The Apollo 13 Approach to Life

January 22, 2015 by V.R.M. - No Comments

I got pretty lucky with my job. I don’t only get to spend my day working for quite possibly the best boss out there (the man has never lost his patience with my shaky Excel skills, and that is saying a lot), but also with gifted coders who are artists and talented cooks, physicists who fill white boards with letters and numbers I will never understand but also regale me with funny life stories, a yogi whose specialties are start-ups and the crafting of French cheese, and a veteran mathematician with a questionable sense of humor who may singlehandedly be responsible for erasing the math anxiety I acquired in elementary school. With colleagues like this bunch, I have never dreaded going to work – quite the opposite.

About two years ago, I was asked to share an office with my colleague L, which may have been one of the best unintended gifts my boss has ever given me. L is not just witty, but she is also wise, which makes her one of the most wonderful friends one could ever hope for. When the going gets tough, our shared office serves as a think tank where things get figured out, usually with plenty of laughs in between. L has offered several bits of wisdom which I have come to rely on, but the one I call the Apollo 13 Approach to Life has been particularly useful not just to me, but to my girls as well.

One recent morning my daughter was having a rough time. In tears, she shared with me her feelings and frustrations and told me she did not want to go to school. She was clearly overwhelmed – and, as we all know, when we are overwhelmed everything in our life seems to conspire against us. After a few minutes of trying to explain to her that no matter how terrible things seem, everything does indeed pass, I was making little headway. I tried L’s approach instead.

“I have a story for you,” I said, car idling, her brow furrowed, her shoulders slumped on the seat. I told her the story of Apollo 13 and the challenges the mission experienced. “So there were the astronauts, stuck up in space. The spaceship was broken and they were running out of air. They were probably scared and worried. Back at mission control, flight director Gene Kranz keeps getting reports of what is wrong with the spaceship and how things are not working the way they are supposed to, and eventually he says, “I don’t care about what anything was designed to do, I care about what it can do.“ Later he adds, “let’s work the problem people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”

So there you have it: work the problem. Instead of getting caught up in the details of how things were or are supposed to be in your life, look at what is, and ask yourself how you can work with what you have to improve the situation. My colleague likes to paraphrase Kranz’s wisdom by asking herself, “what works on this spaceship?” There are days when our morning conversation reveals a challenge, and she will often remind me that “it’s time to ask yourself what works on this spaceship.” And when I do, things improve. Maybe not right away, but eventually. Because no matter how rough life gets, nothing is worse than feeling powerless when facing adversity. When you ask yourself what you can do with what you have, you empower yourself. You want change? Be the change.

Easier said than done, right? While it’s challenging to make changes in our own lives, nothing is harder than letting your child struggle to find his or her own path. On the morning when I taught my daughter the Apollo 13 Approach to Life, what I really wanted to do is take her back home with me, snuggle her tight, and tell her I would never let anyone hurt her again. But my urge to erase all her problems will not serve her well: it may make her life easier today, but it won’t make it easier forever. Knowing this helps me override my mama-bear-will-fix-it instinct, one day at the time.

Everything my girls are going through right now is gentle practice for the grownup world. Feeling overwhelmed, disappointed, and powerless is going to happen again and again because life will never be entirely smooth and perfect. If we can learn to see “bad” things as challenges and our resulting emotions as tools to strengthen us—not permanent defeats—we can take control of what first seems negative in our lives.

I reminded my daughter that while she was having a hard time at the moment, she couldn’t let the bad things going on overpower all the good things in store for her. “Imagine if those astronauts had given up instead of trying to find the things that worked so they could get back home? You can’t give up on your spaceship.”

My daughter’s face relaxed and her body became less stiff in her seat. “What happened to the astronauts, Mom? How do they fix the problem to get back?” she asked.

“You’ll have to wait to watch the movie to find out,” I told her, “but first, you have to go to school and find out what works on your spaceship today.” I gave her a kiss and pulled her hat down. “Go in there and work the problem.” And she did.