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Astronaut Twins Tell #ASAE16 Attendees to "Do the Hard Thing"

By / Aug 14, 2016 Retired astronaut Scott Kelly, left, with his brother Mark, who (as it turns out) is also a retired astronaut. (photo by Jason Keen and Nick Hagen)

On Sunday morning, opening keynoters Mark and Scott Kelly galvanized thousands of #ASAE16 attendees with stories recounting their dual rise to space and encouragement to avoid taking the easy route.

Astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly kicked off the 2016 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition on Sunday with a double-act keynote speech that encouraged association professionals to rise to challenges, persist despite failure, and embrace “doing the hard thing.”

Surrounded by projected images of stars and planets and viewing photos taken from Scott Kelly’s recent year spent on the International Space Station, thousands of attendees heard how the lessons the brothers learned as fighter pilots and astronauts resonate in nearly all walks of life, including association management.

How good you are at the beginning of anything you try is not a good indicator of how good you can become.

The identical twins born in 1964—Mark is six minutes older than Scott, a point the two repeatedly sparred over in jest—said they owe their success, including their combined 550-some days in outer space, to the example of their mother, a New Jersey secretary and waitress-turned-police officer.

They recalled that in the 1970s, aspiring cops were required to pass a grueling physical fitness test, which included climbing over a seven-foot wall. Night after night, the young brothers watched their mother attempt to traverse a replica wall their father had built. After months of practice, she finally did it, in half of the allotted time—and later became one of the first female police officers in that part of the state.

“This was one of the first times in our lives that we saw the power of having a goal and a plan—and what it meant to work really, really hard,” Mark said.

Years later, Scott would become a Navy captain and go on to pilot four space flights, including one that lasted 340 days—a journey that ended when he returned to Earth in March. Mark would fight in the Gulf War as a naval aviator and serve as a NASA space shuttle pilot on four missions.

But when they’re asked what they loved best about their time in space, Scott said, they don’t respond with the launch, the landing, or the view—but rather with the opportunity to accomplish something that was hard.

“That’s what we’d like to talk with you about today,” Scott said. “Doing hard things—and how to successfully accomplish that. We want to talk about having a goal and having a plan with very small manageable steps, about—at times—testing the status quo, about taking risks and not being afraid to make mistakes, and about how, if you work as a team, you can accomplish anything.”

Overcoming setbacks and failures comes with that territory, the brothers said. During his Navy flight training, as he struggled to master difficult skills, Mark was repeatedly asked by his superiors, “Are you sure this career is for you? You didn’t do well.”

But he persevered—and learned a valuable lesson.  “How good you are at the beginning of anything you try is not a good indicator of how good you can become,” he said. “I’m a prime example of somebody who was able to overcome a lack of aptitude with practice, persistence, and just not giving up.”

Another important lesson came several years later when Mark found himself in an A-6 Intruder airplane about to drop eight 1,000-pound bombs in Iraq. As he maneuvered the aircraft to dodge surface-to-air missiles, his bombardier navigator kept his sights on the target—his main responsibility on the mission. While Mark’s alarm grew over the possibility of a missile strike, his navigator stayed calmly focused on his target.

“In the Navy and at NASA, we call that compartmentalization,” Mark says. “Focusing on the stuff that you can control.”

Scott learned that same lesson as the commander aboard the International Space Station, when he got word that Mark’s wife, then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, had been shot at a community event in Tucson. He had two months remaining in his space mission, with no possibility of coming home to comfort his loved ones.

“I had to understand that I really couldn’t help [Mark] … and I really needed to focus on what I could control and ignore what I couldn’t,” Scott said.

Several years later, when Scott was departing from the Space Station for the last time, after spending 500 days of his life there, he reflected on it: “If we can do that—the hardest thing that we have ever done—we can do anything.”

Emily Bratcher

Emily Bratcher is a Contributing Editor for Associations Now. More »

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