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Superman Can’t Fix a Toilet

The idea of the lone Superhero is a myth. We should all aim to be Everyday Heroes, these are the people who know how to actually do things.

There’s a story of John F. Kennedy having his first tour of NASA in 1961 during the early days of the global space race.

He was walking with a group of rocket scientists and engineers when he saw a Janitor across the hall mopping the floor with more enthusiasm than he could have ever imagined a Janitor to have.

JFK walked over to the man and asked him what he did at NASA and why he was working so hard.

To the President, the Janitor replied with a warm smile, “I’m helping put a man on the Moon!

The Janitor gets it.

The Janitor understands that it takes all kinds of people to make something happen. He understands his own role in getting a man to the moon.

His purpose, his ‘why’, his reason for whistling to work every day is part of a larger vision, shared by his fellow employees, friends, and family.

In admiring this story of JFK and the janitor, it becomes apparent that Neil Armstrong was not alone when he walked on the moon. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” literally highlights the fact that Neil was acting on behalf of humanity and was not alone in his ambition to get to the Moon.

JFK called upon the public to do a seemingly impossible task. He did not simply ask one man to do it himself.

We forget about the people standing next to Superman. The thousands that helped land the Apollo 11 astronauts.

Everyone knows who Neil Armstrong is. People recognize the name, Buzz Aldrin. But do you know Michael Collins? The Module Pilot that orbited the Moon while Neil and Buzz jumped around on the surface.

Michael Collins floated alone in his small spaceship for hours, while he waited for Neil and Buzz to (hopefully) return.

Many at NASA were not confident that the lander engines would fire and get the astronauts off the moon and on their way back home. As Neil and Buzz drove around on the surface making history, Michael waited in agony – Wondering if he would return a hero or a ‘marked man’. Wondering if he would return to Earth a failure who left his crew to die on the Moon.

Michael Collins was a superhero in his own right. An intelligent and dedicated astronaut that flew the first men to the moon. Those that knew him will cherish his courage and dignity. But the average person will not remember him or recognize him as the superhero that he was.

It took thousands of people to get a man on the moon. Many millions more to fund the expedition through taxes.

It took a world in a state of nuclear armament and on the cusp of a massive technological boom to make it all happen.

The idea of the lone hero is just that. An idea.

Whether you are a janitor or an astronaut, we all contribute.

What we associate with superheroes like Neil Armstrong are the result of much larger global trends. Revered names often, if not always, ride on the shoulders of many other hard-working people.

There’s a reason we haven’t gone back to the Moon and it’s not because we don’t have a new Neil Armstrong. It’s because we don’t have the engagement of the millions of motivated people that put him there.

 

In his book An Astronauts Guide to Life On Earth, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield writes,

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.

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

The Canadian hero goes on to suggest you aim to be a zero, not a plus one or God forbid a minus one.

Do not aim not to be Superman and save the day. Best to stay in your station and act as you should.

 

To highlight this philosophy, Hadfield describes his most accomplished day as commander of the International Space Station.

A crew member was doing an emergency spacewalk outside to assess (and try to fix) the damage of a leaking pipe on the exterior.

Usually, a spacewalk takes years of planning and preparation but this crew was required to pull it off in record time.

Chris was also due to leave in just a few days.

Living on the ISS is like going on an extended camping trip in the most extreme and hostile place around. The threats of space are ever present and the consequences of a mistake are tremendous.

It just so happened that during this unprecedented emergency Space Walk, the toilet broke.

Naturally, Chris Hadfield took it upon himself to try and solve the problem without distracting the astronauts outside or the team back at NASA.

Now, a one of kind space-toilet is probably a tricky thing to fix, maybe it’s not rocket science but the at the same time your crew is outside and you are kinda just floating in space talking to people on a headset.

Chris fixed the toilet and the day was completed without any error.

A day without any screw-ups is the proudest day for an astronaut.

He writes,

Competence means keeping your head in a crisis, sticking with a task even when it seems hopeless, and improvising good solutions to tough problems when every second counts. It encompasses ingenuity, determination and being prepared for anything.

Astronauts have these qualities not because we’re smarter than everyone else (though let’s face it, you do need a certain amount of intellectual horsepower to be able to fix a toilet). It’s because we are taught to view the world — and ourselves — differently. My shorthand for it is “thinking like an astronaut.” But you don’t have to go to space to learn to do that.

It’s mostly a matter of changing your perspective.”

The moral of these two stories, The Janitor and The Plumber, help to unveil the myth of Superman.

Astronauts are heroes in their own right — dedicated, hardworking, intelligent, team players.

Their stories do not exist in a vacuum.

Fixing a toilet in space isn’t the story that Superman would tell. Chris even recounts that he felt a twang of regret the morning he learned that a crew-mate was picked to do the emergency spacewalk instead of him.

In his mind, he imagined the story that could have been. “Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian commander of the ISS doing an emergency Space Walk to save the day.”

Instead of reacting or commenting on Houston’s choice, he put away his ego. Smiling, he congratulated his comrade essentially spent the day on the phone, fixing a toilet and prepping in case of an emergency.

Yet, Chris counts this day as one of the proudest days he spent on board the ISS.

Together he and the team around him perfectly executed a complex operation without incident.

A day without incident is a major goal

Superman is a myth, a legend, and a falsehood. Real heroes are humble, dedicated and part of a larger narrative.

Real heroes understand their role and how they can serve the greater mission.They collaborate with others and act within their means to help the team.

It’s easy to remember superhero names such as Neil Armstrong. How could we possibly forget the first man to walk on the Moon? However, it’s important to realize that these superheroes do not work alone, and when they do it is often in obscurity and humility.

Yes, moments do exist where the team melts away and the awe of human accomplishment flows through just one person.

But these moments are fleeting, and when the moment is gone all you have is a group of regular heroes fixing toilets, mopping floors and sweating over the tiny details. That’s what leads to a superhuman result.