Be a Zero

I recently read a book called “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” by Chris Hadfield, and man….I can only say: read this book! It’s very inspirational and very educational about how going to space works. The author manages to transform space-related things he learned into practical advice you can apply here on Earth. It is safe to say I knew very little about what it means to be an astronaut. Space isn’t really something I was interested in. “Why did you read this book then?”, I hear you think. Well, only because Patrick Prill (@testpappy) recommended it to me. And I’m glad he did!

I’m not going to give you a traditional review about this book. Instead, I’ll focus on what for me was the biggest epiphany.

And that was: Be a zero.

From the book: “Over the years, I’ve realized that in any new situation, [..] 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. Everyone wants to be a plus one, of course. But proclaiming your plus-oneness at the outset almost guarantees you’ll be perceived [emphasis mine] as a minus one, regardless of the skills you bring to the table.”

“Sometimes the motivation is over-eagerness rather than arrogance, but the effect is the same.”

So, when you join a team, even if you know you are a +1, don’t go around proclaiming how awesome you are. Just…do your work well, and prove it by doing good things. Prove it by working together with others in a pleasant manner. Prove it by ‘being a zero’. You are just one of the people working towards the goal.

Often, on Earth, we award one person for a certain achievement (be it in science, in sports). I think this is a bad practice. Almost never is the achievement accomplished by the effort of just this one person. There’s always a team behind it. And what I learned from the book, for space missions this is extremely important. Only a handful of people go to space, but there are literally hundreds of people assisting them. There’s no room for arrogance or people acting like +1’s. You have to act like a zero, blend in with the team seamlessly.


Another nice quote from the book: “When you have some skills but don’t fully understand your environment, there is no way you can be a plus one. At best, you can be a zero. But a zero isn’t a bad thing to be. You’re competent enough not to create problems or make more work for everyone else. [..] Even later, when you do understand the environment and can make an outstanding contribution, there’s considerable wisdom in practicing humility. If you are really a plus one, people will notice – and they’re even more likely to give you credit if you’re not trying to rub their noses in your greatness.”

“If you’re really observing and trying to learn rather than seeking to impress, you may actually get the chance to do something useful.”

I cannot help but relate this to teamwork in IT. How often is a team at a disadvantage because one person seems to suffer from a hero-complex? Or that one guy that always opposes everything? Or that one guy that refactors the code, because it should ‘be this way’? If you are not a team player, but go for your own glory, what are you even doing?

A cynical perspective on being a zero would be: “so my work doesn’t matter?”. But it does! Only it’s a shift of mindset. You have to let go of some egoistic goals and always have the team goal in mind. And that, my friends, is what we need more of in this world: less ego, more co-op.

2 thoughts on “Be a Zero

  1. Maaike, I’m so glad you liked the book as much as I did.

    People with hero-complex usually do more bad than good to a project. Or as Alan and Brent put it in a recent ABTesting podcast, when your job/role in the team is to be the hero and you were (again) a hero, then all you did is your f**king job, so shut up.

    My key takeaway from the book was to keep practicing that when you need it you know what to do and don’t start preparing when you know you need it. Maybe I should put that in a blog post soon.

    Thanks Maaike for the wonderful write-up and sharing your key-takeaway. And I agree, being a zero is good, feeling like a plus one often is a minus one for the team.


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