6 Business Lessons from The Martian

Have you read The Martian? If not I’d say it’s probably the most riveting piece of fiction I’ve read…ever.

Spoiler warnings: There will be a few.

To bring you up to speed, in this story, humans are making exploration missions to Mars. On one particular mission, after the crew has landed on Mars, a big storm develops and the mission has to be aborted. As the crew is preparing to   evacuate and leave Mars, one of the astronauts is hit by flying debris and is pushed out of sight in the dust storm. The rest of the crew is unable to locate him in the three minutes they have before their escape launch, and assume he’s dead.

They are forced to leave him.

As you’ve probably guessed, he’s not dead. The astronaut, named Mark, now finds himself alone on Mars with supplies for about 1 year (would have been less, but he no longer has to share supplies with the other astronauts). However, the next mission isn’t scheduled to arrive for another 4 years.

The rest of the story is about our lone ‘Martian’ Mark trying to figure out how to survive indefinitely in an environment with no air, when he was only equipped to stay for a month. Although NASA has wide safety margins, things don’t look promising for Mark.

Problems

As you would imagine, Murphy’s Law sets in, and things break while Mark tries to settle into his new environment, sheltered in a temporary habitat. At one point, an explosion blows the airlock off the habitat, sending the airlock — with him inside — about 20 feet from his habitat. He also smashes the face plate of his space suit, so he no longer has a viable suit for venturing outside his habitat.

When the airlock is blown off the habitat, the whole habitat deflates.

So, what on Mars would you do? (Yup, terrible joke.)

Stop

Some people would charge ahead with their first desperate idea and just simply hope it works. Not our Mark, though. His first step is to thoroughly assess his danger (well, after a bit of swearing at the mission log for 60 seconds). Although the airlock suffered minor damage in the explosion, Mark still has enough air to last him a while, plus his suit will regenerate some of the air in the airlock as needed.

While his situation is still precarious, he’s not in any immediate danger and has time to properly assess his situation.

Mark takes that time. He sits down and decides to cut the arm off his suit, use the arm piece to patch the mask, then seal the arm hole. That gets him a viable space suit, so then it’s just a matter of getting his spare suit in the habitat, using it to reach the rover outside, which was brought along on his crew’s mission. This rover has full pressure and air for a few days, which will buy him enough time to fix the habitat so he has his livable space back.

So that’s what he does. Cuts off the arm of the space suit, patches the mask, and seals the arm hole closed. Then he rolls the airlock towards the habitat and when he’s as close as possible, he takes the big risk of running around with the 4 minutes of air he has in his leaky space suit.

Think about this:  If Mark had decided to blaze ahead with his first idea, before taking a few minutes to assess his situation, do you think he would have lived?

Whats the alternative to something dangerous?

On Mars pretty much anything can kill you. Death just comes more quickly with some things than others.

Case in point, lack of water. While Mark has a supply of food and water, he doesn’t have enough to last him 4 years. In his food supply, he does have a few fresh potatoes, sent along as a ‘special’ meal for the astronauts. Mark knows he could use these to grow more potatoes and possibly extend his food supply. But of course, plants need water to grow, therefore Mark would need to be able to produce water with what he has on hand. Basically that involves burning rocket fuel to separate out the hydrogen, then combine the hydrogen with oxygen.

Hey, did you know that rocket fuel is really, really flammable? It’s likely to explode all over when you put flame to it, which Mark has to do in order to separate the hydrogen.

Of course the alternative is to…well, die of starvation in 400 days.

So Mark faces the risk of dying quickly in a huge explosion, or later from starvation.

A second great example of the ever-apparent danger on Mars is when Mark needs to test drive the rover. He needs the rover for transportation to explore his surroundings, and later, to reach an escape vehicle 3000 km away (more on that in a bit). But he runs into an issue when he realizes he can’t run the heater in the rover. Evidently Mars is somewhere around –48° C, which is pretty cold. Unfortunately, the heater requires a lot of power, which means if he runs the heater, he’ll only be able to travel half the distance he could without the heater.

Well, it so happens there’s an atomic generator from the original landing craft laying around, and in addition to producing power it also produces a lot of heat, all the time. It also happens to be highly dangerous. The only time astronauts are ever near this generator is when they land near the escape vehicle (which was dropped years earlier). One of the first things Mark needs to do is move this generator far away from his habitat. You know, just in case it explodes.

So, Mark of course is finally successful in getting the generator and using it to heat the rover, which makes NASA have a fit since it’s all dangerous and stuff. They’re scared of the potential for an explosion, but Mark’s looking at the very real possibility of simply freezing — or never escaping Mars — so the explosion risk seems worth taking.

What are you afraid of? What are the real consequences of the danger you face? Is the outcome inevitable? Does one perceived solution merely delay the inevitable? Is one alternative that you would actually solve your problem and eliminate the danger?

If so, jump out and try it then. Stop being scared of ambiguous potentially bad situations.

Start right away, don’t wait

As I mentioned above, there happens to be an exit vehicle there on Mars. This is a vehicle Mark’s crew brought with them, to be used by the crew of the next mission scheduled to arrive in 4 years.

While Mark is actively working on his survival plan, NASA and Mark’s crew figure out a way for the crew to turn around, return to Mars and rescue Mark. But in order for them to do this, Mark needs to reach the exit vehicle, which will provide his escape.

So he modifies the rover, which will serve as his main transportation vehicle. He’s able to modify a second rover, loading it with tools and supplies he’ll need both for the journey, and to enter the escape vehicle.

Right near the end, as Mark has almost reached the escape vehicle, he rolls his rover and the trailer it’s pulling. This seems like a pretty bad deal, and from Mark’s perspective, inside the rover, it feels like a big bad deal, since well…the rover is on its side and it’s not supposed to be on its side.

After a full night of sleep and some assessment time Mark realizes his situation really isn’t as bad as it looks. Everything in the main rover still works, and nothing in the trailer seems to have broken.

What looks like a really bad situation is actually just a problem that’s going to take a bit of time to solve. Apply some leverage to one rover, dig a hole and tow the other rover. Move some towing parts from the trailer to the rover and he’s back on his way to get rescued.

The thing is, if he had hung around the habitat ‘resting’ and waited a few days to leave, he would have ended up in a bad way. He wouldn’t have had the time to assess his situation, run diagnostics, and fix things properly.

But he didn’t waste any time. He finished the work to modify the rover, tested it and ran some checks, then left with many days to spare. If he’d waited, he would have potentially missed his rescue.

All that really happened was some bumps and bruises from the rolling and the loss of a few days getting it fixed. He still had time to meet his rescuers when they arrived.

He didn’t leave things until the last second; he remained proactive. Double-checked as he went along, and then kept going with the next step.

I know way too many business owners who start a project and feel like they’re getting ahead so they slack. Then they end up in a huge rush at the last second, leaving no room for problems that might come up. Problems they don’t have time for, but they’ve left themselves no options and the deadline looms.

Don’t be a slacker. If you have to pull an all-nighter to finish a project and meet your deadline, it’s likely due to your own poor planning.

First things first

While Mark was busy working on his survival and rescue plan, his crew was facing their own challenge. Although they’d figured out a way to return to Mars and pick him up, the flight path of Mark’s escape vehicle was wildly off course, so when the crew landed, they would be 68 km out of reach of him.

What’s the first problem there? The fact that they’re 68 km away. Their best solution is to fire some adjustment thrusters, knowing they’ll be going so much faster than Mark’s ship, though, which means they simply can’t pick him up, even though they’ll be in close proximity to him for a second.

So the first problem is that they’re 68 km away, not that they’re going too fast.

So the crew begins by tackling the first problem, figuring out how to get within a few meters of Mark’s escape vehicle.

Then they tackle the next problem — their approach speed. With their focus on this issue, they figure out how to slow their vehicle down enough that they don’t just blow past his ship.

They didn’t wait to execute the maneuver that would get them closer to Mark until they solved the speed issue. They tackled the first problem first, then worried about the next problem.

What’s the takeaway for us here on Earth, dealing with everyday problems? Figure out a solution to the first problem and implement it. Then work on a solution to the next issue that comes up. By the way, this was also a big theme of The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking — find a problem and fix it then find the next one.

Don’t get caught up in trying to solve everything at once, or anticipate every issue possible. Solve the immediate danger then identify any other potential dangers. Get started, because no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Humour is your friend

Humour is your friend. Throughout the ordeal Mark keeps his sense of humour. When he gets in contact with NASA and they tell him to watch his language (because all communications are public), his juvenile reply is ‘Boobies’ simply because he finds it funny.

He also declares himself the King of Mars as well as a Space Pirate, because he’s going to open and get in the rescue vehicle before he can be given an order to do so. Technically, he’s boarding a vessel without authorization, which makes him a pirate….a Space Pirate.

He also tires of the units of measurement that are standard for NASA and starts calling them ‘Pirate Ninjas’. Simply because it’s a whole lot more fun to say and think about than some obtuse scientific term.

Mark keeps his sense of humor when all the while, one small mistake could cost him his life.

When you’re in the thick of a problem do you stop and find some humour? How do you lighten the mood a bit and reduce stress? If you don’t find a bit of humour, why on earth not?

Were not on Mars

Add to all that, we’re not on Mars. For me, killing a site mean, at most, the client loses some money. Nobody dies. Really, what is the worst that can happen to us designers and developers if things really go wrong?

Yet so many of us go around acting as if the risks in our business are akin to death. We’re not performing surgery, or offshore fishing, or underwater welding, where mistakes can mean instant death for us or our coworkers. We type text in to computers, and things happen on the web or we push pixels around in Photoshop.

We have valuable jobs to be sure. We make information accessible in ways past generations couldn’t even dream of. We help people earn money from their home so they can continue to hang out with their families.

But nobody dies when things go wrong, so keep some perspective.

Takeaways

  1. Stop and assess the actual first problem. The one that looks like the biggest problem (like an airlock no longer attached to the habitat) may not be the real problem that can kill you.
  2. Find that first problem and fix it. Then figure out the next issue and fix that. Don’t get caught up in end-to-end solutions before you even start. A plan never survives contact with reality.
  3. What’s the alternative to that risky thing? Maybe it is a risk and will result in failure, but if otherwise, failure just takes longer you’re still faced with the same outcome. Dive into the dangerous then.
  4. Don’t wait once you’re ahead; keep going and stick to the schedule. Don’t get ahead and then get lazy. It will only result in big pain later when things don’t go as planned.
  5. Lighten up, right now. Getting a step away from the problem or keeping a sense of humour helps with your own morale, and you need to be thinking straight to have good solutions to problems.
  6. While things seem bad, put it in perspective. Nobody dies if we make mistakes and you need to remember that when you’re in the thick of an issue. Perspective helps.

photo credit: 64787983@N03 cc

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