Throughout his extraordinary career, British astronaut Tim Peake has drawn on his agility, resilience and flexible mindset to navigate an array of challenges. In this exclusive interview, he discusses the importance of self-awareness and leadership with Mary Appleton.
It was a surprise to learn that Tim Peake never actually dreamed of becoming an astronaut as a boy, despite pondering the ‘big questions’.
“When I looked up in the sky, I did always wonder, ‘where do we come from and why are we here?’ I just didn’t think that was a career path that was available to me,” he admits, when we meet via Zoom, ahead of his appearance at our Future Talent Conference.
However, after a successful career as a military helicopter test pilot and British Army Air Corps officer, he seized the chance to live aboard the International Space station (ISS) for 186 days – and a unique opportunity to ponder these questions further.
“Watching Earth from space gives you an appreciation of humanity and who we are as a species,” he says. “The consciousness of the universe is quite incredible when you’re on a spacewalk. You think ‘I shouldn’t be here; this is so unreal. I’m a conscious being, looking down on the cradle of life as we know it, on Earth’. It’s amazing.”
It was towards the end of his army career, in 2009, that Peake spotted an advert from the European Space Agency (ESA) “seeking new talents to reinforce its astronaut team”. He applied, becoming one of six candidates selected to visit the ISS from more than 8,000 hopefuls.
After six years of intense training, Peake’s Principial mission began in December 2015, launching from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (the site of Russian launches since the dawn of the space age). Alongside two crewmates (Tim Kopra of NASA and Yuri Malenchenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency) Peake worked 14-hour days, undertaking a spacewalk to repair the space station’s power supply, and undertaking a total of 250 experiments for ESA and international partners, including 30 tests on his own body.
"If you’re the kind of person who is able to self-reflect and willing to accept weaknesses and address them, then you can work on them and improve"
Not only did visiting space help shift Peake’s perspective about the fragility of Earth, the ‘bigger picture’ he gained meant he wanted to use his new-found status to inspire others, particularly around the environment and education.
“Before I became an astronaut, I was a very private individual,” he admits. “But when you’re given a platform and a voice, I think it’s important to use that for the benefit of the things that you’re passionate about. I want to bring some positivity to everybody’s lives.
“Not everyone can go into space, but if they could, it would change them. So if I can try and bring a little bit of that back to Earth, and educate people, then that to me is an important goal.”
What Peake exudes in abundance is an enthusiasm and a hunger for learning. Throughout his career, much focus has been placed on developing the soft skills and mental agility to help him to embrace change and work effectively with others. During our discussion, he continually highlights the importance of “sweating the small stuff” and having a flexible and positive attitude.
"The psychological preparation for going into an unusual environment or stressful situation is absolutely critical; frankly, it’s critical for adapting to change in any workplace"
“We are taught to normalise the abnormal, and accept unusual circumstances,” explains Peake. “The Soyuz capsule is a tiny, claustrophobic, terrible space, but if you went in there feeling panicked or thinking, ‘gosh, I just had my last breath of fresh air and now I’m trapped,’ you wouldn’t be able to function or do your job. Change is inevitable and we have to be able to cope with that.”
Fear of change can impinge on our success, he warns, so we must be confident about our own abilities and potential. This involves having the ‘tools’ (“a depth of knowledge alongside soft skills”) to start broadening our horizons and to think laterally; being open to continuous learning is a must.
But he also stresses the importance of enjoying one’s own career journey: “I’ve seen people take a torturous path to achieve their early dreams – and then when they got to the final stage, they realised they didn’t enjoy the destination either. I think it’s important to be really true to yourself and enjoy the journey through life. And perhaps not worry so much about where it takes you. Life is a journey of exploration and learning.”
Tim Peake talks life lessons
On preparing for the unknown
This is one of the most crucial things you have to do as a test pilot and as an astronaut. Essentially, it’s about focusing on risk mitigation in painstaking detail; evaluating all possible scenarios and having a plan for every one of them.
There’s no substitute for attention to detail – it helps you generate options. We tend to fear the unknown, but as soon as we have a plan for what to do if something goes wrong, fear is removed. We can go into a situation with confidence because we have a number of options that we know we can employ.
On dealing with change
The overriding strategy when dealing with uncertainty should always be something that’s more stable; you’re working towards that strategy and you adapt your tactical operations to fit with it.
On the space station, so much could go wrong, which would force us to change the way that we operated, but the strategy and the collaboration wouldn’t change. These are the things that we build on that give us strength; they give us the framework to be able to deal with uncertainty. So we would focus on controlling the things that we could control, forcing a positive outcome or not worrying about the things that we couldn’t control.
If you’re the kind of person who is able to self-reflect and willing to accept weaknesses and address them, then you can work on them and improve. Addressing your weaknesses is as important as highlighting your strengths.
If you’re not naturally gifted at working with others, those skills can be learned. But you will have to work at it, while being cognisant of your own strengths and weaknesses
On having an agile mindset
Astronauts undertake training in extreme environments, such as living in a cave or underwater for 12 days. This is where we really analyse the psychological impact of what we’re about to do and the environment we’re going to work in.
There are a number of stressors that you can put on people to see how they respond; in a cave, you’re wet, cold, tired, hungry. Even time can be removed from you by taking away your watch. When you can no longer hide from those stressors, your true personality comes out. It’s a huge learning experience as an individual, and as a team, because you get to understand how other people perform under those conditions as a collective.
The psychological preparation for going into an unusual environment or stressful situation is absolutely critical; frankly it’s critical for adapting to change in any workplace.
Unless you put yourself in challenging situations, you’ll never develop the skills to cope with change. By putting ourselves into difficult conditions, we learn the skills that give you confidence in the future.
On the importance of practice
Practice and repetition are very important, particularly with things like emergency procedures – practising them over and over drills them into you until they are a muscle memory. There are certain things that have to be dealt with like that because we know how the body performs under very stressful circumstance.
When you’re plunged into stressful circumstances, the subconscious is very powerful and will often take over. So if you have practised something repeatedly, that’s drilled into you.
When it came to the scientific activities on board the space station, we would encourage more discussion and a free-thinking philosophy, where we could evaluate an experiment, feed results back, and then adapt to a changing circumstance if necessary. We had prepared to adapt, improvise and innovate and not necessarily follow the checklist.
It’s interesting that you have these two different skill sets which are both very important, both apply at different times, but having the ability to know when to apply one skill set, and when to apply the other, is key.
On teamwork and transition
If you’re not naturally gifted at working with others, those skills can be learned. But you will have to work at it, while being cognisant of your own strengths and weaknesses. A lot of my training has focused on that.
On board the space station, the hardest change is when crews swap over, which for us happened half-way through our mission. Being together for six whole months as a team of three means you get to know each other extremely well and get into a rhythm of working.
But when you face transition, things can change, especially if you have strong teams coming together. You have to integrate those different teams and come to a common understanding of how things happen. So that’s always a point where friction can arise and compromises have to be made.
That’s the most interesting part of a mission from a psychological, teamwork and collaboration perspective. We train an awful lot to make sure it goes smoothly and ensure we have the soft skills to be able to deal with that.
On collaboration and communication
On board the ISS, we have to work with Mission Control, which takes close collaboration to make sure that all goes smoothly and effectively.
You can face very interesting situations where the crew on board may disagree with the way that Mission Control wants something to work. You have to talk through those problems; communicate what you’re experiencing in space and why you think it should be done differently. And, of course, Mission Control has a host of other priorities that they’re trying to integrate.
So you have two different teams coming together, trying to collaborate and compromise, but it’s all about soft skills, it’s all about communication, and I think that as long as you remember you’re all working towards a common goal, to find a good resolution to the problem, you will get there in the end.
On emotional intelligence
You have to be sympathetic to everybody in your team; no two individuals are the same. As a leader, you need to be aware of that. There’s no substitute for really knowing the people in your team, and that means knowing about their families, their hobbies, their sports, knowing what things cause them stress, what things cause them pleasure and how they like to relax. By understanding everybody, you can then work out how best to relate to them under stressful circumstances.
Leadership is such a big topic; far fewer people talk about followership, but it’s a real skill. You need to appreciate what you can contribute to your team and inject that at the right moment. You need to anticipate the stresses that the leader or team might be under, and understand how you play your part. It’s a selfless role – you’re not as visible as the leader, but it’s so important for an effective team to make sure that everybody is playing their part.
When we’re living in a cave for seven days, we have a different leader each day, but the people who are really being evaluated are the followers: how did they support their leader? What could they have done better? How do they anticipate things? Some people think “I’m not in a leadership role, I can relax”, but that’s the day you need to be switched on. We focus a lot on that, which was quite interesting for me as my previous military career had placed so much emphasis on leadership.
Spending more time thinking about the flip side of the leadership coin is useful in the workplace too. If you can appreciate what you need to do at the right time to make everything gel and work together, you can be so much more powerful and effective.
Tim Peake’s autobiography, Limitless, was published last month, charting his road to becoming an astronaut. Based on exclusive diaries and video recordings from his mission, it takes readers closer than ever before to experiencing what life in space is really like.