Attitude: Lessons From an Astronaut

This week I was left in a little bit of a quandary. There is so much to talk about that, well, I wasnt really too sure where to begin or what to pick. We could spend the next ten minutes talking about the brilliant British Association of Sports and Exercise Medicine (BASEM) conference that I attended this Saturday on “Exercise in Health and Disease”. This served up an array of in depth presentations on the levels of physical INactivity, not just in the UK but globally, and, among other key messages, how ‘prescribing exercise’ can help remedy this. The most striking takeway, I must add, before moving on, was learning that low fitness levels have been demonstrated to kill more Americans than smoking, diabetes and obesity combined. For those of you shouting at the screen, demanding this unbelievable statement, type “Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study” in your Internet Search Engine. Now, I could also have spent the next ten minutes talking about my horrendous attempts to Salsa dance on Saturday night. I could say that this was my inspired attempt of increased physical activity after a day of learning about the risks associated with inactivity – but sadly I was pressured into going by my housemates. After a one hour lesson in the middle of a packed salsa bar I was still rubbish, had left one girl actively avoiding me after I nearly snapped her ankle with the giant Timberland boots I was wearing (I had, afterall just come directly from a conference, more than just a little unprepared!), and once the true salsa kings and queens hit the dancefloor, knew that it was time to escape and put the kettle on. I was however asked to dance by one girl. Thinking, well, maybe my moves werent that bad after-all, it turns out I was just the least letchy man in the bar and she felt I was a safe option. Small victories.

But instead of all that, I want to focus on ‘attitude’. If you look up attitude in the English Oxford Dictionary it defines it as “a settle way of thinking or feeling about something”. Our attitudes permeate every facet of our lives from the insignificant daily decisions over what TV show to watch to the significant life changing decisions that we all will encounter with time. It affects how we work, play and interact with others. Our attitudes can often highlight the best in us – and the worst. With time attitudes can change as we gain more insight, information and experience.

Now I am going to be honest – I havent been too happy with my attitude recently. I am, it has to be said, a constant dreamer – I aspire to things that seem, at least at the moment, impossible. That impossibility doesnt put me off, and I would like to think that as I have gotten older I stay more grounded while striving for the seemingly impossible. However, this positive attitude I have also comes hand in hand with my worst trait – impatience. I am an impatient person and I know that everyone who knows me well enough will nod in syncronised agreement. Even I am nodding! That impatience starts to erode little by little into my positive attitude to my goals in life. Things don’t happen as quickly as I would like them to, barriers that are in the way frustrate me, and I have increasingly felt that my head was dropping. That is a difficult thing for me to say, as, despite my seemingly grumpy nature sometimes I am a very positive person – I believe we can all achieve our goals, be happy and inspire each other along the way.

There is a little part of me that hopes you all sort of know what I am experiencing. For attitude is key to how to live our lives – as I was saying earlier – whether that be at work, in play, or in family life. For me, the most concrete example I can give you is work. Without a regular senior house officer, without a regular registrar on the ward, I have felt like a one man team looking after 18 patients. It felt that every job from the smallest to the largest with varying degrees of clinical implication, was resting on me. I know that is a feeling that all junior doctors will likely experience from time to time. And of course in reality there is always support – and I know I can always walk to another ward and ask for help when it is needed – and indeed do. The reality is that I was starting to dread going into work – my attitude was becoming increasingly negative. I would dread the endless barrage of problems, requests, tasks that would start from the minute I walked on the ward. And you know, the funniest sensation of all (for someone who is pretty quiet and likes his time alone), is that it felt lonely – I really felt like a one man team. No man is an island, afterall. Bottom line is that I had developed a negative attitude towards work – and that was poisonous.

That however is changing, I am pleased to say.

Why? Well, I had a few doses of reality checks from a few people and I picked up a book that, currently, I am finding very hard to put down. Nope, it’s not a self help guide by Katie Price or Kerri Katona but a book by a Canadian Astronaut. His name is Chris Hadfield and he has written a book about his career called “An Astraonaut’s Guide To Life: On Earth”. It is just superb. I spent 4 hours with my feet up on Sunday afternoon on the balcony reading it just absorbing each word from each chapter I digested.

astro

Did you know that an astronaut can train their entire lives – put in 1000s of hours of classroom theory, spend months and months away from their family, take endless exams that never stop, constantly learn new skills from a new language (for example if they are going to go to space and live with Russian cosmonauts) to fixing a toilet in zero gravity – and all with the knowledge that they may NEVER actually get to go into space. Why is this relevant to this blog about attitude? Because it takes an unbelievably strong, positive, driven, and grounded attitude to commit to that with the knowledge that you might never make it beyond the Earth’s stratosphere. This man, Chis Hadfield, or Commander Chris Hadfield, I should say, has an attitude that inspires me. He does things in a manner that I would like to think one day I could. Not go to space obviously (!) but apply it to medicine, my life and the people close to me. Let me give you a few examples: firstly there is the time that he knew we was going to apply to a canadian space agency. He spent months preparing his CV and the 500 page documentation of evidence alongside it. Then he thought, what if they were french-canadian? So he translated it all into French – and then ensured he could answer and discuss it all in French. Then there is the time that he was involved with ground control for a new Russian spaceshuttle. Now he new he would never be going up in space in that shuttle but all the same asked to be trained in it (giving up his own personal time) – all so that he could better understand and therefore help the Russians when up in the shuttle. Finally there was the time after his second space flight, 5 years after his first one, that he was told it was unlikely he would ever go up into space again….his attitude was, “well, you never know, so I should be ready” – he continued to train and ELEVEN years later he went up to space again as Commander – all because he always stayed ready and had a positive attitude. What’s more inspiring and brings hope is that, in case you are thinking he was some work-addicted junkie, he had a lovely wife and three children who shared in it all.

So when I now think about my attitude to work, I try and think a little more like that. To be honest, I think I have that innately within me but in the last few weeks it has dipped and I let my head drop. My head is now up, I am looking forward to the challenge that work brings, what I can learn and how I can, more patiently, progress. What I also now what to do is make sure that I do the same for the others around me – my little team down in my basement hospital ward – the nurses, the health care assistants, the physiotherapists etc, the patients – and their families. It might seem silly but it is a brilliant place to work on having the right attitude. It is a place that is stressful, a little chaotic and with daily challenges. I am now, more than ever, determined to be a positive doctor within the NHS, with good skills, and more importantly perhaps, a good attitude – not one who hangs their head, moans about the ‘system’, and sulks at the endless exams. And if ever I feel like I am heading that way again, I will just dip back into Commander Chris Hadfields’s book and re-align my attitude.

And yes, of course, I will be writing to NASA to ask if I can visit and learn a little about space medicine!

Have a positive week, all.

Nick

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