Would you aim to be a zero?

Have you ever read something that is so counter-intuitive that you have to go back and read it again?

That happened to me recently whilst reading Chris Hadfield‘s book ‘An astronaut’s guide to life on Earth‘.

Chapter nine is entitled ‘Aim to be a zero‘.

Zero is not usually a number we equate with success. Why would we aim to be zero? Chris Hadfield explains his thinking thus:

Over the years, I’ve realised that in any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.’

Okay, it’s becoming clearer to me now. However, surely we all want to be a plus one, don’t we?

‘Everyone wants to be a plus one, of course. But proclaiming your plus-oneness at the outset almost guarantees you’ll be perceived as minus one, regardless of the skills you bring to the table or how you actually perform.’

What’s Hadfield talking about here? Perhaps you’ve had a new manager join your team and she rushes straight into making sweeping changes to demonstrate the fresh thinking she’s bringing in to the organisation – this could go one of two ways. Maybe she’s amazingly perceptive, can assess the situation at a glance and her changes are welcomed. Alternatively, in a bid to showcase the value she’s bringing, she hasn’t taken the time to observe and evaluate the team and the changes she makes have a detrimental impact: she’s just become a minus one.

Hadfield points out that this desire to be a plus one isn’t always based on arrogance: it can also be based on an eagerness to please. Either way, in an attempt to be a plus one, it’s easy to become a minus one.

From the examples Chris Hadfield describes, it seems that the best way to become a plus one is to aim to be a zero: that is, to be competent, engaged with your work, and to be humble enough not to consider yourself better than others.

How do we aim to be a zero?

We could start by asking ourselves questions like these:

  • How can I integrate myself into this team/organisation/relationship without being disruptive?
  • Do I have enough information to assess the situation?
  • How can I help?
  • How can I free up other people’s time to allow them to best exercise their skills?
  • What can I learn?

Aiming for zero is easier if we feel confident in our own abilities and that we are being true to ourselves and our values.

Lest you think that Chris Hadfield is too good to be true, he points out that he does have to work at being a zero:

‘Still, I’m human. I like recognition and I like feeling that others consider me a plus one. Which is why, as we approached the ISS on December 21, 2012, I consciously reminded myself to aim to be a zero once we got inside. Back home, it was a big deal that I was going to be the first Canadian commander of the ISS. Up here, there already was someone in charge: Kevin Ford, who would continue as commander until he left 10 weeks later and handed over to me.’

In summary, whilst it may seem counter-intuitive to aim for the middle ground, it seems like it may actually be the path to adding real value wherever we find ourselves.

Today’s pebble to ponder: how do you feel about aiming to be a zero? 


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to transform your work or your life, why not email me to see how we can work together?

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One Response to Would you aim to be a zero?

  1. Pingback: Why should we sweat the small stuff? | Turning over pebbles

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