What Traveling to Space Can Teach Us About Working and Living on Earth
A common thread for every person who's been there: They've returned 'forever changed.'
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One of the most enduring urges among humanity is our passion to explore the unknown. As humans, we feel a drive to push the boundaries of scientific and technical limits, and when we succeed, to push further.
The ultimate horizon, of course, is our fascination with astronomy and space. Through our insatiable curiosity, we've expanded our technology and created new industries. We've learned about potential risks, history that's influenced our origins, and, of course, we hope to learn where other lives may exist, and, if so, if we can make a peaceful connection.
Fascination with space has reached new heights in the hands of billionaires like Richard Branson, who hovered at the edge of space in July 2021 from his own Virgin Galactic spaceport in New Mexico. After Branson, Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin flew the first unpiloted craft with four civilian passengers further still. Now, Elon Musk and the SpaceX program promise to go beyond that by flying passengers all the way into orbit, allowing them to loop around Earth.
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I spent time with Hall of Fame speaker and multi-best-selling author Dan Clark, one of the few who have experienced this phenomenon in person. After years of contributed service presenting to U.S. service people during their tours of duty, the Air Force provided him the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to soar to the edge of space as a passenger on a U2 reconnaissance aircraft on Oct. 23, 2010. After months of training (including a requirement to lose 40 pounds), Clark was taken on a five-hour sortie that included four hours at the edge of the universe.
The U2's purpose is to be far enough away from the earth's atmosphere to avoid detection by surveillance instruments, at 15-17 miles. It didn't travel to 53 miles, like Branson, or the 66.5 miles Bezos flew. But Clark noted in our conversation that at 70,000 feet (13.25 miles) you can see two-thirds of the state of California. At 80,000 feet (15.15 miles), you see the mapped-out outlines of America. And at 90,000 feet (a bit over 17 miles), you can see the breathtaking curvature of the globe clearly.
It was here, with an unobstructed view of the universe beyond, that Clark's life-changing epiphanies happened. Like Branson, Bezos and even the chief pilot for Virgin Galactica on Branson's 2021 journey, Dan Mackay, Clark returned, he says, entirely changed.
Here's what he learned that should be of interest to every entrepreneur.
Education is an invaluable tool
What we learn, both scholastically and through experience, travels with us through every phase of this life and for whatever future life lies beyond. We should cherish the opportunity to learn, but even more than this, Clark maintains, we should act on the conclusions of our learning.
"We don't learn to "know,'" Clark says, "We learn so we can 'do.'" In the breathtaking environment of space, Clark was reminded that the secret to being a massively successful entrepreneur is to think big — beyond exchanging our time for money. We must exchange ideas for money. There is never a financial crisis, Clark maintains, but only an idea crisis. Ideas create income. As entrepreneurs, our education is most valuable as we convert it into action that can influence our lives and the lives of people who surround us and who follow in our footsteps in the generations to come.
Character is a powerful differentiator
Our character remains the same no matter where we go and no matter who we're in front of, Clark says. He came away from his experience spiritually compelled to live more authentically on stage and off — and whether anyone is watching or not. Clark noted that to an entrepreneur, character is what differentiates us from others. We don't attract who we want; we attract who we are.
While he sat in the "sounds of silence," Clark realized the face of character includes humility enough to submit to living by a higher standard of gratitude, self-discipline and commitment to "service before self."
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Our convictions are the foundation for success
Clark noted that our convictions — our unshakeable beliefs and uncompromising core values — equip us to consistently respond in positive and productive ways to fast change. The world events of 2020 and 2021 are vivid examples of the need to adapt rapidly and under stress we could have never imagined, to keep our families, businesses, employees and communities safe, and to do so in ways that represented our highest convictions and better selves.
Clark emphatically reminded me that for an entrepreneur, our word with eye contact and a handshake must represent our promise to have integrity, loyalty and accountability to every commitment we make.
Our memories and legacies are intertwined
Our memories stay with us and remain an integral part of who we are in the moments of deepest introspection, according to Clark. It is also our memories that give us the deep satisfaction at any moment of knowing that no matter when we pass on, our life has mattered, and we made a difference through the work we do, as opposed to merely making a living.
When Clark asked his pilot what he was thinking during their "high flight," his response was immediate: At that moment, he and Clark were sitting at the highest altitude of any humans in the world, except for the few astronauts living on the space station.
With this perspective, Clark's own new mission transformed into helping individuals and businesses go from successful to significant — to move beyond getting what we believe we want, at the moment, to genuinely wanting what we get, and to live in a way that we don't die with our highest dreams and our "greatest music" still within us.
Related: You've Built a Startup. Now, Build a Legacy.
Clark concluded our chat by noting that for him, his space adventure validated a simple perspective about entrepreneurs. Our purpose, in a nutshell, whether we are self-employed or at the helm of a global corporation, is to find the most unique and innovative ways possible to leave everything we touch and everybody we influence — employees, customers, vendors, partners and the state of our ecosystem and earth — in better shape than we found them.
For the time being, literal trips to space will remain the bastion of billionaire adventurists, the stuff of cinematic fantasy (à la Don't Look Up) or the job opportunity for a few of the fortunate employees of NASA. But all of us can learn from the knowledge that while our lives and even our planet may be tiny in the realm of the cosmos, the influence and meaning we achieve can be vast — the kind of significance that makes us everlasting, regardless of our whereabouts, demographics or political or religious beliefs.