Did You Mess Up? Use This Astronaut’s “30-Second Rule” to Feel Better and Refocus

Did You Mess Up? Use This Astronaut’s “30-Second Rule” to Feel Better and Refocus

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As a NASA astronaut, I’ve had the opportunity to do amazing things — and to screw up in big ways. To get through the losses, I’ve adopted something called the Thirty-Second Rule.

For me, the rule goes like this: When you make a mistake, give yourself 30 seconds of regret. Take a time-out. Feel miserable. Berate yourself. Beat yourself up. Say all the horrible things to yourself that you want to say — only, you know, do it silently in your head so you don’t scare the people sitting next to you.

Because regret is natural. Disappointment is natural. It isn’t healthy to suppress those feelings or deny they exist. You need to let yourself have them. But keep it to thirty seconds. Then it really is time to move on. After your thirty-second rant, let it go. Leave the regret in the past because it will not help you in the future. It’s time to move on with the task at hand and with the mission in general. Your team needs you totally engaged and back in the game to help solve whatever problem you’re tackling.

Learning that lesson from fellow astronaut Megan McArthur was especially important for me, too. Megan was one of those astronauts I put up on a pedestal. She’d been accepted into the Astronaut Program on her first try, when she was only twenty-eight, which is almost unheard of. NASA chose her before she’d even finished her PhD — that’s how badly they wanted her. Megan is brilliant, capable, and terrific to work with. She’s the kind of person you look at and say, “I could never do what she does. She’s perfect.”

But she’s not perfect. She’s just found the best tools to manage her imperfections, and the Thirty-Second Rule is one of them. Once she taught it to me, I got much better at dealing with and moving on from my mistakes. I wasn’t wasting a week, or even a day, when I messed something up. Which was good, because I’d soon make a huge error — breaking the Hubble Space Telescope way out in the bottomless void of space.

This happened during a 2009 flight called STS-125. I stripped the screw on the handrail in an attempt to repair the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph on Hubble. That was a big problem.

After I reported what I had done to mission control in Houston, and as they scrambled to deal with my screwup, I got hit by a tsunami of shame, guilt, disbelief, and regret. We rarely feel more alone than when we mess up. It leaves us isolated and exposed. It’s bad enough doing that on Earth. Now imagine doing it 350 miles up in space.

I felt sick. I’d squandered years of planning and dedication by the entire Hubble team. I’d flushed millions of dollars of taxpayer money down the drain. My children would now go through life as the kids whose father broke the Hubble Space Telescope. That would be my legacy.

The one overriding thought in my mind was that I needed a time machine. All I needed was to go back. All I needed was a do-over. Of course, once you find yourself thinking that way, that’s the moment regret has started working against you. Because time only moves forward, and it’s pointless to sit and wish for the impossible. Once you start wishing for a do-over, that’s when you know it’s time to move on.

Fortunately, I knew how. We may not have had a backup plan to deal with the stripped bolt on the handrail, but while my team on the ground scrambled to figure that out, I did have the Thirty-Second Rule to deal with myself. I paused, looked down at Earth, set a mental timer for thirty seconds, and started my regret.

For thirty seconds I let it all loose. I beat the crap out of myself. “Mike, you idiot. You moron! How could you have messed up something so simple? Why did you not think about this problem before the mission? You were rushing the easy stuff because you got too fixated on what you thought was the harder stuff.” And on and on and on.

Then, once the thirty seconds was up, I let it go. I’d had my little wallow in self-pity, and now it was time to leave my mistake in the past and be a good teammate and help come up with a solution. We figured out that ripping the handrail off might work, it did, and the rest of the space walk went right according to plan. The STIS came back to life, and the search for life in the universe continued.

Every day, in our professional lives and in our personal lives, we are given opportunities to make mistakes. We don’t want to make them, but no matter how much we prepare and how hard we try to be perfect, they’re inevitable. The mistakes I used to beat myself up for were actually a very valuable part of my astronaut training, because making them taught me how to recover from making them. I learned that no mistake is insurmountable, but a bad response to a mistake can be fatal.

When you mess up and find yourself feeling horrible about it, remember the Thirty-Second Rule: Beat yourself up. Let yourself have it. Wallow in your regret. But keep it to thirty seconds. Then, no matter how hard it might be, leave it in the past and move on. Concentrate on what’s ahead and what you can do to help. Try to stay positive, no matter how badly you messed up, and give yourself an opportunity for redemption.

So, what’s a good way to spend those thirty seconds? Here are my suggestions:

  • Call yourself names. I’m fond of “I am so stupid.” Or “You idiot! How could you have done that?” “Bonehead” works, too.
  • Identify the regret so you’ll know exactly what you’re mad about instead of being mad about everything. “I should have thought more about our plan.” Or “I should’ve checked the situation more closely before acting.” Or “Why didn’t I think about the consequences before I did that?”
  • As you’re coming out of the regret, kick yourself good and hard so you won’t let it happen again. “If I get out of this one, I’ll be more careful in the future to never make that mistake again.”

And voilà! The thirty seconds of regret are now over. Leave that mistake in the past and move on because your team is going to need you to help solve the problem you just created.

This essay is an adapted excerpt from MOONSHOT: A NASA Astronaut’s Guide to Achieving the Impossible by Mike Massimino. Copyright © 2023. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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