There is a very clear difference between what you do and what you choose to be. Very few people understand that difference, and those who understand will go places that others only dream of.
In this post, I want to show you that asking yourself “what you want to be when you grow up” isn’t nearly as important as asking yourself “what am I passionate about today?”
And I’m going to show you how one of the most famous men in America battled with that question for 22 years before he walked on the moon.
When I was a kid, I thought I wanted to be an astronaut.
Taking a trip to outer space was every kid’s dream. Looking up at the stars, imagining themselves looking down on the Earth from a space ship, 60 miles above the surface… I was fascinated by the Final Frontier.
I did a lot of research on astronauts. As a six year old, my encyclopedia was more worn than most kids’ comic books. I watched videos of rocket launches, and then I went out and built my own model rockets.
But the more I learned and the more I dreamed, the more I got this nagging feeling of self-doubt. “You can’t be an astronaut,” it said. And that got me thinking. Was I really cut out to be an astronaut? I started making all sorts of excuses for why I couldn’t be one. I wore glasses. I had asthma. I was overweight.
I had reached a crucial point in my budding astronaut career.
Seth Godin calls it the dip. It’s that point where the high of getting started on a new project wears off and reality starts to catch up to you. It’s the point where the work starts to get hard.
“If something is worth doing, there’s probably a dip.” – Seth Godin
When I learned what it took to become an astronaut, I hit my dip. I was in fifth grade, pondering a decision that most adults aren’t mature enough to ask themselves. Do I have the guts to see this through?
Since you’re getting to know me in this blog and not from the news, you can probably guess what my answer was.
I wanted the result of flying in space, but I wasn’t committed to the process that would make it happen. My dream of looking down through a tiny, round window as the Earth lay sprawled out below me was an infatuation. I didn’t want to be an astronaut. I just wanted to do what an astronaut did.
A lesson in walking on the moon from the first man to do it.
Let me tell you a story of a man who did commit to breaking through the dip–Neil Armstrong. More than forty years after setting foot on the moon, Armstrong continues to be the envy of aspiring little astronauts all over the world.
But most people pick up his story near its climax, with the words “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” What few people care to read about is the back story about how he got there in the first place.
It took Armstrong 22 years to reach the Moon.
Armstrong walked on the Moon in 1969, but his story starts more than 20 years prior when he entered Purdue University as an aerospace engineering student 1947. He went in on a Navy scholarship which required him to start his degree, serve for two years in the Navy, and then return to finish his degree.
If there was ever a man who must have battled the dip, it was Armstrong. The 22 years from the time he enrolled in school to the time he set foot on the moon were filled with hard work, dedication, perseverance, and a good bit of luck.
He started studying engineering at Purdue in 1947. He was an average student with a wildly fluctuating GPA.
He was called to active duty in the Korean War in 1949. He flew fighter planes as an escort to recon planes over North Korea.
During the war, his plane was shot down by anti aircraft fire and he was forced to eject over open water.
He received his B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from Purdue in 1955. He wanted to become an experimental research pilot, but there were no open positions. He took a job flying chase planes at Edwards AFB.
Persistence paid off, and he flew his first experimental plane in 1957. He logged 2,450 flying hours–and he even crashed a few multi-million-dollar aircraft.
His wife, Karen, died of a tumor on her brain stem in 1962. The couple had three children together.
He submitted his application to participate in a second round of recruitment for NASA astronauts. His application arrived a week late, but a close personal friend working in the Manned Spacecraft Center noticed the application and slipped it into the pile unnoticed.
He was one of nine astronauts invited to join the program. He flew the Gemini missions, becoming the third man to walk in space, and the first to dock two spacecraft together.
And then he got lucky–again.
When it came time for the U.S. to put a man on the Moon, Armstrong happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Armstrong joined the Apollo program in 1967. What most people don’t know is that during the Apollo missions, flight crews rotated with each mission and there were several attempts before Armstrong was up.
In training for Apollo 1, several crew members died when they were trapped in a fire during a training exercise. Apollo 4 through 7 were test missions. Apollo 8 orbited the Moon ten times, but couldn’t land because the lunar module wasn’t ready for go. Apollo 10 tested the lunar module, descending to 15.6 kilometers from the Moon’s surface without touching down.
And Armstrong just happened to be named commander of Apollo 11, the first mission to actually land on the Moon.
Armstrong wasn’t meant to be the first man out.
Technically, according to protocol, Buzz Aldrin was supposed to be the first man on the moon. But in rehearsal for the “real deal,” they realized that in order for Aldrin to be the first man out, that he would have to climb over Armstrong–fully suited up–to reach the hatch.
So on July 20, 1969, Armstrong became perhaps one of the luckiest men in human history. He happened to be in the right place at the right time, over and over again–luck that he created for himself by being determined and persistent in his line of work.
For Armstrong, it wasn’t about walking on the Moon.
It wasn’t even about being an astronaut. Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the Moon because he was fascinated by flight.
It was a fascination with flying and a deeply rooted desire to pursue that passion that led him to engineering. That same fascination led him to flying fighter jets, then to flying experimental aircraft, and then to training to become an astronaut.
That’s what kept him going through the dips. He was shot down in North Korea. He was an average student. He was turned down for a job as a research pilot. He wrecked aircraft. His wife died of cancer. He missed the deadline for NASA’s call for astronauts.
But his fascination of flight kept him going.
And do you know what he did after he returned to Earth after becoming the first man to walk on the moon? He went back to earn his Masters’ in Aerospace Engineering from USC.
The secret to loving what you do is pursue what fascinates you.
I’ve personally learned a lesson from Armstrong’s story. You’ll never know what you want to be when you grow up. Instead, focus on who you are, right here, right now. Pursue what is meaningful to you in the moment.
People become blinded by “professions” and “degrees.” They think that, in order to teach, they need to go to school to become a teacher. That’s bullshit. If you want to teach, teach. Become a tutor. Start teaching workshops in an area that you’re passionate about. You don’t have to “become a teacher” in order to teach.
If I want to fly, I can take flying lessons. For $112k, I can own my own plane. I don’t need to spend years of training to “become a pilot” to do so.
And if you want to stare down at the Earth through a tiny window from 60 miles above its surface, you’ll soon be able to book a flight for $200,000. (It’s on my list of things to do.)
Don’t let yourself be driven by what you want to do. Let yourself be driven by what fascinates you. If something sticks, then commit yourself to becoming the best in the world at that one thing. But if you don’t have the dedication to work though the dip like Armstrong did time and time again, have the guts to say “this isn’t right” and move on.
Don’t worry about what you want to do. Find who you want to be.
What gets you out of bed in the morning? What makes you say to yourself, “Yeah… That’s what I’m supposed to be doing with my life”?
For me, it’s part figuring out how things work, and then teaching others. It’s part challenging people’s perceptions of what is possible and what is not. It’s part inspiring others to become better than they are.
My friend, Ryan, is an engineering student at NC State University. Who knows… Maybe he’ll be the next man on the moon.