A Letter to Millennials

MJ Marggraff, January 22, 2019

The world watched a grainy TV image relayed back to Earth from about 250,000 miles away: The first human was slowly descending a spacecraft ladder to step onto another world. It would be referred to forevermore as “one small step” and is one of most remarkable leaps in the history of space.

This year marks the 50t​h​ anniversary of that monumental leap. Looking ahead, the next steps we take will be no less inspiring: We will return to the Moon by the early 2020s, but not just to land. The next time we will stay, preparing for a new giant leap into the next space age. When astronauts go to the Moon in the coming years they will establish a lunar-base as a gateway for human flight to Mars.

These goals are bold and you, our Millennials, will help achieve them. There are many skills needed for success. Among them are creativity, initiative, and most importantly, strong leadership. What will YOU need to do to lead successfully for the 2n​ d​ space age?

The first thing: Follow your passion.

Your passion will inspire you and will be your best teacher. My passion is flight. Ever since I was a kid, I was captivated by the air and loved it like nothing else except for space, a close second. When I began taking my first flight lessons, it never occurred to me that I was learning more than flying. While I was working at becoming a pilot, it didn’t occur to me that I was learning how to be a strong leader too: Flying airplanes made me face myself and problems in new ways and challenged me to overcome obstacles inside and outside. The lessons learned would help me to learn to be creative in challenging situations and lead others to discover their own new ideas. Later, because of flying, new doors opened to enterprises in space that inspired me to invent a successful space station project for college students and to help solve other problems by developing new products for spaceflights. I love what I do. The single most important thing you can do to begin your journey as a leader is to choose what you love to do. Flying and leading have several common practices​.

Flying and leadership have several common practices.

First, I learned the concepts of flight, but knowing the concepts weren’t enough. The real learning is in the flying itself, meeting unexpected challenges, and finding out I could do more than I thought I could. Here are some key features that helped to make my dream a reality and taught me key leadership skills. It is my leadership philosophy that I learned from flying. I see these skills demonstrated by leaders in aerospace today and will be needed by tomorrow’s leaders, like you:

1. Think creatively​. Having good ideas comes from continually learning, understanding problems that need solving, and embracing a creative-thinking approach.

Continually learn.​ Choose to be a learn-it-all, not a know-it-all. Be willing to learn from doing and living with uncertainty—the place where creativity really comes to life. An example from flying was the time I prepared for many days to take my first long-distance solo flight as a student pilot–making note cards of all procedures I would use, practicing contacts and frequencies, checking weather, assuring the right weight and balance of my small aircraft, a Cessna 152. Everything was ready, right? Then shortly after takeoff, all my notes blew away–behind the seat, out the window, and out of reach. But I had learned backup options and quickly started using them to accomplish the goal. I learned that knowing the basics well will need some creative thinking to deal with unexpected events. (I still wonder if those cards are still in treetops of the central valley.)

Understand the problem to solve​.  You will need to innovate to keep you and your company or team in the game. But be sure to fully understand the problem first. Making something great is the goal, said Ed Catmull from Pixar (2014), but defining the right problem is the most important thing to do before jumping in with good ideas and solutions. There may be more than one way to solve a problem but understanding it first lets you exercise your creative thinking. Knowing the right problem to solve sets up the goal and the priorities to follow. In flying, when there’s a problem, a pilot is taught to say aloud: “Fly the plane.” So, when my airplane’s alternator stopped while I was in midair, that’s what I said: (actually the first thing was “Oh, ___” and swear-like-a-sailor) then, “fly the plane” (the right problem to address: to get the airplane under control), followed by looking at solutions and priorities (such as the possibility of finding a creative new landing place that isn’t swampy and getting there without the benefit of electrical power to communicate.)

Embrace a creative-thinking mindset to get new ideas.​ New ideas happen when doors to thinking are open. An open mind-set allows new ideas to emerge for individuals, departments, and teams to work collaboratively. Pilots work in pairs, as do I, to give additional eyes and thoughts about what is happening, such as: what to do if the weather changes; if drones buzz the airplane; if runways have coyotes chasing rabbits. Having additional ideas is helpful, maybe critical. Creativity-thinking listens to others’ perspectives to produce better outcomes. I most enjoy teaching young students to fly because their enthusiasm and curiosity increases my own. That’s one reason I love working with SEDS, the Students for the Exploration and Discovery of Space. To have an open mindset, be a mentor to someone who may be younger than you are and exchange and discover how diversity of viewpoints result in new ideas might inspire new aerospace solutions; outreach is especially needed among underrepresented groups (women and minorities) who need more inclusion. If you are on a college campus, join SEDS ( www.seds.org), the world’s largest student-run space organization with over 100 campuses. SEDS will provide you the opportunities to develop your creativity for space projects with thousands of other enthusiastic students from around the globe and to mentor other students.

2. Doubt and fear are a normal part of the process toward success. ​Some majors, degrees, and projects are more difficult to achieve then others. If you are pursuing aviation, aerospace, or other challenging disciplines, there may be times that you doubt that your goal will be achieved. One of your inevitable challenges will be to manage your doubts or fears and have a support system.

To increase confidence, know the source of fear and get the facts. When I was learning to fly I was often asked if it was scary. I’d reply truthfully: “Yes.” Then I would add that I’d figure out what was scaring me and commit to learning more about it. In other words, it’s the lack of understanding something that can scare us and keep us from trying. There will be knee-shaking times at school that might lead to you saying: “I-could-be-doing-something-simpler.” But that doesn’t mean you aren’t where you should be or should change your course. Easy is a great feeling but following what’s easy may lead you astray from your first thing, to: doing what you love.

Persist.​ Getting help is a strong move. I call the local radar stations with questions when I’m flying solo and want confirmation. Look for support. Keep trying. And by all means, don’t let the fears of others make you turn away from your passion. Bravery is not a lack of fear, but of not letting fear rule your life.

Choose friends who encourage you​ to stay with it. I had close friends who did not choose to learn to fly but followed other passions. We respected and encouraged each other’s diverse dreams. Surround yourself with positive company.

3. Mistakes are part of doing something new​. They will also help you be a better leader. It’s not the goof-ups that happen but what your reactions are to them that really count since taking risks means sometimes the outcome was not what you expected. Reflect on how you’d do it differently next time (and there’s always a next time.)

A sense of humor ​demonstrates optimism, resilience, and that you are approachable. Made a mistake? We all have blunders. But they teach us a lot about how avoid or survive such pitfalls. The real measure is what we do after the mistake.

Tell your story with passion. ​We love to hear stories: tell about yourself, your discoveries, your inspirations, and even your blunders. Tell about what you used to believe but how experience may have changed those beliefs. Some scientific hypotheses don’t pan out but still have something to offer—more data to help us all move forward. You will show your resilience by how you mustered your resilience and got back up again. When you do, your stories will inspire resilience in others.

If you keep only one thing in mind, it’s this: Follow your passion. We’re going back to the Moon, then on to Mars: You can be part of that. The 2n​d​ Space Age needs great leaders.