overlook the significant photographs we’re in or take every day.
Later, my friend and I stood in line waiting for Dr. Stern and his co-author to sign our books. One of the event’s docents came up and offered us 3M stickies on which we could write a message that the authors would then personalize in our copies.
Now, looking toward my own horizon, my internal gyro system once again engaged, I started to write.
If it had been you, what inscription would you have asked for?