Scientist-Astronaut Candidate Shawna Pandya on Setting Bigger Goals Than You Think You Should

After following her childhood ambitions all the way to space, she still has pinch-me moments.

Dr. Shawna Pandya, astronaut candidate, scientist

Like a lot of kids, I wanted to be an astronaut when I was young. I was inspired by Dr. Roberta Bondar, Canada’s first-ever female astronaut.

Watching her go to space was inspiring for me because I looked at her and I thought, “She’s a Canadian. I’m Canadian. She’s female. I’m female. So now all I need to do is go be a neuroscientist, physician, and astronaut!” In my childhood mind, it was that simple.

The craziest thing about growing up and holding on to those dreams is that you can surpass them in ways you never thought possible. All of the wildest things I dreamed of doing in one form or another, whether it’s skydiving, whether it’s flying zero G—they’ve all come to fruition. And I still have pinch-me moments when I wake up and say, “Holy cow, I get to do this!”

My blueprint has been to pick a goal; work really, really, really hard to get there; and be open to opportunities along the way.

Responding to Critics

There have definitely been people who raised eyebrows at my goals. Part of evolving on an ambitious journey is learning to deal with criticism, learning to take the inputs of others and deciding for yourself which is valid and which isn’t.

On the other side, I’ve also had tremendous support, both from family and friends as well as at a professional level. I’m very lucky in that regard.

To others who face criticism of their dreams, I’d say consider the source. Then, take a moment to evaluate whether the feedback has any validity and any constructive value you can grow from. If it doesn’t, just make like a duck and let it roll right off your back.

Reframing Failure

At every step of the way, you’re always facing new challenges and problems. If you’re not, it might be a sign that you’re taking it a little too easy on yourself.

I’ve had my share of hurdles. I was training as a neurosurgeon before I came to my space life. That was one of my other childhood dreams, but it wasn’t working out. It’s in my DNA to never quit, so leaving that realm and not seeing it through to completion was really at odds with my nature. But from the pivot, I learned what it means to be resilient, what it means to apply those principles of mental toughness. That was really game-changing for me.

Reaching one goal might mean closing a door to another. And learning to reframe your thinking is key because success and failure are not black and white.

You can learn from every success by analyzing the patterns that led you there so you can repeat them in the future. At the same time, failure isn’t absolute. It’s something from which you can learn. Dissect those mistakes, debrief with yourself, and learn to optimize those suboptimal instances going forward.

Overpowering the Inner Critic

My biggest piece of advice is a three-parter: Figure out what it is that you want to do. Work really, really hard to get there. Then act like you belong there because you do—and don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t belong.

I’ve been named to lists of most powerful professional women and other illustrious designations. Every time I get an award like that, I feel imposter syndrome. It’s always an honor, but it’s also an opportunity to grow more and be better. It’s a recognition that I’m a role model and a time for reflection. How can I uplift others as I carry on my journey?

Yes, I experience imposter syndrome too; it’s universal. There are many roles that I’ve been given for which I doubted whether I was the most qualified. Well, someone obviously believes I belong here, I then tell myself. So now it’s my turn to grow into that role and rise to the occasion.

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(Cooper and O’Hara Photography)