At some point many of us wonder if the career dreams of our childhood are unobtainable. Youthful optimism can quickly slam into the hard truth inherent in any desirable career: a lot of talented people are probably pursuing the exact same dream. Nowhere is professional competition more fierce than attempting to become an astronaut. A recent NASA class of a dozen “turtles” (the name for those selected) came from a pool of over 18,000 qualified candidates. Those are 1-in-1,500 odds. Perhaps no human being more precisely personifies what NASA is looking for – the modern-day right stuff– than Dr. Jonny Kim. In addition to graduating from Harvard Medical School, Dr. Kim is a decorated combat Veteran (Navy SEAL) who was both an expert sniper and combat medic. Dr. Kim deferred his emergency medicine residency training at the Massachusetts General Hospital to enroll in the space program. Internet memes of Dr. Kim abound with basically the same message for parents everywhere: why can’t your kid be more like Jonny Kim?
Michael “Mike” Massimino was never Jonny Kim. He failed his PhD qualifying exam twice and was forced to detour his studies with a master’s degree in engineering. Perhaps a greater liability to Massimino’s dream of space was poor eyesight. Astronauts need to be nearly perfect physiological specimens: poor eyesight was an automatic disqualifier. What Massimino “lacked”, in comparison to other aspiring astronauts, he made up for with persistence. He used his master’s thesis to study the fledgling field of robot arm technology. He relentlessly pursued options to improve his vision to pass the NASA standard, even implementing an exhausting serious of eye “exercises” he believed would help improve his visual acuity. Over time he completed his master’s degree and passed his retake exams to earn a PhD. Perhaps most importantly, NASA needed expertise in robotic arm technology to address the embarrassing Hubble Space Telescope scandal (it was out of focus). This need resulted in a slightly relaxed eye exam which Dr. Massimino somehow passed. Mike Massimino wasn’t Jonny Kim; but when NASA needed his expertise he didn’t have to be.
If your space-sized dream seems impossible, remember Jonny and Mike. Rewarding and prestigious careers will always attract the Jonny Kim’s. If you find yourself competing with Harvard trained Navy SEALs remember this is a sign you are trying to accomplish something incredible. But also remember the Mike Massimino’s. Bad eyesight and failing PhD exams didn’t define Mike Massimino, but it easily could have derailed his dream. Persistence and luck are important, even for astronauts.
Navy SEAL instructors make sure a small bell is easily accessible to trainees during the most grueling weeks of the BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) selection process. The simple act of ringing the bell ends the push-ups, the cold swims, and the sleep deprivation. Quitting is easy. Jonny Kim, of course, never rang the bell. But in his own way, and perhaps even more inspiring way, neither did Mike Massimino. No matter your dreams, find strength and persist. If standardized testing challenges stand between you and your space-sized dream, be Mike Massimino. Never ring the bell.
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